What to Do when a Parent Wants to Censor Teach Literature

On December 13, 1993, Superintendent Ron Wimmer ordered the book Annie on My Mind, a novel about two young women who meet at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, fall in love, and struggle with declaring their homosexuality to friends and family, to be removed from the high school library after a parental complaint. He said that he made the decision to avoid controversy, but instead sparked a legal battle. The case was settled in 1995 in the federal courts in favor of Annie on My Mind because it was removed due to the superintendent’s disagreement with the ideas shared in the book, not because of any lack of educational merit. It was ruled that banning the book was an “unconstitutional attempt to Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'” (Miner 2).

In the fall of 1997, Robert Lipsyte’s highly praised novel, One Fat Summer, was removed from the school reading list in Levittown, Long Island because of a parental complaint about her son reading the novel in class. The complaint was initially considered by a faculty committee created to address these parental concerns, but the book was found “realistic and not sensational, and that it contained important messages about maturity that were appropriate for young teenagers” (Bertin, 1). This decision was overruled by the superintendent, who decided that the book served no intellectual purpose. This situation, also, led to a legal battle that came out in favor of the novel.

These two skirmishes in the battle of censorship have one thing in common, initial parental complaint or concern. Many books are banned, or considered for banning, because a parent came forth with a concern about the subject matter addressed in the novel. As a future teacher, I am most afraid of handling these parental concerns, which is why I decided to educate myself on how to handle them. Most issues of censorship start with parents, which is where, as teachers, we need to focus our attention. By seeking to understand parental concerns and having planned methods for addressing those concerns, we can teach effectively with the cooperation of everyone involved in the educational process, allowing us to accomplish great things with our students. Only through understanding can these issues be cut off before they become full blown legal battles that cost a lot of time, money, and trust to be lost. Once a teacher tries to understand a parent, then a bond of mutual respect and trust can be reached and arrangements befitting to both parties can be made.

Understanding Parental Concerns

In order to understand how to head off the legal battles, we must first understand parental concern. Many teachers are more inclined to think horribly of parents and think that they are right-wing, conservative sheep buying into the realm of main stream censorship without ever reading or seeking to understand the book in question. Authors like Judy Blume state that “the gate is open so wide that some parents believe they have the right to demand immediate removal of any book for any reason from school or classroom libraries” (“Is Harry Potter Evil?”). It’s easy to fall into that frame of mind and in many cases it may be true. There are people who are out there to take control and ban every book that shows the least bit of controversy, but then there’s the rest of the population. Most parents are trying their best to raise a child with good values and morals in an often tumultuous society. According to Donelson and Nilsen, “Parents who are worried about the moral climate facing their children are painfully aware that they have little power to change the material on television, and they cannot successfully fight the movies offered by local theaters or do away with local Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½adult’ bookstores. Whom, then, can they fight? What can they change? An easy answer is to go to school and protect at least that little corner of their children’s lives” (363). Many parents feel powerless in this world and school is the only refuge that they have left in voicing their opinions. They show concern about books that conflict with their ideas of sexuality, morality, religion, etc., as seen through the American Library Associations “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-2000.” The majority of these books make no sense to a literary minded individual, but to a parent who doesn’t understand the content, these ideas are threats to their way of raising their children. If we can understand this and try to view a book through a parent’s eyes, we may be able to stop a situation before it starts.

It is also a good idea to take into account the stigma based around high school English teachers. Some parents may have a difficult time communicating with teachers because they’ve had bad experiences in the past. Many adults may not have fond memories of the English teachers they had in high school and so this could put them on edge. We may not be Mr. Thompson who failed that parent in ninth grade English, but to that parent, we could possibly have the same pompous characteristics that some parents think all teachers have. Parents also worry about being talked down to by a much younger teacher and may wonder if their concerns will be taken seriously or not. Taking these concerns and attitudes into consideration, Donelson and Nilson suggest that “educators need to be considerate and reasonable and to listen more than they talk, at least for the first few minutes. Once objectors calm down and recognize that the teacher might possibly be human, then the educator may learn what is really troubling the parents” (361). If a teacher only stops to listen and understand, then the problems will be much easier to solve without leading to a bigger issue.

