Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Teachers and students from 5th through 12th grades recently gathered for an informative Morning Ex to formally kick off Banned Books Week.

Middle and Upper School Library and Information Services Specialist Annette Lesak opened with some history on the event, which began in 1982 as a response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. This was the same year as the Trees School District vs. Pico case, in which the United States Supreme Court split on the First Amendment issue of local school boards removing library books from junior high schools and high schools.

Lesak then took the time to point out the differences between a challenge and a ban as it relates to reading materials. She explained that a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. In contrast, a ban is the removal of those materials. Lesak was clear in pointing out that challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, the person attempts to remove materials from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting access by others.

Looking closer at the concept of challenges to texts, Ava Stepan, a student in the senior elective Literature and Censorship, provided some current statistics on the rising number of challenges and increase in severity of tactics to remove books from schools and libraries. English teachers David Fuder and Cory Zeller explored both who initiates challenges to text and why challenges occur before James Leet, another student in the elective, shared a list of some challenged or banned books currently being taught at Parker, including Lolita, Howl, Persepolis, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby and more.

Fuder spoke about two banned texts that he uses in his classes, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Fuder acknowledged the reasons many believe each text should be banned, but countered with the thoughtful pedagogy behind how he uses the texts in his class, why the texts need to be read at this particular time and how they impact his charges.

Speaking from the perspective of a librarian, Lesak described the rationale and process libraries use to choose their collections. As an example, she mentioned the decision to retire Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to make room for new and more relevant texts—banned or not. The Kovler Family Library seeks to have a collection that is current, mission-appropriate and inclusive of a range of voices.

Zeller spoke on the importance of context when using a banned text in the classroom. As the educator in charge of Parker’s Upper School Literature and Censorship class, she is always careful to provide her students with additional information about the time, place, situation and history from which a text emerges to help them better understand the author’s circumstances and how that impacts our lives today.

Using her in-class study of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an example, Zeller expressed her desire as a teacher to lean towards PEN member and American author Domenica Ruta’s advice in the following statement: “Banning and censorship are forms of repression that only succeed in shoving racism deeper into the shadows of our nation’s collective psyche…. The best defense against hateful ignorance is open, honest discussion and early intervention.”

In bringing their Morning Ex to a close, presenters reminded the audience of the things they can do as students and critical thinkers, specifically:
  • Let others decide what’s right to read for themselves.
  • Read widely and shine a light.
  • Be active pursuers of information and multiple viewpoints.
In the end, this community gathering helped students and teachers celebrate their freedom to read, with a reminder to be vigilant readers, thinkers and consumers of information in a saturated and often confusing media society.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.