Looking for a fresh twist on a literature unit? For several years, I’ve been incorporating a banned books unit into my high school English curriculum. Why? For one, it allows me to implement choice reading. Also, it’s one of the most engaging units for my students. Whenever I can make reading engaging, I jump at the opportunity.
For good reason, teachers might be hesitant about mentioning “banned books” in the classroom. However, I think there’s a huge misconception when it comes to literature that’s been censored. It’s not just books like 50 Shades of Grey that have earned a bad rap. Many people might be surprised to learn about this list of censored texts:
- The Adventures of Captain Underpants – Banned for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey.
- Where’s Waldo? – Banned because in one of the pictures, the side of a female is exposed.
- Where the Sidewalk Ends – Banned for promoting cannibalism and for promoting that children break dishes.
- Little Red Riding Hood – Banned because Little Red Riding Hood was depicted as carrying a bottle of wine in her basket.
- The Diary of Anne Frank – Banned for certain “sexually offensive” passages and because it might be “depressing” for young readers.
- Lord of the Flies – Banned for being “demoralizing, in that it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Banned in the ’60s because its mushroom and hookah imagery reflected the drug culture of the era. Later, in the ’90s, it was banned in New Hampshire for promoting “sexual fantasies.” Chinese officials in the ’30s perceived a problem with the book’s depiction of talking animals, considering it “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”
- Fahrenheit 451 – Banned for anti-government advocacy.
- The Merriam Webster Dictionary – Banned for including the definition of oral sex.
- Where the Wild Things Are: Banned for traumatizing children with the thought that a mother as primary caregiver could send her child to bed without breakfast.
Every September, I look forward to Banned Books Week. I teach in a relatively conservative community. Banned books are not something I push my students to read with an agenda. Rather, I like to take the opportunity to educate students about literary censorship and intellectual freedom. These are new concepts for the majority of my freshmen. It’s so important to open their eyes to the fact that literary censorship happens across the world.
While banned books are a touchy subject for many, teachers can introduce them in a way that is culturally sensitive for any community. No matter what district you’re in, there are ways you can teach students about censorship to make them more well-rounded citizens. These lesson plan ideas would work for any time during the school year. I just like to capitalize on Banned Books Week to bring awareness that it even exists.
WAYS TO INCORPORATE LESSONS ON BANNED BOOKS
- Incorporate them as part of a genre study.
- Use them as options in literature circles, book clubs, or other independent reading programs.
- Have students read one and write an essay arguing whether or not it should be banned. Other possible essay topics: Do books have the power to sway beliefs and behavior? Do authors have a responsibility to write content that is clean and age-appropriate for young adult audiences?
- Debate whether or not books should be governed by the same type of rating system as books and movies.
- Ask students to research and explore literary censorship throughout history and across the world. They can jigsaw their findings.
- Students can interview school administrators, librarians, school board members, and parents to gather information about book banning and challenging in your district.
- Discuss censorship as you study classic literature that has been banned and challenged, including many of Shakespeare’s plays and famous novels like To Kill a Mockingbird.
- Have students explore their right to read as it relates to the First Amendment.
- Assign a web quest that allows students to research and explore various aspects of censorship.
- Complete a KWLS chart about banned books. You’ll be surprised at how very little your students actually know. Don’t have one? Try this.
TIPS FOR TREADING LIGHTLY WITH CENSORSHIP
When covering banned and challenged books in the classroom, especially in a conservative community, it’s helpful to ride the fence. Don’t take a stand for or against literary censorship. Instead, allow students to learn the facts and make their own decisions.
Involve parents. Keep them informed about your lessons and their importance. Ask them to provide a signature for the banned or challenged book their child wants to read. Keep in mind…most books have been banned or challenged, but people are often unaware of this fact. If you are asking a student to read a book because it has been censored, it’s important to gain parental permission.
Remember that everyone has different life experiences and backgrounds, which could make some students more sensitive to certain topics than others. In the past, I’ve asked students and their parents to fill out a survey in which I ask them if there are any topics they would prefer to avoid. Rarely do I get these requests, but they happen.
Be tasteful. While many banned and challenged books are harmless, there are others that truly are inappropriate for certain age groups. When literary censorship is covered in the classroom, teachers need to keep in mind that even high school students are impressionable and need adult guidance.
However you choose to approach it, teaching students about banned books is an excellent way to open their eyes to the truth. While literary censorship can certainly be beneficial for adolescents in some circumstances, raising up a generation of teenagers who is completely unaware of its existence is a dangerous road.
Have you taught your classes about censorship in the past? What are your favorite ways for engaging students with banned and challenged books?
Looking for more inspiring teaching ideas and resources to address censorship and banned books? You might be interested in:
Click on the image below to view assignment details for introducing the concept of literary censorship in the high school classroom.