November 17, 2017

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Challenge-Ready: Using Thoughtful Leadership to Promote the Freedom to Read | Scales on Censorship

Rye_catcherI teach freshman Honors and Pre-AP English in a college preparatory school. A parent recently challenged The Catcher in the Rye because she didn’t think it appropriate for ninth grade. Do you have any current materials or articles with which to retort these types of challenges?

The Catcher in the Rye is commonly taught in ninth grade, and is one of the most challenged books in classrooms and libraries. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) offers advice and justification for teaching challenged books. One publication highly recommended on this site is Rationales for Teaching Challenged Books, a CD-ROM published jointly by NCTE and the International Reading Association (IRA). I also recommend the current edition of “The Students’ Right to Read,” from NCTE. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) offers “First Amendment in Schools Toolkit” for schools. Keep Them Reading: An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators (Teachers College Press) by ReLeah Cossett Lent and Gloria Pipkin, two practitioners with experience dealing with censorship in the classroom, should give teachers courage as they deal with similar battles.

I’m a director of a small public library. The children’s librarian asked me if it’s okay to label books by Lexile Reading Levels. I have an ethical problem with this, but parents are requesting it, which presents a dilemma.

You are absolutely right that such labeling is an ethical issue. I understand the dilemma, but labeling reading materials based on reading levels sends the wrong message to readers and their parents. The Lexile Framework for Reading website claims to match readers with texts, but the system looks at the readability of a text and not the maturity level. This type of labeling has actually created censorship problems because eight-year-olds reading on an eighth-grade level are led to books for which they aren’t yet emotionally ready. It’s equally important to consider children with deficient reading skills. They should be allowed to read what interests them, even if the material is a little difficult. Offer good reader guidance that public libraries have long been noted for.

Hunger Games Catching FireThe students in my middle school were abuzz with the gory details of The Hunger Games movie. The faculty was appalled when the principal, acting on a complaint from one influential parent, made an announcement that students weren’t allowed to talk about the movie in school. He even threatened them with detention if they disobeyed. I’m worried that the same thing will happen with the film Catching Fire.

You don’t accomplish anything by silencing students. The principal is on the road to creating the same environment that can be found in Suzanne Collins’s novels. Suggest that faculty and students approach the principal with ideas about ways to encourage conversation about the books and the films. Launch an essay contest, or sponsor a panel discussion that compares them. Engage parents by asking them to read the books, see the adaptations, and participate in small group discussions with kids. It never hurts for parents and students to engage in an intellectual exchange of ideas. Once children are viewed as people who can actually think and express themselves, the principal may not be so quick to succumb to the views of one parent.

SLJ_Award_2_3_14_BookThiefI’m a middle school librarian and try very hard to work with the faculty. This year I feel challenged, because students from one language arts class tell me that they are allowed to read only nonfiction. I approached the teacher, and he told me that it was because of the Common Core State Standards.

I’m afraid the teacher is misguided. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) do require attention to nonfiction, but enlightened teachers know that there are exciting ways to use fiction and nonfiction on the same topic. For example, a literary study of The Book Thief also includes opportunities to learn more about the Holocaust by using nonfiction and sites on the Internet. Your best weapon is to thoroughly examine the CCSS. The faculty is likely to listen to you when you show them that you are knowledgeable about the standards.

Find every opportunity to reiterate to students that they may read anything they want outside the curriculum. Perhaps offer a program before and after school that calls their attention to books that might interest them—titles the library has recently acquired or books too good to miss. Students may also enjoy suggesting reads to one another.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Pat Scales About Pat Scales

Pat Scales is the former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. You can send your questions or comments on censorship to her at pscales@bellsouth.net.

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