Why I Teach Banned Books (or books with cursing and sex)

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Of Mice and Men

Brave New World

Walk in Room 128 on any given day, and my students could be reading these books. Add The Things They Carried to the list if it makes it through our approval process. These books are all on the top 100 most frequently banned books, and I want to defend why I teach banned books since this is National Banned Book Week.

Books are a way for students to learn about life, the world, different ways of thinking, injustice, and growing up. When I teach books, I am not only teaching my students literary devices and analysis but how to think. If I give students books of the same genre, theme, complexity, and issues, students will not grow in their thinking. What if a person ate only broccoli at every meal? Broccoli is healthy and good for you, but only broccoli doesn’t make for a well-balanced diet or healthy person. The same goes with reading. Students need a variety of books for their intellectual development.

But what about cursing, sex, and racism being taught in our schools?

I’m glad you asked. Language is a key component in character development. Migrant workers in a California field in the 1930s do not sit in the bunkhouse saying “fiddlesticks” when something tragic happens. This would be a horrible misrepresentation of character and would do an injustice to the historical context of Of Mice and Men. Brave New World deals with a society where “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Huxley is making a case for monogamous relationships by showing how a society with free-for-all  sex does not work. Interestingly, BNW does not have any detailed sex scenes. Just as interesting, BNW was written to warn people about a society where people cannot think for themselves which is exactly what banning books creates in society. To Kill a Mockingbird is criticized for use of the N-word (again, historical context and characterization) and the idea of bringing up racism when we have made much progress from the attitudes of people living in lower Alabama in the 1930s. The reality is racism and classism are things that will remain issues as long as people are uneducated. TKAM is a tool to discuss these topics with students instead of ignoring their existence.

The Bible is full of sexual wrongdoings, no less detailed than some of the banned books. Or Shakespeare. Oh my, have you even read Hamlet? Of course, most people do not understand the innuendos in Shakespearean language so these plays are passed over.

Let me be the first to say that I don’t know any teachers who teach cursing and sex, and choosing to read books with with these is far different from teaching students to partake in these activities. Books allow us to explore and discuss differences. Some people are threatened by differences. Other people can learn about differences and thus have a greater understanding of people who are not like them. I choose to be in the later category.

So what do you do if you object to books you child is required to read?

Speak with the teacher and ask why the book is being taught. Don’t go to the teacher with every curse word highlighted or marked out with a Sharpie accusing the teacher of corrupting his or her child. Many times alternate books can be assigned. Also, most books being taught in schools have gone through a rigorous approval process.

Don’t go on a witch-hunt for bad words or questionable scenes. We can all find fault with words and phrases taken out of context. If you plan on challenging a book, READ THE BOOK first.

Read and discuss books with your child. Talk to them about why you may not use offensive language or engage in certain behaviors. Conversations with children are much more effective than laying down rules. Books allow for this.

Don’t be blind to what your child is seeing on television or the internet. I have heard students tell me they can not read Harry Potter then turn and talk to their friend about how great Saw 3 was. Be in touch with not just what your child is doing in school but out of school as well.

Choose a banned book to read this week. If you need a suggestion, I will be glad to give you one if you contact me. These books are not as bad as you think.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this one . . . .

(thanks to Sandy Bowie for the great media center display this week in the above picture)


2 responses to “Why I Teach Banned Books (or books with cursing and sex)

  1. Actually, I’m SHOCKED to hear that To Kill a Mockingbird is a Banned book. Acclaimed African American authors are always being lauded for using writing styles that add and aspect of “folk” or “color” to their writing. Which is an academic way to say that their black characters verbalize in a very uneducated manner and words are drastically distorted to display this trait. How then is using the ‘N’ word in historical fiction considered to be over the line?
    Is this really the reason why the book is banned?
    But your question for the readers was what our opinion is on reading books with heavy content matter.
    It is important to be exposed to ideas that are different from yours so that you can connect with those who are different than you are. You cannot convince someone that a certain behavior is bad or harmful if you do not understand why that person thinks it is good. The world is fortunately not full of people who are either pure evil and pure good. I shall use swearing as an example, though I give no basis for the commonly immoral attribute assigned to this practice. Someone who never swears is not necessarily concerned with their tongue always giving a blessing just as someone who curses often is not necessarily quick to speak ill. There are people in the gray at every point in between these extremes. It is dire to understand that If you want to lead someone toward what you believe to be the right way, you must first figure out where they are trapped. Do they swear because they believe it gets people to listen to them, to take them more seriously? Do they believe that speaking pleasantly to someone you don’t know or care about is being dishonest and manipulative? Do they not know of a healthy way to blow off steam and so they curse out of anger? We live in a complex world full of social pressures and influences. It is fine if you just want to lead by example and ignore those influences. Some people even believe that to know an influence is to allow it to have power over you. But never being able to communicate with those you are trying to reach is a huge disadvantage. Anyway, I’m sure that many people have said the same thing I just said in better ways. Also, most people who read what I wrote will probably instantly agree or disagree based on their own philosophies. But I believe it is important that everyone lend their voice and I do not believe it is their responsibility to worry if others head it. I will leave that to God.

    • I completely agree but disagree that others would say this better. Reading things we don’t agree with is not a threat and can help us understand others and actually strengthen our beliefs.
      And it is sad that TKAM, along with so many other books, are being banned in our schools.

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