A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week. Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day. I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web. In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and Lord of the Flies. The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books. And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of John Green ‘s books.
The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned. It’s just crazy. But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book. Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship. And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries. But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).
“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.
“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.
“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.
According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment. The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected. This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.
I realize that censorship is a slippery slope. At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear. If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever? Censorship is such a loaded word. It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information. But what we are really talking about is limits. And don’t schools limit kids already? Students are not allowed to curse in school. They cannot make racially insensitive statements. They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel. When, where, and how they can pray is restricted. And most schools have some form of a dress code in place. All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?
Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid. Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged. Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?
Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs. Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books. Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority. That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm. I get it. Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.
Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency? That’s all I’m asking for. A standard of decency. Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to? Even the film industry does that much. How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds. It’s radical, I know.
It might not be easy. Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution. But the alternative is no standard of decency. To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.
Disclaimer: This is in no way a condemnation of librarians. My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature. We are grateful to have them.
Image credits in order of appearance…
Recently I came across this article by Anthony Esolen in Crisis magazine. I was impressed with the author’s impassioned explanation of why we read to children. He shares with us a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, in which Roosevelt thanks Grahame for his delightful book. And that is the point. The book is a delight to the Roosevelt children and even to the president himself – which is, of course, exactly what a book should be. When my children were small, I sought out books that would be a pleasure to read, not only for them, but for me as well. That weeded out a lot of what early 20th century educator, Charlotte Mason called twaddle. However, we were left with a treasury of wonderful works of beautiful literature. Fortunately, the list of Common Core Exemplar Texts contains some of these great works (for the paltry 30% of fictional reading the standard allows).
Unfortunately, the CC approach to reading will likely make reading these great literary works a soul-sucking drudgery. Take for example the 3rd grade standards. They seem fairly simple and age-appropriate. Children are expected to recount stories and key detail of stories from a variety of genres and cultures. Among other things, they are expected to articulate the central idea or moral of a work and to describe characters and their actions. All of this sounds like it could be achieved by an engaging reading followed by a lively discussion and maybe some fun activities. But nooooooo. Here’s an exerpt from the website Achieve the Core. This is the objective for a 3rd grade (3rd grade!!!) lesson on Grimm’s The Fisherman and his Wife.
Learning Objective: The goal of this five-day exemplar is to explicitly model the process of searching for and interpreting intra-textual connections. In this lesson sequence, the teacher poses an analytic focusing question and then guides students in gathering and interpreting evidence from the text in order to come to a deeper understanding of the story. Simple word play and art activities give students practice in closely attending to language and word choice, and in visualizing and recording their interpretations. Discussion and a short writing exercise help students to synthesize what they have learned.
How’s that for psuedo-sophisticated language! But wait! There’s more! After five days of reading and re-reading the story and picking it apart to make intra-textual connections, students are asked to complete a writing assignment.
Writing Task: As a culminating activity, students synthesize their findings in an opinion paragraph, using specific references to the text. In this lesson, writing helps the children to organize and make sense of their thinking. For most third graders, writing is a relatively new tool for processing thought and one they will need to learn to use. Therefore, this task is highly guided and instructional, providing a model that can be used more independently on subsequent writing tasks.
Fun huh? I’m not suggesting that school children not be held in some way accountable for what they’ve read. But since 70% of their reading is what the CC calls “informational texts,” one would hope that what little fiction they are allowed not be ruined over-intellectualization and joy-killing assignments.
As Esolen so brilliantly points out, the whole point of reading should be for pleasure. When we rob children of that pleasure, we kill their love of reading. And when we kill their love of reading, any further attempts to encourage what Common Core calls a “close reading” will be fruitless. By high school, their eyes will glaze over, and they will see very little point in Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, or any of it. I know this because I see it now. Of course the current group of high school students wasn’t raised on Common Core, but they were No Child Left Behind kids. And where NCLB perhaps watered down their readings, the CCS hyper-intelleculizes them. Different standards, different vocabulary, different texts, but in the end, both NCLB and the CCS have the same goal – to create good test takers. The best way to insure children will score well on the test is to train them to get the right answer. Sadly, this training often comes at the expense of a greater outcome – a love of stories.
So in a perfect, untested, non data-driven world, what would else could children gain from stories besides pleasure? Well, nothing if pleasure is lost, but children, and people in general, who love books are graced with a world of gifts.
