Why I Teach Books with Cursing and Sex (or Banned Books)


The Things They  Carried

Brave New World

Of Mice and Men

Walk in Room 128 on any given day, and my students could be reading these books. Add The Catcher in the Rye 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. Isn’t this the basis of education to expand our thinking and expose ourselves to new ideas?

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 Worlddeals 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 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 your 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. Instead ask the teacher the benefits of the book and weigh them against personal concerns. Many times alternate books can be assigned. Also, most books being taught in schools have gone through a rigorous approval process. (All books taught in my school have been through an 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. Relying on hearsay and book reviews are not the way the draw conclusions. Consider the work as a whole.

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 open doors for these types of conversations.

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)

(This entry was previously posted last October).

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