Using "Controversial" Texts: Why We Need Them and How to Use Them
We are living in a very divided time. Parents are at board meetings screaming about critical race theory and are trying to ban books left and right...and they are often winning. Board of educations are allowing parents to dictate curriculum. This is not how public education should work.
I recently read an article by Dan Rather and about this topic and it is spot-on. Here is one quote I loved from the article:
"For too long the darker chapters of our national narrative have been downplayed or entirely expunged from what our kids learned in school...Parents certainly have rights, but they do not have the right to stand in the way of justice, truth, or democracy."
I am not a Social Studies teacher; I am sure they have the most pushback with providing accurate historical material from varying perspectives when teaching civics. I asked a Social Studies colleague recently what sources he uses for current events and he said "Scholastic...only Scholastic." I feel him...I empathize. It's safe, but it's sad that we have to limit students for fear of being raked over the coals for providing them perspective.
As I said, I am not a history teacher, so I am not necessarily advocating for ELA teachers to do history lessons. Here is what I am advocating for: ELA teachers must provide students literature that is not watered down, not exclusive to one perspective, and that provides students with the opportunity to question the world around them.
What exactly could be considered controversial texts? Well, as I write this, the author of Front Desk was put on a list of books that spread "racist ideology". Check out her Instagram post about this. It actually makes my stomach turn that these books are even considered being banned. And some of them are! She has many posts where her book actually WAS banned. Many of the books on lists like these offer perspectives that do not fit into the mold of what's "normal". These books are written or feature people of color or of the LGBTQ community. That is simply it. THAT is why people want to ban these books (although they will tell you something else). They're different. People don't like things that make them uncomfortable or make them realize things aren't butterflies and rainbows for everyone.
Jason Reynolds, one of the best authors of our time, said it best.
I've had pushback over dystopian books, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, The Whispers by Greg Howard, and George by Alex Gino. These were all offered to students on book lists. It happens every year, and every year my backbone grows stronger and I advocate for students to read authentic texts.
Why don't people want middle school students reading books featuring topics of racism, sexism, identity issues, etc.? Well, like I said, it's different than the norm...or at least for some people's norm. I remember reading a ton of books when I was kid and I felt perfectly comfortable reading them because I am straight, white female. However, I was always angered by the lack of girls who were tough, leaders, and not boy-crazy. I grew up in the late 80s and 90s, so it started to change, however, I cannot even remember one book I read by a person of color or about a person of color. We were not exposed to that at all.
That was the norm then, despite the fact that I grew up in a very diverse community. Many of friends could not connect with those texts and it turned them off to reading. Now, a lot of people argue "well this is what I did when I was a kid and it worked out fine". Well, maybe for you it did, but it failed many.
Another comment I've heard from people is, "well if you are going to show THIS perspective you have to show THAT perspective". Right, but a lot of times this argument is in regards to the opposing viewpoint being oppressive, hateful, and bigoted. In that case, no, I will not provide that perspective. For example, if students are reading a book set during slavery, I will provide books from slaves' perspectives or sympathizers/abolitionists...will I provide books from the perspectives of the masters who brutalized them? Um, no. And honestly, does that even exist? If students are reading a historical fiction book from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor, should I be providing books from the perspective of a Nazi? Sure, if that Nazi realizes what they are doing is wrong; that's valuable, yes, but not a perspective that it was okay that they were doing what they did.
We are asked to be neutral. With certain things, of course. I will never discuss who I am voting for. I will never discuss one religion being better than another (I mean, I am pretty much an atheist anyway...and I don't talk about that either.) But when it comes to the oppression of others, nah, can't be neutral on that one. Let's not also forget, these kids are individuals; they can come up with their own opinions. The Rebellious History Teacher on Instagram said it best:
People also are so fraught with anger when books bring up any kind of sex and/or cursing. Finding middle school texts is HARD. Middle grade level books (aimed towards grades 4-6) are sometimes, well, boring for them. These kids are going through so many changes in their minds and bodies and they question and wonder. The watered-down, censored texts sometimes just don't hold their interest. Once I put a young adult book on their desk, 99% of the time their engagement soars. Why? Because SOMETIMES they come across topics they wonder if they should be reading about..."oh boy, they said a curse word, this is intense...do I tell my teacher? My mom? Let me keep reading."
I had a student come up to me once. She was reading Eve by Anna Carey. She pointed out some scenes that were admittedly racy. I asked her how she felt about reading those scenes. Her reaction was mostly, "am I allowed to?" I did reach out to her mom and we talked about this. Mom was fine with her sticking it out and Mom TALKED to her about the scenes. At the end of the year, my student said it was her favorite book.
Middle schoolers like edgy, they like a little rebelliousness. So if a book has some sexual references and cursing, but they want to keep reading, isn't that a good thing? Let's be real. These books are, at most, PG-13. These kids are watching way worse on Netflix and finding some crazy stuff on social media. Isn't it safer in texts? Isn't it a springboard for conversations at home?
