We state these propositions neither lightly nor as easy generalizations. We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours. (From the ALA Freedom to Read Declaration, 1953)
My email and Facebook have been busier than normal this week. Perhaps because my close friends, colleagues, and former students know my fierce attachment to the art of reading, they’ve reached out to ask my opinion regarding recent issues of book “suspensions” in the local news during this of all weeks, The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week.
In fact, several years ago I found myself in a similar position as some teachers, administrators, parents, students, and districts are in today. As a K-12 English Language Arts Curriculum Coordinator for a school district here in Texas, I was to oversee the thoughtful selection process of instructional materials to best meet curricular objectives for various courses. And, because we live in a democratic society of varied people possessing varied voices, beliefs, and points of view, I found myself amid controversy regarding a text selected for classroom use.
What emerged from this controversy was not conflict, but rather, constructive conversation--one that should take place in any community partnering with educators in support of student learning. In 2000, I started the first community-teacher book club, where in partnership, grown adults would read, study, debate, and share ideas stemming from potentially controversial literature. We read authors Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, as well as up and coming writers not yet considered canonical. We underlined passages and talked of their significance; we, members of the same community who possessed hearts and minds, wicked smarts and independent beliefs, explored topics of racism, of rape, of infanticide, of feminism, of oppression, of murder.
And while we shared, we listened. We questioned. We explored. We trusted that there was no one source of “wisdom” present in that room, and we knew we could continue the conversation when we returned to our homes. We knew we could call upon one another, other friends, our parents, and a variety of religious leaders to unpack ideas further. But few knew that they could go home and ask their own children to explain how to read complex texts.
You see, that’s where the beauty of discovery resides--in the most important intersection of classroom and home.
As an English teacher, my job consists of imparting to students information they may or may not use over the course of their lives: how to use the colon; when—and where—to use the dash; why, for special occasions, using the semi-colon in a series with a simple comma won’t suffice.
I spend most of my days trying to convince 16, 17, and 18-year-olds that word choice really does matter; that Thoreau and Twain were ahead of their times; that Dickinson and Dante paved the way for others regarding style and thought; that Shakespeare still hovers above and within us in his own separate sphere; that just because we can find an answer in 1.5 seconds on the Internet doesn’t mean we have learned something new.
Each day with my students, I have a task that I hold to be sacred: I am entrusted with minds, hearts, and souls of children who are navigating their way in this world. This task is not one I take lightly, nor is it one mine alone to do. In partnership with a community at large, combined with the mission of my school, various curricular objectives, and research-based practices, I dive in, head first, to rediscover the joy of discovery, the exhilaration that exists when one lives in the question, and the beauty in not knowing. What unites us--students, teachers, and parents--is that we all belong to the same community that wants the same end: to graduate competent, capable, empathetic young men and women who possess the ability to stand up for what is right in this world.
We can argue all day and night about which text is the “best” or the “worst” to teach in high school English classrooms. But good literature (and the stuff it’s made from—the colons, the dashes, and the semi-colons), including the written words encapsulating the ideas, is the stuff of life. Finding information in 1.5 seconds does nothing for the intellect and even less for the soul. Being told information over 1.5 years—over 15 years, even—does not always yield a student or a graduate who possesses the ability to think, to feel, to act. Taking the time to hone skills of critical analysis, to explore schools of critical thoughts, to read authors yet to be discovered—this is where the realm of true transformation reigns.
Books possess the power to transform us into people we have imagined – and yet have never dreamed – we’d actually become. For any child to be denied this pleasure, this basic need, is to rob her of the greatest joy. And this joy isn’t simply that of reading or the pleasure of the printed page; this joy is the fundamental self-awareness necessary to negotiate a world that sometimes asks for something, for someone else. This joy is found when reading in a community of trusted companions, teachers, and guides who help craft character in connection with the written word.
When we read, when we as a community share stories with one another, we are actually sowing the seeds for a bountiful harvest, food for the future so that we will never feel hunger. Books are places we can visit in all stages of our lives, and they will feed that curiosity and wonder very much alive within all of us. Books also help us discover who we are and what we value--today as well as tomorrow. At times when the world is too much with us, books and a supportive community assist in such transformation.
About 15 years ago, I had just finished teaching Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to my group of sophomore pre-AP TaG students. As I was packing up for the day, one young student ran into my classroom just after the last bell rang.
“Ms. Patterson!” he yelled. “Did you notice that I’m wearing colors?”