Preparing for Parental Concern

Preparation is an important part of preventing a censorship battle. A teacher who is prepared to address concern over what they teach is less likely to offend a parent and more likely to win a parent over to a more open point of view. It is important to have an idea as to what we are going to teach and why we are going to teach it. Teachers should be able to justify what they teach. Donelson and Nilsen have outline some great steps to preparation before a parental concern arrives.

The first thing that Donelson and Nilsen suggest is that teachers should “develop clear and succinct statements, devoid of any educational or literary jargon, on why they teach literature or stock books” (391). Having readily available statements about teaching material allows parents to feel as though they are informed. It gives the justification for your choices and allows a parent a window into your mind. This can help clear up confusion as to why a book was chosen, even if it may have controversial subject matter or content. Teachers should make these statements available for students to take home. I plan on having my students take descriptions home at the beginning of the class for parents to peruse, so that parents can be informed and voice any concerns in advance. With these statements teachers should extend and open invitation for the parents to come forward with their concerns either in a personal meeting or verbal communication. I think this is an important way in which to keep in contact with the parents and come to arrangements if needed.

Another good step that Donelson and Nilsen suggest is to make available how we make the book selection. This, again, will help a parent see into the mind of a teacher and feel as though they understand the process. Many parents feel as though these books are chosen at random and for no reason. With this information in hand parents may feel a bit more educated about the process. This information will clear up some parental confusion that may prevent a confrontation (391).

Another important step to prevention of battles with parents over their children’s literary education is to come up with definite procedures to handle concerns. Donelson and Nilsen suggest making a set form for parents with complaints to fill out. This gives a more formal approach to their concerns. Teachers should also work with the school and develop committees and school wide procedures to address and review parent’s concerns over the curriculum. This will help a parent feel as though their concerns will be taken seriously and not be just pushed aside and ignored. All decisions should be made in an educated manner and be fully accessible to parents as well. As stated earlier, parents feel powerless in so many aspects of their children’s lives, having a defined procedure for concerns, should a parent choose to use it, will help them feel as though they have a little bit more control (391).

To add to Donelson and Nilsen’s suggestions, I also think that not only should we prepare a formal process, we should also prepare alternative assignments, if possible, or ways in which a student can make up credit, should a parental objection be found valid. It is important to have options whenever possible so that we can work with parents. The first step will always be to try to win the parent over to the curriculum as it is, but in the eventuality that they don’t, the student should not be punished for parental concern. Some allowances should be made. Preparation, again, is the key to prevention of a censorship case.

Conclusion

As a blossoming teacher, dealing with parental concern over my teaching material scares me. I have visions of screaming parents who object to my assignments and me having little power to take control. Rather than allow this fear to make me play it safe as a teacher and teach only the same old, tame literature, I chose to become informed and come up with a plan to prevent such confrontations. The key to any prevention of censorship battles is to encourage understanding. By giving parents all the information they need to make an educated decision, teachers promote this understanding and are less likely to run into problems. There will always be parental concerns, but if you take steps to alleviate as many of them as you can, then it will not be a battle, but a compromise in a respectful working relationship and ultimately, our students will benefit.

Bibliography

American Library Association. “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” ALA.org. This gives a great idea about what has been banned in the past decade. With this list you can see trends that show parental concern about certain subjects like race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Bertin, Joan E. “Don’t Cave in to Book Banners.” Censorship News Online. Issue #67, Fall 1997. www.ncac.org. This article gives information on the legal battle for the book One Fat Summer and gives great reasons for why it is valuable from an educational standpoint.

Blume, Judy. “Is Harry Potter Evil?” New York Times. October 22,1999. This arcticle addresses parental concerns over the popular book Harry Potter, and addresses how its banning in several schools gives parents the right to demand the removal of anything from a school.

Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 7th ed. Boston, MA. Pearson Education, Inc. This book has great information on censorship and ideas on how to work with parents in preventing legal battles.

Minor, Barbara. “Reading, Writing, and Censorship: When Reading Good Books Can Get Schools in Trouble,” Rethinking Schools Online. Volume 12, No. 3-Spring 1998. This article provides information on several court cases involving censorship and gives a good information on the types of censorship and who is involved.

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