Category Archives: Intellectual Freedom

#NCTEchat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature

Hosted by: Jim Brooks, @TeachGoodThings


#nctechat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature Feb. 19 8pm ET

Join us for a lively conversation about the challenging texts we choose to use in the classroom. Here are the questions we’ll discuss:

Q1 How do you select the texts you teach your students?

Q2 When is a text “controversial”?

Q3 What strategies have you found useful for exploring these texts in class?

Q4 How have you seen students benefit from grappling with controversial texts?

Q5 What supports do you find you need to teach such texts well?

Q6 How do you talk with parents / guardians / admin about the texts you use in class?

Q7 What’s one text that you’d like to learn how to teach and why?

Jim Brooks, host of #NCTEchat "Teaching Controversial Works of Literature" Jim Brooks is the language arts department chair at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, NC.  Among his many teaching accolades, he was the 2008 recipient of the NCTE Media Literacy Award.

Freedom for Student Press

Discussion of press rights has been much in the news of late. Journalists, even to some extent student journalists, are protected by the First Amendment of the United States:


Good journalists, of course, investigate because they want to find the underlying cause of an issue. For student journalists, particularly, this has sometimes been a problem.

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), whose mission is

“to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience…”

explains student journalists’ rights in this video:

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC)  advocates for student journalists

Students want to be heard on the social and political issues, including issues of local school policy, directly affecting their lives….Students learn journalism best under a light touch of guidance from a well-trained adviser, not the heavy hand of government “spin control.” Every K-12 student should have the benefit of a sensible free-expression policy modeled on the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, protecting the right to engage in lawful, non-disruptive speech.

NCTE supports press freedom for student journalists as well through the:

NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write,
Resolution on Students’ Right of Expression, and, if you ratify it,
• A new NCTE Resolution on Legislation to Protect the Rights of Student Journalists

Where Is the Understanding?

booksSigh! I just finished a very long letter to the Virginia State Board of Education. I told them why it’s a bad idea to mandate that school boards have their teachers send out annually a list of course texts annotated with the words “sexually explicit” when they or someone, somehow feels a text merits this description .

So, if the Proposed Amendments to the Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions (8VAC 20-720) Regarding Use of Sexually Explicit Instructional Materials (Proposed Stage)  pass,  the event on page 75  of a text where the two characters fondle one another or on pages 111-113 where the mother gives birth or the scene in which one character thinks about what he and another might do but decides not to follow through—all these and more would be candidates for the “sexually explicit” label—candidates if an individual school board defined them as such.

NCTE has been involved in arguing against this policy since 2013 when it was first introduced in a State Board public forum, then again last spring when it became HB516 and was vetoed by the Governor, again  last fall when it was incorporated in the state accreditation standards, and now when it is proposed as amendments into the school board regulations.

How can we help parents, guardians, and policy makers understand three things?

Text selection is an educator’s job.

Selecting materials requires in-depth knowledge: not just of students’ backgrounds and learning experiences, but also of their abilities and interests; not just of educational objectives, but of the best practices and range and quality of materials for meeting them; not just of the particular work being considered, but of its place within the medium, genre, epoch, etc., it represents.
NCTE’s Guidelines for the Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs

Labeling books “sexually explicit,” or anything else for that matter, is a blatant form of red-flagging

a “practice [that] reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements — those that some individuals may find objectionable — rather than viewing the work as a whole.”

A popular entertainment rating system like the MPAA ratings, which by the Motion Picture Association’s own admission do not rate educational value, is not an appropriate system for rating texts we use in schools.

Where is the understanding that literature is so much more than the sum of its parts, that as one Kansas Director of Instruction noted,

“There is a lesson in each and every book, especially in the hands of a gifted teacher”?

Doctor’s Orders: Have Your Children Read These Banned Books

Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University, Perri Klass, writes a column called “The Checkup” for The New York Times. Usually she writes about medical things like coughs and measles and kids who are night owls. But this week she wrote about “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read“!

While there are parents out there trying to save children from books with accurate descriptions of body parts, books with kids who behave like kids, or stories about LGBTQ families or magical places like Hogwarts, Klass points out,

convention bookmark“In fact, banned books lists [e.g.  the ALA list of frequently challenged children’s books the and University of Illinois list] can be a great resource for parents looking for books that teach kids about the world and themselves.

“When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling…

“As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because, that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom and human right of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.”

Saving Children from “Dangerous Freedoms”

nat-hentoff“If there is a basic, fundamental engine that makes this peculiar experiment, constitutional democracy – I’m quoting Jefferson – work, it’s that we all have a right to free speech no matter how offensive.”           –Nat Hentoff

We lost a great one Saturday when Nat Hentoff died.

As NPR’s Arts Desk Editor Tom Cole remembers,  “For writer and historian Nat Hentoff, it was all about freedom in the jazz he loved and the First Amendment he fiercely defended.”

Author of “more than 35 books—novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects…He relished the role of the provocateur, defending the right of people to say and write whatever they wanted…” (The New York Times)

thedaytheycametoarrestthebookAmong those books was the YA novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, which Hentoff wrote in 1982. It’s about a censorship challenge to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at fictitious George Mason High School.

Frighteningly, 35 years later the challenge, the challengers, and the goals of the challengers could have come verbatim from any a complaint lodged recently about Huck Finn and even just last year in Accomack, Virginia.

The challenger in The Day, is concerned about the language in Huck Finn—the “N-word”—and points to a specific passage on page 193. This parent goes on to say he doesn’t want any child to read the book which he insists must be taken out of the curriculum and the library or the school will be faced with a “mobilization of a good many parents besides myself.” (p.28)

The history teacher who assigned the book describes the censors that had been coming around the school for several years as,

“The standard brands. Parents who didn’t want their children reading about sex or being exposed to words they weren’t allowed to use at home. No problem there, of course, so long as they wanted to prevent only their own kids from reading those books. You’d just give the kid something else. But some of the parents wanted to save every single child in the school from those books.”

“Saving” children, saving the world, from the freedoms to read and write and speak and think for themselves—what some may call “dangerous freedoms”—is the antithesis of Nat Hentoff’s support for the First Amendment. Allowing everyone those “dangerous freedoms” is, as he says, the basis of our democracy.