My Rationale for Teaching a Banned Books Unit

Dear Parents,

My rationale for teaching Banned or Challenged Books starts with a desire to model the vital right of free speech as described in the First Amendment and continues with my responsibility to address the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

I want students to understand the meaning of the First Amendment, so we look more closely at the definitions of several words in it that 7th graders don’t use on a regular basis. (This relates to the Common Core Reading Standard for Informational Text #4) This year, we started with the bolded words, which they voiced as difficult to understand:

“The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.” (from Wikipedia)

We then look at the meaning of the whole amendment and delve further into how this relates to the challenging and banning of books. I use the American Library Association website to make this connection for students. We discuss reasons that books have been challenged and banned and how that decision is possibly more black and white at younger and older age levels; at the middle school age it is more difficult to gauge, which may necessitate involving parents in the conversation about whether or not to read a specific book.

I enlist the librarian’s help in finding books in our library that have been challenged or banned in other libraries throughout the country. She pulls these books from the shelves of our library (which in itself is a message that our library does not ban these books). Wanting to promote choice and individual responsibility (strengthening engagement), I have students choose a book to read from the selection of challenged or banned books; they each know their personal preferences and reading abilities much better than I do and choosing their own novel often heightens motivation to read the novel. In having 7th graders choose these novels, I realize that some of the novels will discuss topics for which they may not be emotionally or intellectually prepared. I fully expect and appreciate students directing questions about these topics to their teachers and parents. It is our role as adults to help students make sense of the complexities of the world wherever they find them. I applaud parents who take this role seriously, read the book in question, and engage in a discussion of the sensitive topics with their son or daughter.

Much of our interactions with the novel are similar to what we would do with any novel, though we delve into why the book may be banned and whether or not we would agree with that decision (I include myself in this statement because I, too, am currently reading a book that was banned (Beloved, by Toni Morrison) and participating in many of the assignments). We follow up notebook entries and discussions with a end-of-the-book project.

Here are the CCSS that I feel I address with this unit:

Reading Standards for Literature:
Key Ideas and Details:
1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence when useful to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

2. Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text

Writing Standards:
Text Types and Purposes:
1. Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Production and Distribution of Writing:
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:
7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation

9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening Standards:
Comprehension and Collaboration:
1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

For me, this unit ties together much of what I like about teaching and learning: reading challenging texts; thinking deeply about what we read; discussing issues with peers and possibly parents; writing based on our reading, discussing, and thinking; supporting our ideas with evidence; and seeing how what we learn relates to the world at large. At a National Writing Project of Michigan workshop this summer, I learned about a way of approaching learning that fosters student success called Habits of Mind. These eight habits make a lot sense to me and, together with the CCSS, I will be using them to as a guide for much of my lesson planning. Here are the eight habits of mind:

◦ Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
◦ Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
◦ Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
◦ Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
◦ Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
◦ Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
◦ Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
◦ Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.
from http://wpacouncil.org/framework/

Freedom of speech is precious to me. I respect all of the authors who have put the time, creativity, ingenuity, and persistence into writing stories to make us think about the world in different, transformative ways. I also respect, however, each parent’s right to question what’s going on in my classroom and why. I hope this letter has helped explained some of my purposes. Please continue to be involved in your son’s or daughter’s education; know what he or she is reading — even read it yourself if necessary — and begin a conversation that respects the young man or woman these fine students are becoming.

Aram Kabodian
English teacher
MacDonald Middle School

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