Thursday, September 29, 2011

Oregon Banned Book Week continues: The Batocchio round-up

It's Thursday of Banned Book Week in Oregon, the annual event organized by the Oregon ACLU and the Oregon Library Association.

Yesterday's post mused about the impulse to ban a Shel Silverstein book of children's poetry based in part on one particular poem that's about as subversive toward the existing social order as Eddie Haskel.

And it's really children's literature – or, often more accurately, children's access to literature – that's at stake in most efforts to ban books. That's the central theme of Batoccio's review of the year in banned books at The Vagabond Scholar.

If you imagine that freedom to read is someone else's problem, this is your must-read for the day.

Batoccio looks, in particular, at two books that had a rough time of it getting into the classroom last year: Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World” (a perennial target of the ban-the-book crowd) and Sherman Alexie's “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” (a newcomer to the ire of book-banners). About the latter author:
This may come as a shock to some people, but many teenagers are not the most, um, diligent students. This doesn't mean they're necessarily bad kids, but they've got a great deal going on. Many are battling a cocktail of hormones (and sometimes medications, prescribed or otherwise), they're testing boundaries, they're trying out identities and what it means to be a young adult, and they're usually more intrigued or tormented over their social lives or lack thereof than anything going on in class. In their eyes at least, their lives can be dramatic and chaotic. Many are capable of depth and insight that would shock a number of adults, and they can connect powerfully, deeply and personally with certain works of art. They can make the classroom a lively, wonderful and impressive place. However, it can be a battle to get them to that state, to win and keep their attention.

Winning that attention sometimes requires an "by any means necessary" approach. The trick is often to meet students where they are Рthen take them someplace else. For instance, show a cool film clip for an opening activity, have students discuss its dynamics and theme, and then discuss how it connects to last night's Shakespeare reading, which suddenly doesn't feel quite so foreign. Many older teenagers try to adopt an air of studied disaffection and worldly cynicism, and in some areas, the teen culture dictates that school or even learning itself just ain't cool. However, it is possible to get teenagers to show passion and enjoy themselves in the classroom. Provocative material helps (age-appropriate, of course). I had a colleague who routinely used "A Modest Proposal" in classes, and would occasionally get students who were appalled because they took it seriously. The piece always lead to lively discussions. Introductory material the students connect with also helps, and anything perceived to be somewhat risqu̩ or forbidden (such as a banned or challenged book) can seem adult and enticing. Now, obviously, educators have to pick age-appropriate material, but teachers have always discussed such matters. In any case, when it comes to teenagers, teachers may fare better selling a classic through its scandalous rep than its position in the canon. (Hey, if it gets them to actually read the book and remember some of it later, it's energy well spent.)

In my case, I taught one Alexie story to 12th graders. It was the start of the year, and the other section teacher and I wanted to grab the students' attention, so we picked three well-written, diverse and somewhat provocative short stories. The kids wound up having a very strong (positive) reaction to the Alexie piece, "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation." (It's still my personal favorite from the book.)
The book drew the concerned attention of one parent (part of the problem, Batoccio diplomatically says, was that the book “doesn't explicitly say that drugs are bad.”). Unlike a lot of stories that begin like this, things actually turned out pretty well in this incident.

But that feels like the exception to the rule. (Don't miss the reason that Alexie's book was pulled from the classroom in one Oregon school!)

Still, it's hard to argue with Batocchio's bottom line:
Ultimately, good teaching and parenting has to involve preparing teenagers to deal with the world rather than denying to them that it exists. Reading a good book is a joy that should not be denied anybody, and reading some works, particularly in the case of students tackling difficult or complex ones, can be a much richer, more meaningful experience in a good classroom. (Interested parents can even sit in.)
Remember to stop by your local public library and pick up a bright yellow “I read banned books” button.

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