Mandatory D.E.A.R. Reading

Drop everything and go read this post at Risha Mullins’s blog.

Risha Mullins is a National Board-certified English teacher from Kentucky who used YA literature in her classroom.  Her test scores proved that her methods worked and she saw her students growing as readers.  Nonreaders were suddenly recommending books to other students.  Books were being devoured in class.  And then a parent challenged her use of a book in her extracurricular book club.  From there, she was forced to endure a horrific experience that ended in her being run out of her job.  The post is heartbreaking.  But also inspiring.  It should be required reading for all English teachers.

Risha Mullins is my YA hero.

Speak Loudly.

Speak Loudly

This week, Wesley Scroggins,an associate professor of management at Missouri State University (and fundamentalist Christian), wrote an opinion piece in the News-Leader of Springfield, MO, in which he characterized Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak as filthy and immoral, calling it “soft pornography” because of two rape scenes. He is demanding that Speak, along with a few other books, immediately be pulled from the district.  This leaves me infuriated.

Melinda Sordino is one of my all-time favorite YA characters.  I can still remember the first time I got a copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. My aunt was a seventh grade language arts teacher at the time and she used to hand books to me on a weekly basis. One of those books was Speak. I was immediately drawn to the cover and remember that I read it, from cover to cover, that night. I was only in junior high, but I knew this was an extremely powerful book.

Six years later, as a freshman in college, I volunteered with my campus’s Sexual Assault Services. I still remembered Melinda, even though I hadn’t read the book in years. For the next two years I saw real-life Melindas. I also saw the other characters in her life- her classmates. I was a part of SCREAM (Students Challenging Reality and Educating Against Myths ), a group which uses improv and theater to address interpersonal violence. This involves issues such as harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, and same-sex violence. Most of the skits I was involved with centered around dating violence and sexual assault. I will never forget performing for various high schools around the state, watching their faces during the performance and listening to the questions those students asked at the end of the performance. Not every high schooler has access to something like SCREAM Theater. But EVERY adolescent should have access to Speak.

Why?  Take a look at these statistics, courtesy of RAINN.

  • Every two minutes someone in the United States is a victim of sexual assault.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
  • 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.
  • 29% are age 12-17.
  • 44% are under age 18.
  • 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.
  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

Victims of sexual assault are:

  • 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

How DARE Mr. Scroggins characterize Speak, an important and vital book for YA readers, as filth?  Apparently he is unaware that young readers can actually be the victims of horrible things like sexual assault.  In fact, as Jordan Sonnenblick once said, there are children everywhere experiencing things everyday that we won’t let them read about.  Mr. Scroggins, Speak might not be right for you or your child.  But it could be life-saving for a teen out there.  You have every right in the world to keep your own children from reading the book, but stay the hell away from everyone else’s children.

There has been an outpouring of rage on Twitter and book blogs.Authors are stepping forward in defense of Speak, as are readers (both teen and adult).  Check out the #SpeakLoudly hashtag on Twitter for hundreds of responses.  At 8pm there will be a live tweet of #SpeakLoudly.  Do your part and Speak Loudly!  Speak up and speak loudly.

Pat Conroy’s Response to Censorship

Pat Conroy, the author of The Prince of Tides: A Novel, recently discovered (EDIT:  Apparently this is from 2007) that a group of parents in West Virginia are attempting to ban the teaching of two of his novels. He wrote an amazing letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette. The letter sings the praises of English teachers and is a MUST READ!

 I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why.

Continue reading the letter here.

Censoring in the Classroom

This weekend I stopped by the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. While wondering the aisles (this is like mecca for me), I happened to hear two older women behind me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but their conversation was fascinating. One of the women held up a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. You know, the Newbery winner that caused all that ruckus back in 2007.  Below is a recreation of their conversation.

Teacher 1 (holding up a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky): “Would you want this book in your room?  It’s that book that says (looking around, lowering voice) scrotum.”

Teacher 2: “Oh my gosh!  I know, right?  And it’s a Newbery winner!  It could be the best book in the world but I am not putting that book in my library.  I’m not going to be responsible for explaining that word to one of my fifth graders!  Really, why would they let that book win an award?  Kids read it!”

Teacher 1: “Exactly!  Well have you read the last Harry Potter book?”

Teacher 2: “No, not yet.  I haven’t made it through the whole series yet.”

Teacher 1:  “Well, just wait until you do!  Towards the end of the book, Mrs. Weasley does something just awful. (Looking around and lowering her voice again).  She says b*tch!”

Teacher 2:  “What?!  Now why would the author do that?  That is just unacceptable.  Ridiculous.

Teacher 1:  “Well, I solved the problem in my room.  I have three copies of the book.  I went through each one and whited out the bad word.  I then wrote in the word brat.  Much better!”

This entire conversation left me flabberghasted.  Patron’s book did cause an uproar when it won the Newbery, but I have had plenty of kids read the book without once drawing attention to the use of the word scrotum.  As far as I know, most intermediate kids are learning the appropriate words for human anatomy in health/science.  I would much rather students get the anatomically  correct name for a body part in a book instead of a kiddie, nonsense name.  Plus, the entire scene is devoted to a dog, not even human anatomy!

Now, as for JK Rowling’s use of the “b-word”, I can’t even comprehend whiting out the word in the books and choosing my own word for that sentence.  While readers may not agree with Rowling’s word choice, it is just that- the author’s choice.  I’d be willing to bet that most readers of Harry Potter have heard much worse in their own households- TV, music, and pop culture use that word and more in the everday vernacular.  To white it out and then change the word to brat infuriates me.  You would be better off keeping the book out of your classroom library!

In my experience, most students don’t get to the final Harry Potter book until 5th/6th grade or higher.  They read the series in order and it’s not an easy or quick series to get through.  To put the situation into context, this past week my 6th graders were allowed to nominate songs to be played at their graduation dance.  75% of the songs they nominated were vetoed by me because I knew the school would not allow them to be played.  The number one song for most of my students?  “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy.  The last verse of the song includes that same b-word no less than 5 times. This was one of the tamer songs they nominated!

This is why books should be part of a culture of reading and discussion in schools.  Instead of focusing on filling in little bubbles on a scantron sheet, our students and teachers should be having discussions about books, about voice, about word choice!  Share your thinking with students- why do they think JK Rowling chose to use a curse word?  Why did she not use brat?  What do the students think of this decision.

Don’t just take censorship into your own hands.

Don’t rewrite literature.

Ugh.

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