Monday, February 28, 2011

A Book-Banning Discussion

I walk into the staff meeting after a particularly stressful day to see a teacher with a copy of a Common Sense book review.  To give you some history, the Common Sense organization has been criticized in the past for some overly conservative views on media.  Just upon seeing this review made my blood pressure sky-rocket.  I automatically assumed that this teacher was gearing up for a good-ole-fashioned book banning.  And, working in a district that loves to ban, (birthdays, food, the internet) I took this symbolic review personally. 

I then made some snap comments that I later regretted, as I realized the motivations of this teacher were solely based on assumption.  The next day, I first apologized for leaving the conversation at, “It’s a good thing it’s not up to you to censor.” 

Now, after discussing the matter more, I did find out that this teacher does, in fact, believe that no fourth or fifth grader should be reading the book The Hunger Games.  There’s no question, it’s a controversial subject matter.  24 kids from 12-18 are placed into an outdoor area, the winner is the last one alive.  I believe that many- not all, students of this age stand to benefit tremendously from the message of the book.  In fact, the author geared her work towards middle-grade readers because she feels that by the time kids read books that deal with situational ethics and war, it’s usually too late.  They don’t begin to grapple with these heavy concepts until they’re 15 or 16 and in a matter of a couple years, can enlist in the military. 

Over the next few weeks, other teachers began to take notice of the book; reading it and agreeing that it should not be for our age group.  The discussion then popped up on a Facebook page, where I again, reacting on emotion, reinforced that it isn’t their decision to make. 

After reading the chapter on “Seeing” my approach completely altered (not that I have any issues downloading, just the opposite, I was having issues advocating rather than inquiring.  The timing was perfect, as we were in the heat of the argument.  I told my colleague that I needed to shift my approach, and I began to inquire into her motivation.  I assured her that it wasn’t a set up first because after coming off brash, I would be skeptical. 

I rephrased what I thought I was hearing from her, “So, I understand that you don’t believe any of our students should be exposed to this material.  Where do you see us moving to as a school community?”  That question was met with a considerable amount of posturing, “It’s labeled a teen read, no student under 13 should be exposed to it before that age…  developmentally students our age… etc. 

Concentration on moving to the bystander role, I tried to suspend my belief that age is an arbitrary number.  And when I retorted, I expressed that I would in no way ask of her to promote material she didn’t feel comfortable with and then further inquired about why she felt it was her responsibility to limit the topics I feel comfortable working with my students on. 

It was then that she crystallized her intent.  She was merely expressing her views and that she would never seek to dictate my own choices for my students.

Now, I don’t buy that at all but that’s beside the point.  I think that once I came at the issue from a more measured and inquisitive standpoint, she realized she had been just as polarizing. 

There is no question in my mind that once I employed the Kantor 4 player model, the conversation became productive.  At times I expressed why I wanted to move in the direction of my beliefs.  At times I followed and listened, agreeing that parents have every right to oversee what their kids read.   And at times, I opposed stating the examples of the powerfully deep conversations I’ve had with students regarding the subject matter in the book.  But most importantly, throughout the conversation I was able to suspend my position in order to facilitate a productive conversation. 

This morning in the hallway before school, I was met with a smile and, “Hey, great discussion!”  What could be better?

Based on all the previous discussion I had with my students who have read The Hunger Games, I knew they ascertained the deeper meaning of the violence depicted with in the book.  But, the discussion with my colleague gave me a wonderful new idea…

So I pulled the group of students who read the book and put it out to them.  “Some people don’t believe a student your age should be reading this book, why do you think that is?  How do you feel about that stance?  Why do you believe kids your age should be allowed to read Hunger Games?”  All of their responses confirmed every bit of what I assumed to be true.  In three years of working with that text, that was by far the most interesting discussion I’ve had yet.  

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