Scales on Censorship | Gag Order on the Women's March

A principal’s effort to limit student speech comes every January.

 

An eighth grade language arts teacher recently came to me for advice. A student had recommended a novel to her, and when she read the book, she felt it was far too mature for the girl. She wanted to alert the girl’s mother, but I advised her not to. What is your advice?

I agree with you. It’s great that a student liked a book so much that she wanted her teacher to read it. I hope the teacher didn’t voice her concern about maturity level to the girl. Instead she should engage the girl in conversation about the novel’s themes and elements that spoke to her. This sends a message that the student’s ideas and thoughts matter. The next thing the teacher should do is to refer the student to you, so you can guide her toward a book with similar themes and equally intriguing plots. This is true reader guidance. Stress to the teacher that an educator’s role isn’t to pass judgment. Who knows? The girl may have already shared the book with her mother. And if she didn’t, then that’s okay, too.

 

The principal in my high school is anticipating that students may want to participate in the annual Women’s March. He has asked the faculty to discourage participation and demanded that we tell students that they may be disciplined if they talk about this event. This comes up every January. I’m uncomfortable issuing such a warning to students.

Principals don’t have the right to dictate what students do on weekends, and they don’t have the right to suppress speech in school. Does the principal demand that history teachers censor curriculum by omitting study of marches and protests dating back to the American Revolution? Do they discuss the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech? Has anyone taught the students about the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade? What about the Vietnam protests and the Parkland (FL) survivors’ #NeverAgain movement? These have made a lasting impact on society.

Your principal is missing an opportunity to connect with students who feel strongly about the mission of the Women’s March. Suggest he look at womensmarch.com/2020-march. He will gain the language he clearly needs to start a conversation with students. The principal’s attempt to shut down speech is unacceptable, and someone should make a formal complaint to the school district attorney. Let’s not shut students out of the conversation. Let’s encourage them to use their voices.

 

A parent complained about a novel taught to sixth graders in our school district. The district policy allows the parent to request an alternate title. The teacher asked the parent for a suggestion, and the novel she mentioned has more controversial topics than the one being used. What should the teacher do?

It’s common and wise practice to offer an alternate title, but it’s a good idea for the teacher to make the suggestion. Since the district allowed the parent to make the suggestion, I would just go with it and not say anything to the parent. Should the parent later voice concerns about the book, then the teacher simply needs to remind her that she chose it.

 

The English teachers in the high school where I serve as librarian are encouraged to focus on writing. This includes writing original short stories, personal essays, and poetry. They often allow time for students to read their writing aloud. One teacher didn’t know what to do when a ninth grade boy wrote about having two dads. Should she allow him to share that?

Why not? Personal essays and any type of autobiographical writing reflect a person’s life. It’s not the teacher’s role to judge the family structure or lifestyle of a student. I suspect others in the class know about their classmate’s two dads. If not, his writing will open a window for them. She must allow him to read aloud if other students are given that chance. An important part of education is to broaden students’ views of our society. I can think of no better way to do that than through the eyes and voice of a peer.

Pat Scales is the former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send your questions or comments to pscales@bellsouth.net.

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