by Felicia Donovan
My guest today is Sandy Ratliff, a veteran English teacher who has "challenged the challenge" on books with her innovative "Intellectual Freedom in Literature" class.
Nudity. Sexually explicit. Offensive language. Drugs. Unsuited to age group. Homosexuality. Racism. Anti-family. Religious viewpoint. According to the American Library Association (ALA), these are the reasons for the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009. These works include classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye and contemporary works such as Twilight, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In 2009, the Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 460 challenges to novels and textbooks in schools and libraries, so the question herein is Why?
As a veteran English teacher I became intrigued with banned and challenged books, so in 2005 I researched the subject in the hopes of developing my own senior class dealing with this hot topic. I also began hanging posters all over my classroom, thus sparking the interest of my students. They could not understand why such works as Bridge to Terabithia and Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic were challenged, or banned, in some schools and libraries. As I discussed this issue with my then freshmen and seniors the fire inside me ignited further. Therefore, I approached my principal with the idea of a class called Intellectual Freedom in Literature. After I pleaded my case, she wholeheartedly agreed to let me try, and during the 2006-2007 school year 75 students enrolled.
Intellectual Freedom means the right to seek and receive information without restriction, but it also means the right to voice your opinion, however unpopular it might be. My students, who admitted they enrolled just to see what the class was like, were surprised at the number of challenges, the reasons for challenges, and the “arrogance” of people who try to force their own morals and values on others. During the semester, they were required to read four challenged/banned novels - Fahrenheit 451, The Color Purple, Ordinary People, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower - and read an additional challenged/banned novel from the list of top 100 banned books for a 45 minute class presentation. By the end of the semester, they were knowledgeable of 25 other novels challenged or banned, and they ranged from children’s books (And Tango Makes Three, on 2009’s top ten list again, and The Goosebump Series) to young adult novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Giver, Alice in Wonderland, Go Ask Alice, and the Harry Potter series.
The class also delved into case studies of documented challenges, from the violent Kanawha County, West Virginia one to the Pico vs. Island Trees, NY classic that changed the way books are challenged today. Previous students sometimes couldn’t believe how school board meetings could become so incensed over a novel, so this year, 2010, I decided to make them feel it. With the help of a minister friend of mine, we set up a fake meeting with the students so my friend could discuss the class and “how he was concerned about what was being taught in my classroom.” His approach was to be nice to the students and express his concern about “What is considered ‘normal‘” in the classroom curriculum. Within ten minutes, the students began to “feel” what members of those communities felt, as they respectfully but vehemently defended The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They admitted he could voice his own opinion, but that he had no right to tell them what they could or could not read, that he missed the themes of the novels, and that they face the issues in the novels and should not be sheltered from them in any way. At the end of class, my friend, who actually is a huge supporter of Intellectual Freedom, and I admitted we had “punked” them. Once the shock wore off, they understood why I did it. They knew I had wanted them to “feel” this issue, and now they did, and they left the classroom telling me they will never forget what I taught them, nor how I did it.
The end of my first year teaching the class a student gave me a card. It read, “I can’t thank you enough for opening my eyes to the notion of censorship in literature. You taught me to question and to be aware of bias and motives of different groups. You made me want to read novels that normally I would never pick up.” Her favorite novel is now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Five years later, I’m still teaching this class to incoming students who have now heard about it and can’t wait to “see what all the controversy is about.”
Just what right do individuals and groups have over other people’s children? What is considered acceptable or not in the classroom? In the library? And should the First Amendment be left at the Schoolhouse Gate? Intellectual Freedom is at least alive and well in my classroom, but not so for many other students who will never have the opportunity to read The Color Purple or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Click here to read the complete list of ALA’s 2009 list of challenged books. That’s 2009, not 1950.
Think about it.
For more information, click here to visit the American Library Association's Banned & Challenged Books section.