Fresh Alternatives Build Engagement | Scales on Censorship

Censorship expert Pat Scales offers guidance on helping competitive readers find their own thing, balancing the responsibility to protect privacy, and orienting new teachers to the role of the library.

My students are very enthusiastic and sometimes competitive readers. Last year our first graders became obsessed with Diary of a Wimpy Kid but the books were really above the reading level of most of them. The teacher actually confirmed that they weren’t reading them. I think it was a status issue. I tried to redirect them, but I finally had to tell them they couldn’t take them out. Many persisted, but most found other interests. I did eventually allow them to begin borrowing them again. Though it seemed the best course at the time, I worry that I did the wrong thing. Do you have any advice on how to handle this in the future?

I suspect that the first graders had noticed older siblings reading the books, and they had probably seen the series displayed in bookstores, Walmart, and Target. This makes them want them. Some of the first graders probably can read them, and if they can’t, it doesn’t mean that a parent or older sibling won’t read it to them. I would respond in this way: “You have chosen a really good book, but knowing you, I think I know another book you would also like. How about taking both?” Almost all students want to feel that someone has a special suggestion just for them. Then send them off with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and another book, such as a title in Stan Kirby’s “Captain Awesome” (S. & S.) or Jennifer Holm’s “Babymouse” series (Random), illustrated by Matthew Holm. They are likely to become so interested in these books that they will return for more.

Another suggestion is to start a reading club for first graders. Select books that are high interest and that they can read. Read aloud one book, suggest related titles, and allow them to make their own reading choices. Draw them into discussion, and they will become so engaged that I bet the club will gain status.

How does the legal concept of in loco parentis impact the right to read in schools? Schools have limited in loco parentis, which means they have the responsibility to provide a safe environment and to control and protect students as it applies to behavior and discipline. These are the same responsibilities expected of parents. But schools also have a responsibility to protect students’ constitutional rights. Parents do not.

Students’ right to read is protected by privacy laws in some states. The first thing that a librarian needs to do is to check state laws. If the privacy laws extend to children, then I would advise destroying circulation records, etc. If a parent is so concerned about what their child is reading, then they need to have a conversation with their child about reading choices. A librarian should never be held responsible to police the materials a student borrows or uses. This applies to library use and not the curriculum. Libraries are all about choice; the curriculum is prescribed.

I’m a new teacher in my high school, and I would like to teach Beloved by Toni Morrison. Another teacher warned me that I should be careful because it was challenged in a neighboring high school last year. What should I do? Just because a book was challenged in another school doesn’t mean that you will have problems with it in your school. I do recommend, as a new teacher, that you sit down with the English department chair and find out how books are selected for the school curriculum. Make sure that you acquaint yourself with your school district policy regarding novels taught in the curriculum. These policies usually include a statement about “controversial” novels, and how to deal with them. Many school districts offer students an alternative reading choice should a parent object to what the teacher is teaching. Be confident about your selections, and arm yourself with helpful information. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) offers excellent supportive materials, including Rationales for Classroom Texts.

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