By Joel Thomas, Rubicon International

National Banned Book Week is upon us, and it is a time to consider the importance of ideas and the history of censorship. I should probably start this post by giving you realistic expectations: I am not going to tell you that banning books is wrong. That subject has been covered thoroughly and artistically by an author who has suffered his fair share of banishment: Neil Gaiman. To read his thoughts on the matter, check out THIS article from the BBC or pick up his latest book, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction. Instead, let’s talk about how we teach challenging material.

When We Mis-Align Student Expectations

For many teachers, and I am one of them, we use the seemingly salacious label of “Previously Banned Book” in order to get students immediately interested in the next novel we will teach. And now we have kids on the edge of their seats waiting for a specific payoff: the gruesome and explicit, the dirty stuff. And we can’t deliver. Year after year, our students get confused when finishing books like Catcher in the Rye, The Giver, and Fahrenheit 451, because they don’t get what’s so bad about these novels. Why was this banned?

Instead of prepping students for a challenging idea, we’ve prepped them for an R rating. It is here that we hit a wall, because students will always have a higher threshold for what they consider “inappropriate for children” than adults will. My students spent so much energy looking for cuss words and sex scenes in Catcher in the Rye that they missed Holden’s personal crisis; they missed seeing themselves on paper. All the work communities did in the past to get that book off of the “banned list” is wasted. As a result, a book containing very real and complex thoughts gets buried because of mis-aligned expectations!

What’s Better: Buried or Burnt?

As teachers, we know that the surest way to make sure students do something is to forbid them from doing it. When we try and burn a book, it only encourages people to read it. And so—with the best intentions, with engagement and fascination on the mind—we pull the books from the bonfire and say to our kids, “READ THIS, it’s HOT! It used to be banned; just imagine how exciting it must be!” And in so doing, we send these books to the graveyard of “compulsory reading.” We bury books under the wrong expectations.

Be the Spark, not the Bonfire

How many dangerous ideas from incredible stories have been interred? There’s a very practical answer to that question: count the number of books you hated reading in school. Could you have loved those same books if your expectations were accurately set by a teacher with a passion for that story?

Here’s your challenge: find a new, realistic way to market your “banned book” to students. Set students’ expectations based on how they can meaningfully engage with the text. In the case of Catcher in the Rye, ask students to consider the family stressors that impact personal decisions, how the death of a family member changes us, or who we latch on to in times of stress. In other words, have students focus on personal impact before reflecting on cultural impact.

We all want students to leave our classes with a greater love of reading. So, look at your class sets of books, figure out what ideas in each story are truly dangerous, and prepare students for those ideas. This will set those stories on fire! Be prepared to learn the same lesson censors learn year after year: “Manuscripts don’t burn” (Bulgakov 298).

Bulgakov, Mikhail. “Master and Margarita.” Penguin Books, 2008.

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