Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to teach about censorship in the (post-secondary) classroom...

I was recently able to attend the 2011 Children's Literature Association Conference in Roanoke, VA.  The conference was on a variety of topics all over the map, but on the last day a syllabus exchange was held, in which a number of teachers gave talks on how to teach about censorship and book challenges.  The following is from the syllabus exchange and was sent out by Edwina Helton afterward.  Included are some facts and statistics as well as a few exercises to use with students, and some definitions from the National Council of Teachers of English that can hopefully clear up some ideas about what is meant by censorship in most cases.  I hope you find this useful!  Feel free to write in the comments if you have ever taught classes on censorship or if you have been in a class on censorship, and please let me know about your experiences!

Cultural Context and Censorship

There are times when a book selected by a librarian or teacher for school study provokes criticism from the community or parents.  In some cases, a parent asks that their child not read a particular book, and this request can be accommodated.  Sometimes, a community member or parent requests that no child be permitted to read a particular book.  This is a much larger problem.  The suppression of reading material is censorship.  Choosing a book that we like or matches our taste in a non-offensive manner is selection.  “Censorship is the attempt to deny others the right to read something that the censor thinks is offensive...  selection is the process of choosing appropriate material for readers according to literary and educational judgments” (409).  The controversy surrounding many books is often rooted in an explicit attempt to impose censorship by limiting student access to a book grounded in religious and political views.  Many national organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of English, have worked to develop strong guidelines and polices on censorship.  Helpful documents to support parents and teachers in contending with book challenges are outlined in NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read (1972) and The Students’ Right to Know (1982).  These documents offer specific guidelines to follow when a book is challenged. 

NCTE offers five means for distinguishing between guidelines for selection and censorship:

1.    Censorship excludes specific materials; selection includes specific materials to give breadth.
2.    Censorship is negative; selection is affirmative.
3.    Censorship intends to control the others’ reading; selection intends to advise others’ reading.
4.    Censorship seeks to indoctrinate and limit access to ideas and information, whereas selections seeks to educate and increase access to ideas and information.
5.    Censorship looks at specific aspects and parts of a work in isolation, whereas selection examines the relationship of parts to each other and to a work as a whole (1983).

Suggested procedures for contending with book challenges include:

1.    Establish book selection procedures before the censors come.  Make your procedures public.  Keep the community informed and involved.
2.    Involve professional librarians, teachers, parents, administrators, and lay community members in the book selection process.
3.    When complaints are registered, have them put in writing.
4.    Ask the person who makes the complaint to read the entire book and put the incident or language in question in context.
5.    Meet the person who makes the complaint to discuss alternatives.

From: Bernice Cullinan and Lee Galda’s Literature and the Child, pages 409-10.

Activity on Censorship

In this activity, you will gain experience in exploring the significance of censorship using a formerly banned text as a site of your study. 

Part I:
Read your book carefully.  Create a dialog with the following characters:

A.    Unhappy citizen who wishes the book removed from children’s access
B.    Parent who reads the book for the first time before attending the meeting
C.    School principle who is strongly against censorship
D.    Administrator concerned with public opinion on the school

In your dialog activity, your characters are having a meeting to make a decision about your controversial book.  Carefully create voices from the position you are depicting to show the perspective of the role you are playing.  Your goal is to come to some decision by the end of your meeting.

Part II:
After creating your dialog, discuss what you learned from your activity.  On a separate piece of paper:

1.    List your observations and what you learned through your dialog activity.
2.    What is your position on the book.  Is it potentially offensive?  What cultural values are advocated?
3.    Offer your analysis of the book’s meaning with attention to the artistic strategies.
4.    Review the handout of book reviews on your book.  Do they support the position you took on the book?  How do the book reviews complicate your reading of the book?

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