A Censorship Tale from My Teaching Days (Part 1)

In honor of Banned Books Week, I thought I’d tell an insane-o censorship story from my teaching days.

In one of the schools where I taught—this was the year I taught 5th and 6th grade Language Arts—the English department had adopted a brand-new lit program for its 5th-8th graders called Great Books (which is, in short, a series of anthologies containing short stories and book excerpts from prominent and not-so prominent authors from all over the map).  It’s very much like the lit books we were used to using when we were all in school, except the pieces are a little more contemporary than some of those we grew up reading.

The very first selection in the book I was given for the 6th graders was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron(a short story about a dystopian society that keeps all its citizens the same by assigning certain handicaps to combat people’s individual strengths/talents—and *spoiler alert* it ends with the 13-year-old main character getting shot).

I thought it was a little . . . mature for my sixth graders—many of whom (boys *and* girls) still needed me to remind them:

  • It’s not OK to pick your nose—especially not if you’re this old and not if you don’t want me to vomit at the front of the room.
  • And that smell in here?  That’s all of you who aren’t wearing deodorant.*

But I digress.**

So, we read Vonnegut’s piece and discussed it—and they actually had some very insightful things to say about the themes (the media, individualism, etc.).  It was actually really great. I was mucho impressed by my new school and new students.  Go education!

We moved on to the next story.  I don’t remember what it was, but there was swearing in it.  They still handled it OK—I shook my head when they snickered and told them to “grow up,” and they did.  And we had intelligent conversations about that story as well.  Same with the next.  And the next.

Somewhere toward the end of the first quarter, I was called into the principal’s office.  (Insert “ooooooohh” here.)  My principal at the time—a very nice woman and probably my favorite principal I’ve ever worked for—said she’d been getting some complaints from parents about the selections we were reading, and could I go through all the books and blacken out all the inappropriate parts in both the 5th and 6th grade books?

Uh.  What?

At the time, I had about 60 students.  Out of the four 5th/6th grade teachers, I was *the* Language Arts teacher (when I moved to the upper school the following year, they replaced me with *two* teachers, BTW) and had four preps to everyone else’s two.  Which *also* meant I had two planning periods a week (if I was lucky) when everyone else had at least one a day.

That said, I felt a little taken advantage of that year.  It was my first year in a new school and a new state.  Plus, I was dealing with a program no one else had used before.  Regardless of my stance on the issue, I had plenty on my plate, and now I was asked to do this??

Feeling all the pressure, I realized that, if I didn’t start standing up for myself, I was quite literally going to be taking 60 books home and going through them with a Sharpie.

So . . .

I respectfully declined, saying: 

  • I simply did not have the time to perform a task like that.
  • While I could certainly decide which stories might be a little more “hot button” for some parents and try to avoid those, I was only using the literature book I was given to do my job. I had opened the book to the first selection of the lit series they’d *just adopted* and asked the students to read it.  Was that wrong?
  • I knew I was the first teacher to be using these books since they were new, but someone—probably a lot of someones—had to have been responsible for choosing the program, right?  So, had anyone actually READ any of these books? Because, from my flipping through them, I’d deduced that pretty much *all* the stories were a bit controversial in some way—that was kind of the point of the program. (My principal said she didn’t know if anyone had.)
  • I also asked: How could I alone be responsible for knowing what one parent deemed inappropriate? Other than curse words, I mean.

For example, we had read a fantastic book for summer reading that year—Cynthia Kadohata’s 2005 Newbery Award winner Kira-Kira—and I’d received hate mail from one parent about it before school had even begun (a book that had been chosen before I’d even been hired for the position, by the way) because the one female character *talked about* kissing a boy. It was not actually even *on* the page—it was merely mentioned in conversation, amounted to about one sentence, and had absolutely nothing to do with the book as a whole.

That didn’t seem inappropriate to me at all—I was shocked at the e-mail—so what the heck did I know?

Furthermore, I told my principal that blackening out words and passages is not only impractical and wrong, but that it would serve as a “highlighter.” If my students were reading and then were, all of a sudden, faced with a big black mark, don’t you think they would to try to see what was so “bad” that it needed to be censored?

I told her I would be happy to draft a letter to go out to all parents inviting them to blacken out what they deemed “inappropriate” . . . even if that meant defacing a bunch of brand-new books.  That way, parents would actually have to read the selections themselves and think critically about each.  And perhaps discuss them with their kids.

To be continued . . .

*Yes, I did actually say these things, and they actually loved me.  They STILL do.

