For Teachers and Librarians, Banned Books Can Create Balancing Act

By Kate Stoltzfus — September 30, 2016 4 min read
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The turn of the month marks the end of Banned Books Week, an annual event promoting the freedom to read and awareness of the harms of censoring books—often with a particular focus on K-12 students. Schools around the country hold events to discuss the history of censorship, and many educators post photos of their favorite banned books with hashtags such as #BannedBooksWeek or #teachbannedbooks.

But these discussions and issues of censorship can arise throughout a school year. And for K-12 teachers and leaders, they can be especially difficult to navigate—posing a balancing act between open access to information and a broad range of morals concerns and opinions from parents, community members, and school employees, including the teachers and librarians themselves.

A handful of books are publicly challenged each year for objections to sexually explicit or age-appropriate content, offensive language, and violence. There were 275 challenges reported in 2015, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. (The most-challenged title last year was young adult author John Green’s Looking for Alaska.) This map of book controversies by the Cato Institute for more information on where bans have played out.

Though many court cases over banned books in schools over the years have ruled that banning can impinge on the First Amendment, debates are most often sorted out at the local and district levels. Schools deal with complaints by taking books off of reading lists, removing them from library shelves, issuing warnings about specific content, or giving individual students alternative assignments if objections arise. A recent case in Chesterfield County, Va. left three controversial YA books on the school district’s library shelvesTyrell by Coe Booth, Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell—but the school division’s individual schools agreed to provide alternative reading assignments for students who express concern over materials, reported the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Self-censoring by teachers—an educator’s decision not to buy or use a specific book in school—also appears to be a growing trend. In the School Library Journal’s 2016 Controversial Books Survey, many school librarians said they think about the effects of controversial material more than they used to. Of 574 librarians surveyed nationwide, more than 40 percent said they personally dealt with a book challenge from a parent, community member, or school leader, and a quarter of those said it affected future book-selection decisions. They listed reasons such as authors including more inappropriate material in YA and children’s books than ever before; pressure from principals or parents; more polarization within communities; and fear of not being protected or supported by the school if an issue arises.

For some, the issue is a more personal choice: “Nothing is taboo these days and most students have been exposed to too much inappropriate subject matter,” wrote one librarian at a Northeastern suburban high school. “However, we as teachers must address material that students may read independently and have no way of putting in proper context.”

Others fear little administrative support if a controversy arises: “I have had administrative push-back regarding the books I am buying that ignores the established book complaint process,” wrote a Northeastern urban school librarian. “I am also told that selecting these books puts my job at risk because I am not promoting the ‘values’ of my school community.”

So how can teachers best navigate censorship waters as they make individual choices about what materials are defined as appropriate in the classroom? Whether factoring in personal issues with a book or fear that parents or community members may object to material, Concordia University offers several tips for educators, including making sure schools have a clear selection policy and staying informed about how the district’s book challenges may have been handled in the past.

And Susan Fanetti, an associate professor of English at California State University Sacramento, wrote in a 2012 article for Virginia Tech’s The Alan Review that openly communicating with parents about why teachers choose the books they do is critical—including sending out a reading list for the year.

“By explaining the context one plans to create when teaching a particular text, and by teaching all the assigned texts as a group, one can assuage any concerns parents might have about any ‘hidden agenda,’” Fanetti wrote. “By opening the curriculum and the classroom to her or his students’ parents, a teacher can minimize any sense of disenfranchisement that is so often the root of most parental protests.”

Teachers, what do you think about books and censorship? How do you navigate sensitivities over materials in the classroom?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.