Friday, March 20, 2009

Teaching Censorship

My principal got a second phone call about my censorship unit. Interesting teaching at a school with more involved parents than my previous school. The first call was: "Why are they talking about gay penguins in Language Arts?" This one was: "Why are Ms. Nelson's students reading about necrophilia in Language Arts?"

I explained the gay penguins to my principal's satisfaction. I'd read my students the picture book And Tango Makes Three, the most banned and challenged book of 2007, the true story of Roy and Silo, two gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo. I explained how it fit into the unit and my principal said, "Oh, okay, that makes sense. That's appropriate."

And I explained the necrophilia reference. I was trying to present a pro-censorship angle, so we read excerpts from the terrible Parents Against Bad Books in Schools website. This is the paragraph that prompted the phone call:

"In some of the books there are vividly described scenes of oral sex, brutal rapes, gang rapes, two men raping a woman at once, pedophilia, masturbation, extremely graphic violence, torture, linking of sexual excitement with violence, homosexuality, urinating on holy books, necrophilia, obscenities, vulgar language, and on and on and on. To us some of it is pornography weakly disguised as literature. Unbelievably foul stuff. With all the books available, why do teachers select these? The types of books we are concerned with are far beyond Harry Potter type stuff."

I explained to my principal that the article was representing an extreme pro-censorship point of view, and that we were using it to discuss the strategies and arguments people presented for why censorship is good. He cringed reading it--it's a terrible paragraph--but he backed me up. He did say, "Just don't let them get you off topic," and told a story about a teacher he'd had, an ex-Marine, who'd just go on and on about the War if they got him started. I told him we just read that paragraph and if a student asked me to define any of the words I would, then we moved on.

The same parent apparently also asked why we were discussing Censorship in Language Arts, and how it fit into the Language Arts curriculum. My principal gave her a great explanation (Language Arts is reading, writing, and critical thinking, and students can read, write, and think about any number of topics). He told me he also told the parent how popular this unit has been with the kids--which is so much of why I love teaching it. (I had another parent come to me and say "What book did you give Connell? All he did yesterday was read! No TV, no video games!" [It was Deadline, by Chris Crutcher.] This is why I have the job I have.) Before my principal left my classroom, he did say, "Just don't be reading sexually explicit stories. We have some very conservative families." and I had a moment of worry, thinking back over the syllabus--but in fact, we haven't. I gave a library copy of Forever to one of my girls, and it's making the rounds, and many Chris Crutcher books with sex in them are also being read outside of class (yay!), but in class we've read:

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
The first chapter of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
"The Pin," by Chris Crutcher
Judy Blume's excellent introduction to her anthology Places I Never Meant to Be
"July Saturday," by Jacqueline Woodson (story from Blume's anthology)
"You Come Too, A-ron," by Harry Mazer (also from the anthology)
The Stupids Die, by Harry Allard

We've also read editorials, reviews, interviews, and other articles about these writers and others, and looked at a lot of the material from the ALA website, including the most challenged books and authors lists and the "Banned Books Week Basics" information.

Our censorship debates were awesome. And now, spring break. After spring break, most of my eighth graders will be reading Nothing But the Truth by Avi, and a few will be reading Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. It's going to be a lot of work and so much fun.

5 comments:

Andrew Culture said...

There's a HUGE difference between referencing necrophilia and describing it surely? At least the principal saw sense!
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elka said...

I LOVE GAY PENGUINS!!!!!!!!!

Andrew Culture said...

Surely not as much as other gay penguins?
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seedstitching said...

oh elissa...
we have several copies of and tango makes three in my school's library. it sucks when the parents just don't trust us, as teachers...
i'm so glad your principal gets it though!

seedstitching said...

oh, by the way...
"seedstitching" is me, tiffany jewell!