**Note to teachers: Kids like when you’re mean to them.

7 thoughts on “A Censorship Tale from My Teaching Days (Part 1)

  1. I commented on this censorship subject in another post earlier today. For this post, I will say, it is up to the parents to censor what their kids read, watch, surf, etc. Parents rely too much on everyone else to do this for them. When I was in school, we were given two or three options of what to read. If that is not an option for today’s parents, then the parent needs to figure out some replacement. Choose their own book, or whatever. But the problem is, today’s kids are not reading. They are texting, and therefore, cannot spell, do not use capital letters and have the attention span of a squirrel on crack (black out that!) If parents spent more time with their kids, reading to them, then the schools wouldn’t have to assume so much responsibility.

    As individuals, we have to make our own decision what is right or wrong, what we will read, watch, listen to. Parents have to teach their children to make an “informed decision” until they are ready to do so on their own. And we have to accept that not everyone is going to agree with our decisions. But I don’t agree, especially as an artist, that we have a right to tell others the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them. If you don’t like what someone says, don’t listen.

    • I agree that parents don’t seem to be involved enough in their kids’ lives–definitely. Check out part 2 of this post, because I talk about that a lot.

      In terms of given two or three options to read, I think it depends. From a teaching standpoint, it isn’t always feasible to teach a class three books at the same time. If the assignment is something that is more individual, then that can work (at that same school, we had certain reading requirements – like two books a quarter – that had to be completed in smaller groups or individually, and we actually had parents sign off that their kids were *allowed* to read their choices). But we also had required readings within the lit classes.

      Are you saying you never read a piece of literature with your entire class? Wow – crazytown!

      I will also respectfully disagree (*kind of*) about kids not reading today. Middle-grade and YA are among the healthiest markets of publishing these days. Second, I think, only to romance.

      At that particular school, I would say over half of the kids were AVID readers–of everything from classic fiction to contemporary stuff to the Bible.

      But you’re right, not all kids are reading. I don’t think all kids ever were. I’m not sure how much that has changed. Heck – I wasn’t much of a reader in high school either, to be honest! Seems crazy to think that now!

      I also agree with you that the fast-paced nature of our society does not lend itself to taking the time to read books the way it used to.

      All I can say to that is, with the influx of e-books and all the creative things publishers are cooking up, the industry is changing. There are certainly a lot of options out there for kids to get their hands on books, electronically or otherwise, and I hope they will continue to do so.

      Re: 1st Amendment – well said! 😀

      • I have to say I’m glad about the creative ideas publishers are doing, as you mention. I’ve also realized, thanks to my young nephews, that if a book is exciting and fun, they will read it. They love the “Wimpy Kid” series and have read them all. I, too, fell into that when I read “Anne of Green Gables” and now I have all of L.M. Montgomery’s books, diaries, poems (okay, I got a bit obsessive!) So I do hope that technology, combined with good, old-fashioned reading, will inspire kids to read more.

        And, just so I don’t mislead too much, I was homeschooled, so I did have the option of what I wanted to read and I read a lot! But I had friends in school that quite often chose other reading materials when necessary.

        I do think it’s important for parents, not only to be involved with their kids’ reading habits, but to be excited about them. Frankly, if parents don’t read, or at least one parent, it’s unlikely the child will. Not always the case, but sometimes. So it’s good that we do have teachers that encourage the proper education, especially in the areas where, dare I say it, parents fail. I was very fortunate that my mother loved to read and thrust my first novel into my hands at age 7. Now I’m the one writing novels!

  2. What an interesting story! I think you’re absolutely right about how institutions/ authority figures censoring or restricting language highlights it. Taking it a step further, that kind restriction often makes whats censored more appealing.

    I taught high school English for a while and a some point each fall a smart aleck would point out that something I assigned had a naughty word or scene. This was usually a good occasion for my Growing Up lecture.

    Thanks for sharing an interesting story. I’m looking forward to Part 2!

  3. As someone who is pretty far removed from the high school crowd (and no, I’m not going to tell you by how many years), I appreciate your insight into this topic.
    The idea of “blacking out” words, phrases, chapters (?) of books makes me sad. At what point do children, teenagers, get to make up their minds about what is or isn’t morally acceptable to them? If their parents, teachers, etc., continue to screen what they read and are exposed to, how will they learn to think for themselves?
    Besides, I would think that it would be preferable to have your (hypothetical, in my case) children read about alternate perspectives and develop some sense of abstract, critical thinking before they are thrust into the world.
    Great post, Ricki!

    • Thanks, B! I think it’s kind of a fine line, depending on the age level. I mean, parents SHOULD be involved in their kids’ lives, but it’s unreasonable to think they can have control over every single thing a kid reads in school, unless they read everything ahead of time themselves.

      Or unless they home school. (I talk about this in part2)

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