A LOVE OF LANGUAGE
Children who read The Jabberwocky or hear a heartfelt reading of it might not be able to tell you what a stanza is or identify the rhyme scheme, but they know that it is fun to say jubjub bird. They will shout, “Calhooh Callay Frabjous the day!” They will experience the joy of nonsense and the fun of things that mean nothing but sound funny. In time, when they write they will naturally want to use language that captures the imagination and delights the senses. And they will know how.
On the other hand children who study The Jabberwocky are apt to say things like, “This is stupid.” “This doesn’t even make sense.” “What’s the point of this, anyway?” How sad.
I never set out to teach my children about bull fighting in Madrid or about the life on the Yangtze River, but thanks to Ferdinand and Ping, they not only learned about these things, they wanted to know more about them. Johnny Tremain introduced them to our founding fathers, and Laura and Mary showed them what it was like to live off the land. Funny, we never did a single worksheet or critiqued a single passage.
Fairies. Knights. Dragon. Talking pigs. Little boys who never grow up. Little girls who grow to be the size of a house. Flying monkeys. Giants. Castles. Worlds of Ice. Wicked queens. Christmas Ghosts. Is there really anything Common Core could or should add to these wonders to make books any sweeter? Of course not.
I haven’t gathered any data to prove it, but I think I could walk into any 1st grade classroom at story time, and tell you, with a startling degree of accuracy, which children have been read to since birth and which have not. I could do it again in 10th grade.
Anyone who has ever been sucked into a story knows what it is to cheer with our heroes’ victories and cry at their defeats. I earnestly hope our school children aren’t so busy picking apart the “texts” that they don’t have time to make friends with the characters.
I have always read to my children and will continue to do so as long as they’ll let me. I won’t test them or require them to defend their opinions of a story in writing (although there is certainly a place for that in the upper grades). I will simply laugh with them and cry with them and wonder with them and pray that all children are given this same great pleasure in life – the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.
Welcome to Common Core Monday where each week we will take a look at a work of literature found in the Common Core Standards list of exemplar texts. Many of the works found on the list are beloved treasures from classic literature. Others, such as Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban and Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, raise serious questions about what kids are reading.
AUTHOR: Sandra Cisneros
GENRE: Short story
GRADE LEVEL RECOMMENDED: 6-8
Eleven is the kind of story that makes you remember exactly what it is like to be in the 5th grade – on your worst day in the 5th grade. It’s Rachel’s birthday, but she doesn’t feel eleven. She knows that inside she is still 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, ,3, 2, and 1… Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
So, on her birthday when her teacher, Mrs. Price, insists that, not only does Rachel own, but that she must also wear a ratty old sweater found in the coat closet, Rachel feels 3. And she cries in front of everyone like she is 3. Her birthday is ruined.
That’s it really. That is the basic plot of Eleven. It is a very simple yet very powerful story. It is powerful because Cisneros takes her readers back in time – back to a time when being forced to wear an ugly sweater in front of your entire class was unbearably humiliating. It is powerful because, through Mrs. Price, we see the devastating impact a seemingly meaningless and careless error can have on a child. Eleven is powerful because through Rachel, in only three short pages, we see that we are all eleven – at least sometimes.
My own daughters were not required to read Eleven in school, so I required it at home. Kids need stories like this one for two reasons. 1. It shows them that they arent’ the only ones who have felt 3 even when they were much older. 2. Eleven teaches empathy. We are allowed to glimpse inside someone else’s humiliation. We ache for Rachel.
Sometimes now when I look back on things that mortified me in middle school, I can laugh. The melodrama of it all is so funny. But every time I read Eleven, I cry. I cry even though I am 44. Because deep down I guess I’m also 43, 42, 41, 40,… well, you get the idea.
Note: To read Eleven, simply Google a free PDF copy of the story. You’ll be glad you did.
Recently my younger son was involved in what I thought was a minor incident at school. I don’t mind my child being punished, and I know school teachers, principals, and playground attendants aren’t perfect. I’m a teacher. We are human. Sometimes we come down too hard on a kid, or we let things go we shouldn’t have. So, what bother’s me about what happened with my child is not really that he got in big trouble over a small thing. That happens. What bothers me is what this incident says about society as a whole – because I know schools everywhere are cracking down on recess. I blogged about the whole thing over at Charming Farming, my hobby farm blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts on recess, rough housing, raising boys, and our societies attempt to tame it all.
Read my blog post about it here.