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Bringing Controversial Books into the Classroom

How teachers can successfully navigate the tricky territory of introducing books with challenging content into the curriculum
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There are thousands of books released every year that grapple with contemporary issues facing young people. But many of those titles end up being challenged or even banned because they contain sex, offensive language, or violence, or because they deal with sensitive issues such as race and gender identity. In 2017, the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom cited 417 books as challenged or banned, including popular titles like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Though it might seem easier to keep challenged books out of your curriculum altogether, Boston University Assistant Professor Christina Dobbs and Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason encourage educators to embrace them in their lesson plans. If you avoid teaching texts that can lead to difficult conversations or upset the status quo, they say, you may miss powerful learning opportunities.

“Controversial issues are often bigger in our heads than in children’s,” Mason says, noting that adults struggle with challenging subject matter because they are concerned about potential fallout or they have difficulty separating their personal feelings from the content.

But children need a safe space in which to grapple with “hard stories,” says Dobbs. Confronting difficult issues in books that they may also encounter in real life may be tricky territory, she says, “but that’s part of why we have books.”

Mason and Dobbs, who teach a professional education program on how to introduce culturally responsive or challenging literature into the classroom, offer the following advice on how to do the same in your classroom and school community.

  • Choose carefully. Don’t discount a book because it’s been challenged or deemed “inappropriate.” Dobbs stresses the importance of getting to know your children’s librarian, watching to see which books win awards, and looking for the books getting banned — even checking out Twitter through #weneedmorediversebooks. Read about books through reviews on sites like Commonsense Media, Wormbook Guide, Goodreads, and even Amazon.
  • Make your case. Know why you want to introduce a challenging book in your class and be ready to defend it. Have a clear reason for the book you select and do research before introducing it to your administration, students, and school community.
  • Create a safe space. Make sure your classroom is safe for discussions, creating clear classroom norms of respect and safety from the start. Be sensitive to subject matter that may act as a trigger for students, and have strategies in place to avoid or deal with issues that may arise.
  • Communicate with parents. Introduce the book and explain why and how you plan to teach it. Reassure parents that you’ve created a safe space for discussions.
  • Be prepared for blowback. Do research to see whether there have been problems in the past with certain books in the school community. Create a plan with your principal about how you’ll handle complaints before introducing the book. This will also help provide insight into whether you’ll receive the necessary support from administration should anyone complain. If you don’t feel supported, then consider whether you want to move forward — and, in the long term, whether you’re teaching in the right district.
  • Teach the whole book. Be able to connect the book to broader learning outcomes, balancing exposure to culture and diversity with content and characters, as well as rigor and literary merit. Teach readers how to navigate the whole text.

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