Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Censorship in the Classroom

Jennie Smith received her Bachelors in English-Secondary Education and Master's in Education from Anderson University. She has always wanted to be a teacher and now teaches 8th grade Writing in Upstate SC. She is currently writing a book and hopes to have it finished before the school year ends. She also runs the blog Random Chalk Talk and currently lives in South Carolina with her husband Chris and her two kids. Here she is talking about censorship in the classroom:

I went to college to be a teacher. Growing up, there was never a doubt that it was what I was going to do. Just ask my brother and all of the stuffed animals who had to sit through all of my lessons about God only knows what for hours on end. They were all good sports and even better students. I went to classes to teach me how to instruct, allow me time to practice teaching, and pair me up with master teachers who would be there to help me when I needed them. The only problem was, none of those classes prepared me for facing controversy over a book.

Deciding what to teach is always fun to me and in my first year teaching I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t have to let another teacher decide for me because it was MY classroom and I got to decide. So I decided to teach a book I always enjoyed, A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Pack. I remembered reading the book and loving it so I thought it would be a great book to read with my 8th graders. It was, after all, on the protected reading list for the grade so I assumed I was in the clear. I went to the library to check them out for my students and my librarian said, “You do know there is a lot of controversy surrounding that book, right? You may want to send home a letter letting parents know what you are reading and give them time to decide if they want to opt out for their child.”

I was floored. I had read the book (many times) and didn’t see anything wrong with it at all. Sure, it talked about slaughtering pigs but come on… WE LIVE IN THE SOUTH! That is a way of life for some of the people who live in the town I teach in. I couldn’t imagine someone saying there was something wrong with the book. My parents are both avid readers and never hindered me from reading anything that was out there. Granted, I was not reading trashy romance novels in 4th grade or anything (I started that in college). Looking back at my favorites growing up, however, I see that the majority of them are on banned or challenged lists for a multitude of reasons, but I still read them anyway without knowing so. (Go Mom and Dad!!)

I took her advice and typed up a letter to the parents and put the unit on hold for two weeks so that they could have time to read the book and decide if they wanted their child to read it. I let them know that there would be alternate lesson plans if they chose not to read it and it would not be seen as a punishment to the child. It was to me, though, because I had to do two separate lesson plans. Within two days I had received all but 5 of the letters back. Three of the parents sent me notes saying they were going to read it and would let me know at the beginning of the next week. Of course that was no big deal. One of the parents sent me the note back at the end of the week thanking me for giving the option and letting me know they had read the book and didn’t see any problems with it. It was a great letter and I still have it. The other student said that his mom still had his letter and I didn’t think anything of it. I did give them two weeks to look over it.

When we got to Thursday of the next week, I still had not received the student’s letter back and reminded him that I needed it back by the next day. He said that his mom still had it and that he would remind her. Friday came and I still didn’t have the letter. At the end of the day I knew I was going to have to make the phone call. When I called there was no answer and I left a message for the mom saying that the letter was due back to me today but I understood if she needed more time and to please have it back to me on Monday. I thought I was super nice about it (I mean we were at the end of week two here).

Monday came and with it… an epistle from the mom. She said that she had read the book over the weekend and thought it was very gory and inappropriate for students to read…on the first page. The second page told me what an inconsiderate teacher I was to send this letter home to parents and have them make a decision in such a short amount of time (which confused me, but I kept reading). Page three when on to say how inappropriate the book was and she placed quotes in the letter (as if I had not read the book and didn’t know its content) to back up her opinion. Page four, however, contradicted it all when she said that, “I understand that this is part of the curriculum and will be read in your classroom. I do not want my son astrosized because he isn’t allowed to read this book, so it is of my great opinion that he will read it with the class.” (Yes, that is exactly what it says because I am looking at it right now.

After I calmed down from reading her letter, I went to a fellow teacher and asked her what I should do. The fact that she called me inconsiderate because I had given them a short amount of time floored me. I understood that people were slow readers but I thought two weeks was plenty of time to either read it or research it. The discussion with the other teacher made me realize that as much as I didn’t want to, I needed to call this mom. So I did and what a conversation it was. In short, I assured her that her child would not be ostracized if they chose not to read the book and asked her what an appropriate amount of time would be for parents to have to review a book. Her answer, “Longer than a weekend!” It was at that point I told her (with a huge grin on my face) to check the date on the letter (because she had a second copy with her) and her response was, “Oh. Okay.” (Her son hadn’t given her the letter until the Friday it was due). I still see her in public and she ducks and hides…. this happened 7 years ago!

Looking back, it still shocks me that people would limit their children from reading great literature because it might be a little offensive. Use it as a teachable moment parents! I haven’t taught that book since then (but have taught other “controversial books” like The Outsiders and The Giver) and will continue to suggest other controversial books for my students to read. They are in my classroom and will continue to be. If parents have an issue with them, I hope that we all have the courtesy to have an open conversation… and for me to show them I am right! Haha… just kidding (maybe)!


  1. What a great lesson for all parents as well as teachers. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Wanting to be a teacher myself i found this post very inspirational. thank you )

  3. It is a great lesson... it still keeps me on my toes! Thanks :)

  4. Haha this is great. I'm an education major at USC and this just made my day. Thanks so much. :)

  5. Wow! I am floored by your experience. Strive on! Its got to be tough, but its worth it for all parties concerned: the students, parents and you the teacher. :)