Teaching books that have been banned or challenged because of questionable content can be a trial for rookie and veteran educators alike. In all honesty, though, these books often hold some of the richest, most worthwhile lessons that students can learn. Consider these five strategies to approach these tricky lessons in a meaningful, tactful manner that won’t have parents (or your principal!) beating down your door this year!
- Address your unit with parents and administration beforehand. Both parents and administrators will appreciate knowing in advance that your unit and the associated tough discussions are on the horizon. Write a letter, send out an email, or make some phone calls to let interested parties know that you will soon be discussing this information with students. Clarify that you have a clear plan (check out #3!) and will do everything in your power to address these tricky topics in a meaningful and judicious manner. Be sure to clearly outline the purpose and relevance of the unit. By outlining the point of your lessons and the objectives and state standards which will apply, you’re more likely to get support from even the most concerned parents.
- Don’t avoid the rating. Over time, the “banned book” rating has become part of the book’s identity. Don’t try to pretend it doesn’t exist, especially with your students. When communicating with parents and administrators beforehand, be forthright with information about why the book has been challenged in the past and explain how you plan to approach those debated topics. When working with students, historicize the book’s reception. Ask students to look into how the book has been read in the past and why certain people found fault with some of the topics included in the book during a particular time period. Students can begin their research with the American Library Association, which offers a complete list of banned books and some historical context each for their ratings. Choosing to make the historical context of the rating part of your lessons will create deeper, richer discussions and teachable moments that will only make your unit stronger.
- Have a plan to tackle the tough discussions tactfully. If you’re working with tweens and teens, you know they’ll find a way to ask you the toughest questions. Know ahead of time that those discussions are going to be inevitable, and create a plan for how you will address those controversial topics. Do some in-depth planning to make those discussions and activities educational and meaningful for students. Rather than brushing past difficult discussions, actively choose to dig in to help students understand why some people have questioned the content of the book in the past, and then…
- Ask students to debate the rating. Students always bring a unique perspective to every topic. Ask them what they think about the rating! Is it justified or not? Did the concern make sense during a certain historical period for reasons that have changed over time? Ask students to research and prepare a justification or rebuttal of the banned book rating. You can even orchestrate a debate between students who hold differing opinions. Don’t forget, though, that this is a great time to teach students about academic integrity, source credibility, and citing sources appropriately!
- Have students write about it. Finally, the best way to get students to think deeply about these books and their challenging topics is to have them read and write about them. Consider having students respond to one of the following standards-aligned, banned-book-based writing prompts in Turnitin’s Revision Assistant:
- A Raisin in the Sun
- The Great Gatsby and the American Dream
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Lord of the Flies
- Animal Farm
- Fahrenheit 451
- The Outsiders
- Romeo and Juliet: Where Lies the Blame?
- The Watsons and Ballad of Birmingham
- The Giver
- Or address censorship more generally with the prompt Censorship in the Libraries
Don’t have Revision Assistant? Don’t worry! Register for a free trial to access all of these prompts, along with over 100 others, for you and your students. (Psst! The rubrics for these prompts are available in Turnitin Feedback Studio as well!)
While teaching banned books can seem daunting, causing many teachers to shy away, utilizing these strategies can help make the process more meaningful for everyone involved. Choose to approach these tough topics head-on, and make this year your opportunity to really embrace this notable literature. Happy reading!
Katie Wike came to the Curriculum Team straight from the classroom. She taught ELA to 7th through 10th graders for eight years and personally encountered the challenges of effectively teaching middle and high school students how to write. Although leaving the classroom was a difficult decision, she ultimately came to Turnitin because she was interested in providing a solution to the challenge of writing instruction on a larger scale.