I Teach Banned Books   

  
  
If you want people to do something, forbid them from doing it.  


  
As a middle school language arts teacher, that’s always worked for me.   


  
Many of my students are reluctant readers.  


  
If a text is longer than a Tweet or a YouTube description, most of them would rather skip it.  


  
And when it comes to books, many of them wouldn’t intentionally crack one open under any circumstances.  


  
Unless you tell them not to.   


  
Unless you point out a specific book on the shelf and say it’s off limits.   


  
Unless you open it up right in front of them before quickly snatching it away and saying, “Oops! I forgot! We can’t read that one!”  


  
So most of my curriculum is made up of banned books.  


  
The Giver, Silent to the Bone, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird – all forbidden in one place or another.   


  
Just not in my district.   


  
In fact, my school board has included each of these books on the approved reading list.

  
  
That doesn’t mean I have to use them.  


  
Language Arts teachers like me have a few different options at each grade level. And some of us actively avoid the more controversial texts to keep out of trouble.   


  
But not me.   


  
I go right for these taboo, prohibited, and oh so naughty books – for very good reasons

 

The Giver

  
Take “The Giver” by Lois Lowry.  


  
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.  


  
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.  


 
When it first came under fire, Lowry responded thusly


 
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”  


 
 
However, not everyone is willing to let children think through these issues themselves – and what a bundle of issues Lowry presents! 


 
In the plot, she mentions sex, infanticide, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.   


  
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.  


  
Which is exactly why my students love it.   


 
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives. 


  
That’s why they enjoy books like “The Giver” so much. This isn’t just for a grade. It’s reading something worth taking the time to consider, something that gets under their skin and makes them want to think.  


 
They’re at an age (12-14) when they’re starting to find their own place in society and struggling to understand adult issues like reproduction and romantic attachment. Making these topics explicit and being able to talk through them in the safety of the classroom can be liberating – and worth the effort to decode.   


  
That is – if you accept that children are little human beings who deserve the chance to consider these things aloud.  

Silent to the Bone

  
And speaking of adult issues, there’s the other comprehensive novel I teach in 7th grade – “Silent to the Bone” by E. L. Konigsburg.  


  
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.   


  
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.   


 
It’s not about finding textual details to satisfy the number crunchers at Data Recognition Corp. or NCS Pearson Inc. It’s about getting textual to better understand what happened in the plot and why. 


  
Again the narrative is written for middle school readers but the concepts get them thinking and enthusiastic.  


 
As we come to the big reveal, I’ve had students turn to me with huge smiles saying they can’t believe we’re actually reading about this stuff in school.  
 


In an age where they usually communicate with emojis, I’m just glad that they’re reading. 


 
It can get uncomfortable, but by the end I definitely feel like I’ve reached them.

The Diary of Anne Frank


  
Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the hardest books I teach in 8th grade is “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

  
 
It’s not that the text is so difficult, but as a person of Jewish ancestry, I find it personally harrowing to relive this story every year.  


 
The plot centers on Anne, a historical Jewish girl in 1940s Amsterdam who with her family and others hid from the Nazis before eventually being captured and dying in a concentration camp. 


 
Like most teachers, I eschew the actual diary for the play version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  


 
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why this book would be banned. After all, it’s a true story of the Holocaust written by one of the people who lived it.   


  
However, there are an increasing number of people in this country these days who want to deny that the Holocaust even happened or claim that it was exaggerated. It’s hard to do that with a witness staring you in the face – even if that witness is just the book she left behind.  


  
Usually the text is challenged not on the basis of its plot so much as its sexual frankness. Not that there is much sex going on with people hiding above a factory in WWII. But the character of Anne is so real, she writes about everything including what it’s like to become a mature woman.   


  
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:  


  
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.” 

 
  
  
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.   


  
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.   


 
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it. 


 
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.


 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 
The most challenged book I teach is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.  


 
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding. 


 
In the past, people used to object most often to the book’s language since it makes liberal use of the N-word.  


 
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is. 


 
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.  


 
What makes this particularly troubling is the critics have a point. If the story is about racism, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the target of that racism?  


 
They suggest the book be replaced by more modern novels that center such a narrative appropriately – something like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (itself, a frequently challenged book). 


 
However, in the final analysis, I disagree.  


 
As good a book as Thomas’s is, it just isn’t as well-written or multifarious as Lee’s.  


 
Thomas reveals a lot about racism and the fight against it in today’s world, and her book is certainly worth reading. But it is a mistake to think that racism is only about people of color. White people are the cause of racism. White people have a responsibility to tear down the systems of white supremacy.

By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.  


 
“Mockingbird” starts quietly. It doesn’t even appear to have anything to do with racism at the beginning. We slowly get acclimated to this world, this time and place before prejudice creeps into view and surprises us. 


 
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books. 


 
If they haven’t already, when they go to the high school, they’ll read novels centered on blackness. Their education and discussion of this issue would be incomplete without them. But I don’t think we need to stop reading such a classic as “Mockingbird” that was, itself, part of the civil rights movement.  


 
In any case, the school board has not approved any similar texts at that grade level. If I put aside “Mockingbird,” it would mean not discussing the issue at all. I think that would be much worse. 


 

Conclusions

So this is how I teach. 


 
I know there are some adults out there who would rather my students not read these books.  


 
I know some grownups would rather my kids not think about these things and not come to their own conclusions.  


 
They’d rather children be seen and not heard – like furniture.  


 
But my students know it, too. And they’d rather be treated like actual human beings – even if that means… yuck… reading.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather decision makers put no restrictions on which books students can and cannot read. Even trash like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be forbidden. I make sure to tell my students that it’s readily available in the library but not recommended.  

Children should not be restricted to only some ideas. They will come into contact with all kinds as they grow older. They need the skill to sort through them and decide for themselves their value.  

In my experience the bigger threat isn’t prohibition, it’s indifference. 

 
As Ray Bradbury famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 


 
Focusing on banned books helps me keep reading real and relevant in my classroom.  


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Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

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It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.