A few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, the board of education for the McMinn County, Tenn., school district banned Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Alan Spiegelman from the curriculum. Among the reasons cited for censoring this great work of literature were profanity, nudity, and violence. While members of the school board openly acknowledged that kids are exposed to highly objectionable scenes in television shows or in daily news (and just as much profanity), they declared this graphic novel to be unworthy of continued use to teach the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Their decision was wrong on multiple levels. Every time someone slams a door on a work of literature that elicits a strong emotional response, children slide a little further into ignorance.
Like most lifelong educators, I strenuously object to book censorship. Part of my job as an instructional specialist in secondary English/language arts is to evaluate books that are being proposed for inclusion in the curriculum. I then collaborate with other specialists and teachers to determine how the texts under discussion fit into core-content standards, as well as how appropriately the selections apply to the identified age group. We review both informational and literary texts for the standards they include and match them to student-learning outcomes.
Maus, for example, provides a clear opportunity for 8th grade students to achieve a common-core literacy standard in which they are asked to “evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.” As a graphic novel that portrays people in the form of animals, Maus teaches middle school students about a complex subject in an accessible and developmentally appropriate way.
Furthermore, graphic novels, in general, are invaluable gateways to literacy for growing readers, offering a visual component to scaffold students’ language development and increase enthusiasm for reading challenging texts.
Examining texts for their appropriateness is not a job that noneducators are trained to do. Anyone without classroom experience, which requires a deep-seated knowledge of how teaching a text helps students accomplish a specific learning outcome, cannot speak to its instructional purpose. Instead, community members or school board officials who evaluate texts resort to guesswork to figure out if what they are reading (or skimming, in many cases) seems problematic. Their conclusions are based on intuition, not information. This inexact process leads to widespread and inappropriate censorship and explains why teachers usually vehemently oppose banning books.
While book banning is often accompanied by assertions about protecting children, learning cannot always be frictionless. Growth demands productive struggle. In other words, adults must address their own discomfort with exposing students to difficult concepts for the sake of learning. With the skillful guidance of teachers, students will be empowered to approach these complex topics at the right time and with appropriate context.
While book banning is often accompanied by assertions about protecting children, learning cannot always be frictionless.
Of course, it can be difficult to gauge which texts fit which grades. My son, for example, just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird in his 8th grade English class. While he can understand the book, my own experience as an English teacher and ELA specialist informs my belief that he would benefit more from the book when he has gained more maturity in a year or two. This belief is not simply my opinion; it is borne out by years of teaching the book in different situations to different age groups and by my knowledge of the grade-level core-content standards that apply most relevantly to the text.
However, I would not go so far as to move toward censoring the book for that age group. (Nor do I, as his parent, object to him reading it.) Instead, as an educator, my job is to find points of access for students to make their own meaning of the text. We should trust all English teachers to do the same.
When books are censored, teachers take it personally. We stand in solidarity with authors who put difficult ideas out into the world in the most artistic way possible so that the rest of us can learn. Nothing is more backward than showing contempt for the mantra of “never again” by leaving children in darkness and ignorance during the week of Holocaust remembrance.
No matter what we teach in schools, students will struggle and suffer. Until people allow teachers to help students face hard truths in safe spaces, we will remain doomed to repeat the same mistakes, despite history’s endless warnings. Students in McMinn County, Tenn., have been dealt a huge disservice; let us hope they find their own way to Maus and the brilliant work of Spiegelman.