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  • Writer's pictureRadiant Educational Services

To Read or NOT to Read...Teaching Controversial Texts in the ELA Classroom

Words have infinite power and the books that possess these words offer readers perspectives that otherwise may not have been explored or understood. In today's society, reading has indeed been a way to pass the time, to explore new ideas, to find common experiences. As educators, we must indeed consider the texts that we put in front of our students to ensure that they are reflective of the students that we serve and, most importantly, be supported in an appropriate and responsible way.

For decades, "banned books" have been at the forefront of censorship discussions in and outside of the classroom. Many books appear on these lists because of their content that include profanity and taboo topics. As an ELA teacher, it was my joy to have candid discussions with students to better understand their views of the world through the lens of a controversial text. It allowed for lively and exploratory discussions that offered varied perspectives of how we are in the world.

That literature is a reflection of the society is a fact that has been widely acknowledged. Literature indeed reflects the society, its good values and its ills. In its corrective function, literature mirrors the ills of the society with a view to making the society realize its mistakes and make amends. It also projects the virtues or good values in the society for people to emulate. Literature, as an imitation of human action, often presents a picture of what people think, say and do in the society. Abugu Benjamin

With the teaching of controversial texts, comes responsible pedagogy. Teachers must be equipped with the skill set of supporting students through the journey of digesting a controversial text. Of course, appropriate grade level bands and lexile levels should be considered, but a text should not be eliminated from the ELA classroom because its content is too contentious or taboo. We should work to find ways to make the text relevant and connect it to the overall purpose of what we desire students to glean from the text. Who knows what story or character could touch the life of a student and offer a perspective that otherwise may not have been considered?

Of course the suggestion is not to promote including Zane or Harlequin novels to the ELA cannon, what is being suggested is that we work to support teachers and students in connecting to stories and characters that are at times shunned in society because the topic evokes feelings of discomfort, distress, or uncertainty.

In order to work through teaching controversial texts in the ELA classroom, the following is suggested:

  • Create an internal vetting team that consists of a few teachers, an administrator, and an instructional coach. Develop a clear protocol to vet specific texts in question and offer supportive measures for teachers to assist with responsible pedagogy. If the book is still deemed inappropriate for the grade level, suggest alternatives that will still expose students to the content such as an article text set, documentaries, etc.

  • Have the conversation! Allow teachers and parents to participate in discourse and discuss the concerns. Reassure parents that responsible pedagogy will be implemented and explain the connection the text has with the overall purpose of the unit and the learning targets. Sometimes, parents just need that extra dialogue to better understand the text choice and its usage.

  • Provide students with background knowledge. Just putting a text in front of students with no guidance or purpose is ill-advised. If the core novel is centered around racial injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, provide students with historical references, allow them to explore the happenings of the time period so they can better understand the context of the novel.

Check out these resources to support or provide insight regarding the teaching of controversial texts:

Let's continue to expose our students to diverse and challenging texts in a responsible and supportive way.

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