Monday, December 7, 2009

Killing The Love Of Reading

As I mentioned in a previous post I despise censorship. I have spoken against restricting free speech for years. The hard censorship of White House staff attempting to marginalize a news network or the soft censorship of librarians and teachers who don't order books that they find personally objectionable, regardless of the merit of the work.

Often this soft censorship masquerades as academic rigor. In the name of wanting to challenge students schools and school systems will remove books or restrict books that they deem not worthy of students. Yet, often teachers and administrators kill the love of reading. I speak to adults each day that tell me how a teacher made them hate reading. How does this happen?

One way is this insistence that students read "the classics." Donald R. Gallo addresses this issue in his article How Classics Create An Aliterate Society. He relates the trouble he had struggling with the assigned readings that were alleged to be good for him. "Why was I supposed to care about a Puritan woman who got pregnant from having sex with a minister?....One of my former college students defined a classic this way: a classic is a book that 'requires a teacher figure out a glimmer of what it says.'" Is that what we want? Students who need to rely on a teacher to engage with literature?

Gallo isn't alone. Kelly Gallagher documents how teachers are murdering the love of reading in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Before you despair, there are teachers that are trying to actively engage their students in books that present important concepts and will capture their interest. The problem is that parents and administrators often prevent these teachers from reaching this goal. They will challenge the books teachers select. This has recently happened in Montgomery County, Kentucky. The Lexington-Herald Reader reports:

In the Montgomery County school system some contemporary, young-adult novels have been used in conjunction with classical works like The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf in some sophomore and senior accelerated English classes. Some parents don't like it. The school superintendent has had the books removed from the classroom, although they are available in the library.

Let me reiterate a point made in the article. The YA books are being taught in conjunction with the classics. Some parents are shocked at the language and situations in the YA books. These parents obviously haven't read either The Canterbury Tales or Beowulf or only read enough to pass their own class assignments. These classics are full of sex and violence. One blogger commented that students shouldn't be exposed to such topics as rape. Well, that definitely leaves out The Canterbury Tales. The YA books in question went before a review committee that recommended the books remain as part of the class readings. Superintendent Freeman removed them anyway.

Some have argued that the Lexile level isn't high enough for these YA books to be included in a college prepatory class. Lexile levels are not the holy grail of reading. The daunting classic Crime and Punishment has a Lexile level of 850. One of the removed books, Chris Crutcher's Deadline, has a Lexile level of 880. Hmmmm, that argument doesn't seem to have merit.

What about literary themes? In Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson students read about personal identity, suicide, overcoming social adversity, and conquering obstacles through perseverance. It's not just a feel good read. Anderson's character Tyler Miller faces the not just choices about becoming a better person, but what he has to leave behind to become that person. Tyler is on a quest that teens can relate to personally and relate to other literature.

The question is ultimately, 'Why were these books removed from the classroom?' When students are lucky enough to have a teacher that is intelligent enough to connect contemporary YA literature with classics society wins. Dr. Freeman, please return the books.


  1. I think part of the problem with the non-reading public is they feel the Classics have the literary rubber-stamp of being time-tested. They perhaps fear that contemporay fiction, whatever the content, has the potential to lead students in undesirable directions.

    It's also true that contemporary settings are a lot closer to home than something written in former times. Many people quite happily study the goriest episodes of history, but are shocked when the same instances happen in contemporary times.

  2. I really can't understand parents who feel it's their job to protect their kids from the world rather than prepare them for it. It's Rapunzel in the tower thinking, and seems fine for a five year-old, but come on, teens are going to be voting, serving in the military, earning a living, making all the adult choices ina few years. Why not have a place to talk about possibilities ahead-- and realistically, things that are actually issues of the moment. Don't tell me there are no teens being raped, for example. Mind-boggling.

  3. John, you raise a good point. There is a misconception that because a piece of literature is old that it is "safe." The violence of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" rivals most slasher films. The heroine has her tongue ripped out and hands cut off. She then communicates by holding a stick in her mouth and writing in the sand. Can you imagine if this scene was in a contemporary YA novel?

    When my oldest son's drama class did scenes from "The Canterbury Tales" and they didn't sanitize the situations or language. I remember the students looking around shocked and waiting for a someone to stop them. Again, if wasn't a "classic" the administration would never have approved the performances.

  4. Carol, you are so crazy! Educate and prepare our students to live and function in the world? Insane I tell you!

    When I worked as the librarian in a Catholic school I had a parent complain about a library book because "there are no unwed teen mothers in our community." Another parent proclaimed that her son would not go through puberty until he was 17. When parents take an ostrich approach to parenting they do their children a disservice.

  5. Yours is an excellent blog post. Still, educators should be able to select materials for students without it being labelled censorship, and it is not.

    Please take a look at my blog post, especially the comments where several authors and Dr. Freeman are conversing. See:

    "Kentucky School Superintendent Exposes Falses Cries of Censorship; Removes Educationally Unsuitable Books from Curriculum Despite Being on ALA's List for Reluctant Readers"

  6. SafeLibraries,
    An interesting fact is that the books went before a review committee which found the books had value for the class. The books weren't replacing, but enhancing the curriculum. Ultimately the question is why these titles were removed. If it was because people didn't like the content that is censorship.

    Dr. Freeman's concern about academic rigor is appropriate, but as mentioned in the original post not valid. I don't see any statements that students may also opt out of "The Canterbury Tales." For parents to sneer at fifth and sixth grade level books is inappropriate. That's the level of adult fiction. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level of "The Canterbury Tales" is 7.38. If that's the sole criteria the students might as well read Will James' "Smokey The Cow Horse" or A.A. Milne's "Winnie-The-Pooh." The reading levels are about the same as are the Lexile levels.

  7. "If it was because people didn't like the content that is censorship."

    Not necessarily. See Board of Education v. Pico where books that are educationally unsuitable or pervasively vulgar can be removed.

    If people didn't like the content not due to ideas but instead due to being educationally unsuitable or pervasively vulgar, out goes the content. Legal. Constitutional. Not censorship. Common sense. Case closed. The US Supreme Court is as high as you can go.

    By the way, I see your comment form says, "Supporting and differing views are welcome when they are expressed coherently and politely." Fantastic. And you have responded in a manner that lives up to what you said. Fantastic. Really, I mean that. So many times people say something other people don't like and those people really go negative. Not you. So, thanks.

  8. Thank you. One of my favorite books is "Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other" by Nat Hentoff. I recommend it for anyone truly interested in the 1st Ammendment.

    I may get passionate about my beliefs, but I hope I never stifle another's beliefs.


Supporting and differing views are welcome when they are expressed coherently and politely.