Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Banning Books Won’t Make Students Safer

Rather than shielding children from difficult content, adults must address their own discomfort
By Miriam Plotinsky — February 02, 2022 4 min read
Conceptual photo illustration of hands reaching for a floating book.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Students Write Their Way to Hope, Courage: Read Their Poems
Five poems from students in Los Angeles and Miami, written to make sense of difficult times.
2 min read
Conceptual image of poetry.
Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: Digital VisionVectors, E+, Pateresca/iStock)
Reading & Literacy ‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify to the Power of Poetry
For National Poetry Month, see how teachers and students are exploring the art form.
5 min read
In a Wednesday, April 19, 2017 photo, Eric Charles, left, smiles after performing his poem, "Goodbye to High School Football," for classmates at Sharpstown High School in Houston. Charles compared the rush of performing to the emotions he felt during a football game. Charles had played football since young age, and he planned to play at an elite level in college. However, after injuring his left knee a second time, he found he enjoyed poetry and writing. "That's the glory in me getting hurt," he said.
Eric Charles, left, smiles after performing his poem, "Goodbye to High School Football" for classmates at Sharpstown High School in Houston in 2017. For some students and their teachers, studying and writing poetry has been transformative amid the losses of the pandemic and the wrenching national dialogue about racial justice.
Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP
Reading & Literacy What the 'Science of Reading' Should Look Like for English-Learners. It's Not Settled
ELLs need additional supports for, and bring different strengths to, early reading instruction, experts say.
10 min read
Sarah Mireles kneels down to work on reading skills with students at Maplewood Elementary in Greeley, Colo., in January of 2018.
Sarah Mireles kneels down to work with Abdigani Hussein, 10, left, and Muhammod Amanullah, 10, during class on at Maplewood Elementary in Greeley, Colo., on Jan. 30, 2018. (Joshua Polson/The Daily Tribune via AP)
Joshua Polson/The Daily Tribune via AP