Battling Censorship in the Classroom

I just have a question for you out there in Educator Land: what is your policy when a parent objects to the teaching of a literary text in the classroom? Even if it’s approved by the district?

I deal with this once a year because I live in a very conservative community, and I’m curious how others handle this.


6 thoughts on “Battling Censorship in the Classroom

  1. Jane

    I ask the parents if they will share their specific worries about the text, and if all I get is attacked, I suggest a different text and let it go. I can easily put together a packet of work for the alternative text. I have so many kids every day that it’s not the hill I want to die on, I guess. Most of the time the kids are embarrassed by the parents so I try not to add to that.
    I live in a very conservative area, and I send a letter to parents at the beginning of the year, talking about the books we will read in class, and telling them that I will handle language and themes in a respectful way. I have a pretty good reputation in the community and really don’t have much trouble with this issue.

  2. Mrs. DeRaps

    I’ve created alternate assignments for the student whose parent objects. Luckily, it’s only happened once to the point where the assignments were necessary. Other times, parents have backed down when their children pleaded with them to back off and let them engage in class. And, my administration has always been super supportive.

    I’d be interested to know which teaching materials/ units are raising these issues.

  3. Jim Van Pelt

    Alternate teaching materials. There’s no point in arguing with someone who has decided that the literature is bad. Even listening to the objections are painful, since what happens most often is that the parent wants not only to not have their kid read the book, but also, in some way, to make me feel bad for choosing it. I can become the face of whatever they hate in the book. Nope, I don’t engage. I tell them they have alternatives.

  4. Mrs. Chili

    While I COMPLETELY understand the policy of accommodating objecting parents (and I LOVE Jane’s “that’s not the hill I want to die on” sentiment), I have to say that I DON’T tend to back down. Though I’ve only twice been confronted by narrow-minded parents (and I’m saying that freely; neither parent had read the books – Native Son and Brokeback Mountain – they were objecting to, and so had no intellectual legs on which to stand), both times the kids ended up staying in class and reading the books I’d chosen.

    I use the “I’m the competent professional in this room” tack. I have a Master’s degree in this discipline and a great deal of experience with these texts, I tell them; I’ve taught them many times before and I have found them to be exactly right for the kind of critical thinking I was asking the students to do.

    The gripes the parents had about the books were reasonable, I explained to them, IF the parts they were upset about were the main focus of the narrative, or of the class; I went on a long (and, I think, exhaustive) explanation of how critical readers don’t focus so much on the plot of a story, but rather on the themes – the big ideas that the plot points help us to understand. Native Son isn’t about a black-on-white murder, but rather is about the desperation of people who live in a culture that doesn’t recognize their own humanity, and how that inhumanity translates into how they see themselves within that culture. Brokeback isn’t about gay sex (oh, DEAR, but that was a fun conversation for me to have with the evangelical Christian dad!), it’s about a person who lives in a society that hasn’t given him the emotional vocabulary to understand himself. In neither case was I condoning the characters’ behavior*, I explained, but I WAS asking the students to understand what it was about how those characters lived that made them think that the way they behaved was their only viable choice. (at one point in both conversations, I slipped in that, if a child is to be fully educated, he need to be able to challenge the conventions of his upbringing. It isn’t up to the parent to decide whether those conventions hold, but rather to the child to hold up new information against accepted wisdom to see what happens. Of course, I word this much more elegantly than I have here, but I do, in essence, ask the parents what they’re so afraid of in having their kids exposed to new ideas…)

    Both parents, with lips set in attitudes of incredulous concession, let their kids stay in my classes.

    *I should note here that I refused to get into a conversation about the morality of homosexuality with the evangelical dad. I make no secret about the fact that I am an outspoken GLBTQ ally, but that wasn’t what this conversation was about and I WAS NOT going to let him take it there. Brokeback was in my curriculum because it offered students a chance to look at a character who goes against his very nature because he has had no indication from his society that his nature is acceptable. He struggles in a quiet desperation, not able to understand himself, because no one has given him the tools he’d need to be able to realize himself in his world. The conversations we had around that fact were gorgeous – how many other people live like that right here and right now? – and the sex was nothing more than a passing, nervous giggle for most of the kids.

  5. drpezz Post author

    Every year I have a parent concerned about one book or another. I had an objection about Of Mice and Men because the “Lord’s name is taken in vain,” and I’ve had objections to the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (the breast-feeding scene) as well as the preacher’s rejection of organized and popular Christianity. Language is always a problem in Huck Finn and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Inappropriate relationships” come up with The Great Gatsby and The Crucible.

    Right now, it is apparent that members of one church have traded passages back and forth from Fools Crow. For those of you who have not read it, a teenage boy is teased by his friends because he is a virgin and is called a “dog lover” which is interpreted to mean bestiality (which is ridiculous if read in context). Another objection is that the boy sees a girl and he has an erection (a one line mentioning and then it’s gone).

    The one I do understand is that there is a rape scene, which I tell the students they can avoid by not reading the page and I tell them the page number. It is gently described in 2-3 sentences but horrible nevertheless. This is where the parents always tell me they stop reading. This is unfortunate because the offender is horribly punished and every character knows it was a despicable act. It is an easier scene to read than Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

    Besides all this, sex is not a major theme and not “the main focus of the narrative” as you said Mrs. Chili. In fact, the protagonist’s approach to sex and marriage is a much more so-called Christian view unlike the approaches of his friends. In that sense, this is all a bit ironic.

    Regardless, Fools Crow is taught during the Sophomore year in numerous Montana classrooms, has been taught in our school for a few years (before I started teaching this class), and in a great many college classes. Since this course is College in the High School and the curriculum is based on the college equivalencies, I am loath to make a change.

    P.S. I do want to ask what the parents will do when the kids go away to college in a year or two and the same types of texts are chosen.


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