June 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Courting Controversy? | Scales on Censorship

Have you known of a teacher who taught a book for the purpose of getting it challenged?
I suspect it happens, but I’ve never had anyone write to me and tell me that they intentionally wanted to create a challenge. A retired high school English teacher recently told me that she chose to teach Working by Studs Terkel because it was being challenged in another high school in her district.

She added the book to her syllabus out of support for the teacher who was targeted in the other school. The challenge remained a hotly contested case in the first school, but no one made an attempt to challenge the teacher in the other school. A situation like this indicates that the parent may have had a problem with the teacher rather than the book. This sometimes happens. Protesting a book will almost always get the attention of school administrators, while complaints about an individual teacher may rest on deaf ears.

Working is currently taught in many high schools throughout the nation. It’s an excellent choice, but it should be taught for the right reasons. It is never a good idea for teachers to select a book simply because they want to create a problem.

Who decides which novels are taught in a classroom? Should parents be involved in the selection process?
Teachers should decide which novels they want to teach, but school districts also have curriculum policies outlined in the School Board Policy Manual that must be followed. Such policies aren’t usually definitive about what specific novels are taught, but instead address the broad scope of the curriculum. The policy should include a statement about controversial subject matter in novels. For example, a policy may state: “Some novels may contain ‘objectionable’ language, but teachers strive to help students understand that such language reflects the character in the novel and the world in which he lives.”

Parents should not influence book selection, but those who object to a novel may request an alternative novel for their child.

A parent in my school asked me to recommend a website that labels content in books. She thinks that her son isn’t as mature as other fourth graders and she wants to check every book he reads. She uses Common Sense Media for movie reviews.
Let her know that labeling content is a slippery slope. Does she really want a website to parent her son? I understand that parents want guidance, but she should be encouraged to read along with her son if she is so concerned about what he is reading. Tell her that you don’t recommend websites that label, but many public libraries subscribe to a number of tools that she may find helpful. Show her how to log onto her public library website for help. You could also point out a resource such as NoveList. This site can give her access to reviews that may help her in guiding the child. In the meantime, lead her son to books in the same manner that you use to assist all students. You may also suggest that the mother encourage him to return a book he doesn’t like.

A social studies teacher in my high school was recently reprimanded because he spent the weekend distributing materials for a particular political candidate. Doesn’t a teacher have a First Amendment right to express his own views?
Yes, as long as those views are expressed outside of school. Those who are working for government agencies may not openly express their political views in the workplace, because it could be viewed as creating a hostile environment. In this situation, the teacher shouldn’t have been reprimanded.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2016 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.