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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