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Navigating Book Bans

A guide for educators as efforts intensify to censor books
Book ban illustration

There is one question in Gretchen Brion-Meisels' courses on creating loving educational spaces that students always ask her: “What does it look like to create equitable and inclusive learning environments in places where there are restrictions on what we can teach?” 

The concerns Brion-Meisels, senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), hears are not unfounded — just look at book censorship. While bans and even burnings of books date back hundreds of years in the United States, and longer abroad, there has been a substantial rise in organized attempts to remove multiple titles from school and public library shelves, according to the American Library Association (ALA). In 2022 ALA found the greatest number of challenges to library books and materials since it began collecting data more than 20 years ago. 

“Banning books is harmful, because the process imposes one person or group’s standards, sensitivities, biases on other groups,” says Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, whose work focuses on developing culturally responsive and effective literacy and reading instructional practices. It also, “limits the variety and diversity of books available to all people, especially our youth, who are exploring the world, their identities, and their values through books and through conversations about books with others [including] family members, peers, and other trusted adults,” she adds. 

For Alex Hodges, librarian and director of the Gutman Library at HGSE, where he is also a member of the faculty, censoring books is deeply problematic because, “all learners need to develop and evolve their critical thinking abilities over time. These abilities are what enable learners to be information and critically literate,” he explains. “If books are challenged successfully, and then censored or banned, individuals — on their own terms and stages of literacy development — lose the right and the ability to analyze, deconstruct, and decode the writing, history, logic, illustrations, and symbols that make up much of the wide diversity of our cultural and social systems.” 

According to the ALA, most books that are challenged are written by or about people of color or from the LGBTQ+ community. These are the very people who have “fought hard to be seen, heard, and valued,” says Mason who serves on the Standing Committee Against Censorship for the National Council of Teachers of English.

For educators trying to navigate the thorny issue of potential censorship in their own schools and districts, Hodges, Mason, and Brion-Meisels, offer the following advice:

1. Do no harm and do your homework.  

  • Learn about the culture and the values of your community, says Hodges. Talk to guardians, parents, fellow educators, volunteers, and administrators about the community’s social and cultural heritage, he advises. Understand what languages are served in your school community and learn about any barriers to literacy development that might exist. 
  • Find out who is doing what. Perhaps there is public programming of some kind offered to families at a nearby community center. If there are public libraries close by, make inquiries about their collections, and ask if there is any history of book challenges. 

2. Develop partnerships.

  • Partner with your school media specialist. “If there isn’t a librarian or in-school library services, ask why not,” says Hodges. Then use all the community information you have gathered to “establish partnerships that draw inspiration from the values of reading and collection building.” 
  • Next, partner with your school administration and your community to, “establish the guardrails for what a book challenge at your school might entail,” explains Hodges.

3. Be clear on the rules and laws in your own district and state.

  • Familiarize yourself with any policies already in your school or district on book selection and on book challenging, Mason advises. Policies can differ significantly and, “it's important for us to know the rules, even if we believe that they are not supporting our students' best interests,” explains Brion-Meisels. “Often, this helps us think about where we do have agency to support students,” she says.

4. Create policy.

  • “If there is not a written, publicly available policy, then there should be one, and teachers can advocate for its development,” Mason says. Draft a policy that includes families, community members, teachers, and both school and public librarians, she advises. 
  • Make sure to post your policy public on a school or library website, explains Hodges and “ensure that the policy lays out all the steps that any singular challenge would involve.” 

5. Communicate with parents ahead of time and explain your learning objectives.

  • Inform parents or guardians beforehand if you are planning to use a book in the classroom that has been challenged or banned elsewhere. 
  • Demonstrate how the book is in alignment with your learning objectives, such as developing critical comprehension skills, along with state or district standards, and then advocate for its use, says Mason.
  • If a parent objects to the material you have selected for your course, provide an alternative text which addresses your same learning objectives, Mason adds. Hodges believes there “should be no censorship for what the school librarian or media specialist selects for the school library,” though.

6. Address controversial topics in a developmentally appropriate manner.

  • Parents and teachers understand their own children and communities best and can decide which topics might be considered controversial and how to handle them in their own specific context, says Mason. Even the youngest learners “have a keen sense of fairness, honesty, and respect.” Adults may read more into a text than students do. “Taking your cues from the students rather than imposing your adult perspectives can be very enlightening,” Mason adds.

In places where there are significant restrictions on books and topics discussed in the classroom:

Brion-Meisels says teachers “can start by talking about the importance of communication and respect across lines of difference. We can think about what sits underneath equity and inclusion — an understanding that all human beings deserve fundamental rights, a belief that we all have wisdom and knowledge to contribute, a commitment to nonviolent communication, and a desire to learn more about each other's lived experiences.”

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