As the Class 7 students entered Room 705, they noticed a seemingly random selection of books on their desks: Middle grade and young adult titles like “The Adventures of Captain Underpants,” “The Hate U Give,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” among others.
When everyone was settled, Humanities teacher Kymberly Mattern asked, “What do all these books have in common?”
The students held the paperback and hardcover volumes in their hands, read the descriptions on the back and tried to identify a shared connection.
“They amplify underrepresented voices,” one commented.
“They all have something to do with justice,” another suggested.
“They’re about different kinds of conflict,” a third proposed.
As Ms. Mattern wrote her students’ initial ideas on the board, Middle School Librarian Natasha Goldberg, who was co-teaching the lesson, held up a picture book called “It’s So Amazing!” about conception, pregnancy and childbirth. “What about this one?” she asked.
Their curiosity piqued, the students considered further. After a few more thoughtful guesses, Ms. Mattern revealed the reason these books were linked: Each had been banned by a school board or a library.
“Banning is a form of censorship,” explained Ms. Mattern. “It is a practice that sets limits on people’s freedom.” She added that these specific books, and many more, had been removed from libraries and schools because they contained content that those institutions deemed “objectionable.”*
Ms. Goldberg noted that the practice of banning books continues all across the United States, adding, “We don’t ban books here at Chapin.” All of the titles being discussed are currently available in Chapin’s Annenberg Center for Learning and Research, she said.
What leads to a book being challenged and possibly banned in the first place? There are myriad reasons for this classification, the students discovered. For example, the popular “Captain Underpants” series, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, was banned because it was perceived as “encouraging disruptive behavior”; book 12 in particular (“The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot”) was flagged for including a same-sex couple. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series landed on the banned list for its ubiquitous references to magic and witchcraft. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas was considered “anti-police.”
The next phase of the class featured a collaborative exercise. Working in pairs or trios, the students took turns agreeing with or challenging various prompts on sheets of construction paper. Questions like “Is age-appropriateness a valid reason to ban a book?”; “If you had the power to ban a book that was offensive, would you?”; and “Should anyone have the power to ban or censor a book?” gave these Middle Schoolers plenty to explore. After the designated time had elapsed, the students passed their sheets to the next teams, ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to contribute to each prompt. When all the comments were complete, several students helped Ms. Goldberg hang up the papers in the seventh-floor corridor, making sure to leave generous room in between each.
“We’re going to have a gallery walk in the hall,” announced Ms. Mattern. In small groups, the students rotated around the circular hallway. As they read one another’s reactions to the prompts, they were instructed to pick out key words that resonated for them. Back in Room 705, the scholars reflected on this immersive experience by contributing their choices to a growing tapestry of terms. Words like “limits,” “restriction,” “liberty” and “power” appeared on the board in colorful marker.
Class 7 wrapped up this eye-opening lesson by talking about the importance of intellectual freedom. “It’s better to limit the audience than to ban a book entirely,” one student offered as Ms. Goldberg collected the books to return to the library.
*For more information about challenged and banned books, visit https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.