Teaching controversial texts

This post originally published on ednewscolorado.com.

Early in my teaching career, a parent responded negatively to , Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, a WWI novel read by my class.

While I own that not all of my teaching strategies with this book were spectacular, I learned a great deal from this process about how to teach the book differently and alleviate the concerns that were raised. I knew I had room for growth. Unfortunately, neither the student nor the mother ever read the whole book, which meant that there was no opportunity for shared reflection and change.

I am now in my tenth year of teaching and I have learned that books like Johnny get challenged all the time. Books like Beloved, The Kite Runner, Native Son, Speak, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and countless others have sparked debates in my building and other high schools similar to mine. Even our excerpted readings from The Bible in our classical studies classes have been questioned.

As I have heard the grumblings on all sides of the rumor mill about book challenges, I am left with questions: Where is the balance? How can I as a teacher ensure that I am providing students with a rigorous, compelling curriculum that is also acceptable to a diverse community?

The Common Core State Standards require texts with higher complexity for language arts classrooms. We are being asked to help students learn how to analyze and apply information in a variety of ways. As we select books of appropriate difficulty that are both engaging and applicable, we will be reading fiction with mature themes, which often also include controversial scenes.

When I teach Johnny, I ask the students to consider the perspective of the author—a man who lived through two world wars and questioned what is worth fighting for. I want my students to think about those things because someday they may be called upon to answer similar questions themselves. Growing up is a challenging thing to do—it is our job as educators to provide opportunities for students to learn ways to navigate this process.

To me this makes the question of balance seem miniscule compared to the question of value. What is the value of teaching literature in the high school classroom? And can we afford not to?

The truth is that I can’t be both parent and teacher to my students and that isn’t my desire. My students desperately need their parents to engage with their educational experiences.  Students need to be able to consider the difficult themes and dialogues that begin in the classroom, discussing these ideas with their families through the lens and filters of the home. It is important to teach students values and it is inappropriate for me to teach them mine. My job is to offer a rich assortment of texts and ideas to interact with so that students can decide what they will believe and how they will act when they are no longer in my classroom. Additionally, I am teaching them analytical and critical thinking skills so that they can make and support their own decisions and beliefs.

I wish I had asked the parent who challenged Johnny to read the entire book so we could have an authentic conversation about the text as a whole. I know I could have learned something from her perspective and I hope she could have learned something from mine. Most importantly, though, her daughter would have learned much more by observing our interactions than any classroom novel could ever teach. By watching her teacher and parent work in partnership, we could have created a model for her to mimic in future interactions with others.

That missed opportunity is not one I will soon forget. I will continue to put challenging books and ideas into the hands of my students; I will also work to continue to forge partnerships with their parents as we all seek what’s best for each student’s future.

The potential for shared reflection, growth and learning will always be a reality in my classroom. And I hope I will always have willing partners to take advantage of those realities.

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