This, from a young man who wore the same grey shirt paired with the same faded blue jeans, sometimes topped with the grey flannel shirt he wore to cover his too-thin arms. Aside from the occasional flannel, there was no variation to his attire. One student even wrote an ode about our friend in grey, a thoughtful tribute to a young man struggling in his determined efforts to march to the beat of his own drummer.
I won’t betray my former student’s trust by divulging his name or even our conversation, but know this much: that book saved his life, literally.
Say what you will about Holden Caulfield—and in my classroom, students should speak up to voice their opinions and share their ideas—but the power of one text, of one character to affect positively the life of a fifteen year old boy, changed me that day. That was the day we didn’t lose a student. That was the day this young man chose to live, wearing colors for the first time in seven months, deciding that he could face his fears and grow up, just as Holden decides to do in Salinger’s novel. That was the day this young sophomore decided that suicide wasn’t an option.
As an educator, I have a responsibility to present information, to select materials, and to design lessons that best bring about learning, inquiry, and intellectual discovery. The decisions I and my colleagues make on a regular basis are not made lightly, nor are they made with haphazard guesswork or from random selection. If we are lucky, we get to make these decisions in partnership with a school that has a student-centered mission, one that embodies an ethical responsibility to educate not just the head, but also the heart of each child, regardless of race, gender, creed, or belief.
As a teacher, I have the responsibility to read any text on my own and evaluate curricular objectives and materials selected to ensure student mastery of particular skills. I have the responsibility to ensure my students’ Constitutional right to interact with ideas in a safe place where trust, mutual respect, and high regard for standards reigns. But I do not have the right to tell them what to think.
And as a parent, I believe I have the right to monitor my children’s exposure to ideas I do not feel they are ready for. I have the right--the responsibility, even--to discuss with my children aspects of right and wrong, of love and hate, of empathy and ignorance. But I do not have the right to tell them what to think.
I have read almost all of the texts that have been challenged in the state of Texas, as well as books on the ALA Banned Book List. I have taught some of these authors to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school. My own children have read some of these texts as well. And it is precisely because of my own experience as a student, as a teacher, and as a parent that I have faith in the process of education, as well as in the hearts, minds, and spirits of students who are trying desperately to navigate the sometimes murky waters they find themselves in. These students need trusted adults, teachers and parents, to help them chart their own course.
Yes, I do believe we should teach critical thinking skills and empathy with award-winning literature that has redeeming and lasting value. We should prepare our children for the path that lies ahead of them--with trust, tolerance, love, and respect that comes from hard work, fierce love, and reciprocal respect. We should join hands with parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community members; we should openly discuss ideas, civilly and respectfully, for that’s what members of a thriving democracy should do.
When love and respect and trust and tolerance no longer govern a community's interactions with one another, …. well, there’s a book or two out there about that. Perhaps we could read it together.
I’d like to close with the comments of one of my former students--an amazing thinker and reader and human being--who recently posted the following, which says far more than I ever could:
I didn't learn to be a murderer by reading Crime and Punishment, and I didn't grow up to be a bully because I read Lord of the Flies. I didn't learn how to do drugs or that child molestation is acceptable from the Perks of Being a Wallflower. I learned that actions have consequences, and that sometimes there's more to the quiet kid who's sitting alone than you think. I learned that everyone has a story worth hearing, and that being accepting is the first step to being accepted. The books we read as young adults become a part of us in a way that nothing else ever will. We learn empathy, and about how our actions can affect other people. We learn to study the world around us with a critical eye. We are pushed to make choices about what kind of people we want to be.
Such growth, such character, is possible from the conversation books allow us to have--in the classroom and in the home. And it is this growth, and this character, that we should never seek to suspend.
Tolly Patterson Salz
Tolly Patterson Salz taught Regular, AP, and AP TaG English at Highland Park High School for 10 years. During that time, she also served as the HPISD K-12 English Language Arts Curriculum Coordinator. Currently, Tolly teaches at the Episcopal School of Dallas, where she has been teaching in the English Department for the past 12 years. She is a graduate of HPHS, the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and SMU’s MLA program. Her husband, Marc Salz, was the recipient of the Park Cities YMCA Father of the Year Award in 2012. She is the proud mother of three boys--an 11th grader, a 5th grader, and a 1st grader. If she’s not in the classroom, with students, or with her family, you can find her curled up somewhere with a really good (possibly banned) book.
For additional information, please visit the following websites or review the following documents:
The First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791);
the Library Bill of Rights, adopted by the American Library Association in 1939 and amended in 1944, 1948, 1961, 1967, and 1980;
the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948);
the ALA's Freedom to Read Declaration (1953).
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