Rebecca Deurlein on Banned Books and the Freedom to Read

Photo of Rebecca Deurlein, author of Teenagers 101The following is a guest post from Rebecca Deurlein, author of Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Child Succeed, sharing an English teacher’s perspective on assigning and teaching banned books.

In honor of Banned Books Week,  I have two questions for you:

1.Should parents of teens fight school systems on their selection of books taught in the classroom?

2. Are we helping or hurting our kids by sheltering them from certain books that contain language or content we find offensive?

I’ve done the math, and in my 17 years of teaching, at 8 different novels a year, many times changing those books from year to year, I’ve taught in the ballpark of 85 books in my lifetime. Of those 85, I’d say about five have been questioned by a parent or two, which, considering the thousands of students I’ve taught, is barely worth mentioning.

Except it is.

I’m one teacher out of tens of thousands, some of whom face a barrage of questions and conferences and attacks that make them all want to teach Great Expectations and be done with it. After so many fights to avoid censorship, teachers begin to wonder why they bother trying to engage students in contemporary literature that actually relates to their students’ lives. And that’s a problem. We’re trying to teach kids to love reading because reading opens up worlds most kids will never experience. It exposes them to tragedy, love, romance, adventure, imaginative sci-fi and wizardry that makes a small boy powerful. It teaches them about history and derogatory terms meant to subjugate minorities so kids understand, fully, why we no longer use those terms. It teaches them about horrific ethnic cleansing led by people incapable of thinking outside their leader’s mind. It introduces them to other teenagers whose stories vocally reflect students’ silent struggles.

If you’re a parent, think long and hard about why you would keep a specific book out of your kids’ hands. Of course you want to protect your kids and maintain their youth for as long as possible, but are you preparing them for adult life by keeping them in denial about its realities? And are your kids as innocent as you think? I have listened to kids drop the F-bomb in rapid succession while walking the school halls, and then sat in a meeting while that very kid’s parents fought a novel of great literary value because it contained some mild profanity. Think about what your kids are exposed to on a daily basis and ask yourself if reading a novel about the holocaust, or a slave who befriends a white boy, or a mentally challenged man and his migrant worker caregiver, is really where your concern should lie.

I love when parents are involved in their children’s education. I especially love when parents read school-assigned books with their kids so they can discuss the stories and their implications. As a parent, you have every right to know exactly what your child is being taught at school. But try to remember that school officials go through a lengthy process to choose books that have literary worth, are appropriate, and stretch students’ minds. We teachers aren’t out to corrupt your kids. We’re out to turn them into higher-level thinkers who may not agree with all they see, but at least have enough exposure to the real world to be able to speak intelligently about it.

Jacket image, Teenagers 101 by Rebecca Deurlein, Ed.D.Rebecca Deurlein, Ed.D. has taught in school systems around the country. She has a doctoral degree in educational leadership and has raised two children of her own. She holds a doctorate in education and has spent her lifetime researching teen behavior and learning strategies. She specializes in understanding and correcting behavior issues and motivating children to higher levels of critical thinking.

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