(Image of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which has been challenged throughout history.)
Most teachers (and former librarians) would probably say that they don’t participate in self-censorship, however, with a closer examination of what it actually means to self-censor, I’d say many people, if not most, self-censor on occasion. Have you ever grabbed a book out of a student’s hand and said, “that might not be appropriate for you.”? Well, I have, and isn’t that a form of censorship? If you’ve ever read a book and decided against putting it on your classroom bookshelf (or in the school library) because you are afraid some parents wouldn’t like it, you’ve participated in censorship.
In the article, “A Dirty Little Secret: Self-Censorship,” the author uncovers multiple examples of self-censorship including librarians who simply don’t put books on the shelf that they think someone might have an issue with. Keep in mind, these books don’t get the chance to be on the shelf, they are simply kept in closed cabinets. I’ll be the first to admit, I might hesitate to put something on the shelf that was outside of my comfort zone, however, as I think about some of those issues that might seem outside of my comfort zone, I realize that our students may be faced with those issues on a much more open basis than what we were faced with as youth.
While I don’t mind reading books about rape, bullying, or other tough situations, I struggle with the appropriateness of some of them to our students. I also struggle with the appropriateness of books that deal extensively with doing drugs or deal with gay and lesbian issues. Those topics are outside of my comfort zone, but because so much more is “public knowledge” nowadays rather than days gone by, our students lives may be personally touched by these issues.
I believe a policy or procedure for procuring books and for challenged books needs to exist in our school systems. These policies protect the school districts, but also give parents the ability to review books for their students reading. Policies may help with whole group instruction that asks students to review the book or gives parents a list of books that will be covered so they have time to review it. A colleague of mine teaches some somewhat controversial books, however, she gives parents advance notice and sends a letter home with the summary of the book, etc., so that parents can review them.
I’ve learned that some popular books are on the banned or challenged list. I’ve learned that given time, almost any book can be challenged for a variety of reasons. Parents might help direct children at younger ages about their choice of books, but eventually getting students to select their own books helps not only their engagement level, but also their move towards self-efficacy (Allington, “Effective Teachers, Effective Instructors, 2007).