Now when it comes to brutal senseless violence, suicide, assault, or rape, that's different. Certain aspects of this, I don't feel they can handle yet. I try to avoid those books in YA category, definitely for the 6th graders. That's another point...I do limit some YA choices for my 6th graders. 6th graders and 7th graders are VERY different developmentally. It takes a huge effort on our parts to scour through books for this type of material.
Also, just because sexuality and cursing (again, PG-13 AT MOST and this is rare) may pop up in a CHOICE book a student reads, doesn't mean we are talking about it as a whole class. This happens individually and, when this ever comes up, I always reach out to the parent. I never share my thoughts on that.
The Biggest Reasons Why We Need Controversial Texts
Exposing to various lifestyles and building empathy: When students read books with characters from all types of situations, even controversial ones, even situations that are unlike their own, they are building empathy.
Student choice: They are reading what they want! Books are so much safer than some of the crazy stuff on social media and television.
Developmentally appropriate: Check out the image below. Sorry it's so tough to read, but I couldn't find it anywhere without the watermark, but these kids are ready.
How to Fight the Good Fight
So how do you keep these books from being banned? This is very difficult because you have so many forces you are contending with. For me, I'd leave my district if I didn't have support...that's how important it is to me. I am very lucky to have support.
I always like to let parents know about a unit before I start it. I will send out a letter detailing the reason why we are using certain books. I detail what my mentor text is. I have a letter ready to go for pushback. Here is a sample letter I send with my social issues book list.
What if the parent is absolutely refusing? What if he/she is threatening lawyers (yes, I've had this happen)? What if she threatens going to the Board of Education (and actually does)? Well, this is really up to you and how much you want to fight. Luckily, my district has backed me. If you are providing them choice, they can always find a book in a list (like my social issues list) that's "better". The most I've had to do was give a student an alternate assignment, the most extreme case being the child had to leave the room during an entire unit. That last scenario broke my heart and I vowed this year I will advocate for students more (she didn't want to leave the room).
Some scenarios, you have to be flexible. There could be some real legitimate reasons a book is not appropriate for a student. A book may be a trigger to a traumatic event. This is why I give them so much choice, to avoid this from happening.
I often get told that a child "is not ready" for a book yet. This is a tough one. My opinion, of course, is that they are ready. My son is 6 and already knows about all of these topics. When it comes to the LGBTQ topic, I really fight that one. I try to reason it's not about sexuality, but about identity. Also...throwing in how it aligns with the curriculum is always wonderful. Luckily in New Jersey, it is mandated.
Always bring up how it aligns with the curriculum. Find standards that match with the unit you are doing. At the end of the day, you are teaching ELA, so you really do need to be sure the books are tied into the curriculum. You can list these standards with a letter home about an upcoming unit.
Call the parent. I know...who has time, right? But sometimes, just a kind call instead of email makes a big difference. Don't call them angry; hear them out. Empathize with THEM. You will find that they can be reasonable if you just talk to them.
Talk to your administration. Come prepared with reasons why you are using these texts as well as standard and curriculum connection. Find research to support. You know your admin...be prepared.
Still doesn't work? Quit haha. I know, you can't do that. I really think you have to TRY to convince a parent, but they are the parent as much as it may ache you to have to shelter a child. This is why I provide so much choice. So, if a student really wanted to read a book with a transgender character and mom said no, I will have a book about a character who is bullied, for example. Another prime reason you should not teach whole class novels.
What about Dr. Seuss?
Sigh. Well, first of all, I never really had a place for him in my classroom. The only time he popped up was when I had my students write children's books. Here's my thoughts on Seuss. I don't focus on him for Read Across America, which is where he always shows up. He was a racist and his books depicted people in racist ways. There are so many other amazing authors I can represent during Read Across America. I am a firm believer in forgiveness, and reparations have been made regarding his racism, but, ultimately, he was still a racist. Why focus an entire week on him when there are hundreds of other amazing authors?
Is he banned from my classroom? Nope. If students want to read it and share their experiences with it, I am all for it. It's a big part of a child's youth and majority are oblivious to the racism as those books are not in their libraries. Do I have his books in my room? Nope, but I won't stop students from reading him. I will also enlighten the students to his past.
This article is an excellent representation about how I feel about him.
I don't ban books, but I won't include books in my library that are oppressive.
I'll add that these books are always, in my classes, provided as choices on a list when we do book clubs or are in my library for them to choose. I don't do whole class novels. I will do read-aloud. My read-alouds always change, but I've used Ghost, First Rule of Punk, We are Not Free, Matt de La Pena short stories, Faceless, Among the Hidden (I want to change this one), and Chew on This. These are tame in the controversial department, but still hit on those empathy points.
How do I use them? Book clubs. I do a social issues, historical fiction, dystopian, and graphic novel book clubs. These are where these books come into play. I also have them research social issues and read non-fiction texts in those categories. You can also read about how I structure my days here.
So many teachers play it safe. They won't provide students with books that touch upon controversial topics (racism, sexism, LGTBQ, etc.) because they don't want the stress and I hear that.
I no longer will be a part of the problem.
Check out three of my book lists for book clubs below.