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.



8 Responses

  1. TheReadingZone,
    This reminds me of the conversation that took place in the comments to your NCLB post last week! It’s amazing to me how often I’ve been coming across issues of censorship with books lately. And it’s quite scary, in my opinion.

    I can say that the seventh Harry Potter book is one of my absolute favorite books and I never noticed the b-word. There’s a reading theorist (Frank Smith, maybe?) who says that good readers read through words and still grasp the meaning. When reading HP #7, the last thing I was thinking about was “bad words” — I wanted to see if Harry would live, if Voldemort would die, how the wizarding world would move on. Similarly, the word “scrotum” in the Higher Power of Lucky is not the point of the passage. And even if it was… well, I completey agree with you — scrotum is the correct word for a part of the body. I can’t see anything wrong with that!

    I’m amazed that kids don’t totally rebel against things like whited-out words in books — finding a clean copy in the library, passing it around to their friends, just generally going out of their way to frustrate their teachers and flaunt the word.

    I suppose I’m on the liberal side of things, but I feel that there aren’t bad words per se, but wrong contexts for words, ways to use words to hurt others, etc. Perhaps it’s the English major in me, the lifelong reader in me, I don’t know. But I certainly share your frustration with the conversation you overheard!

  2. That is astounding, Sarah. All I can say is, I think you’re doing the right thing to shine a light on this sort of behavior, and question teachers who are censoring books.

  3. I agree with you. But let’s watch our language. Censorship is a rather strong word that is often bandied about for political gain or out of ignorance for its use for propaganda purposes. If a book is pervasively vulgar and educationally unsuitable, it may be removed legally from the classroom (Board of Education v. Pico). If a book is otherwise inappropriate, a teacher uses selection to keep the book out of the class, not censorship.

    Let me put this another way. And I’ll quote Jessamyn West, former ALA Councilor:

    “It also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don’t talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it’s totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all.”

    I agree. It *is* totally different. It is not censorship. So let’s watch our language while we talk. It’s not censorship to keep “Higher Power of Lucky” out of children’s hands, it’s just ignorance. It’s not censorship to keep pervasively vulgar books out of the hands of children, it’s just what’s legal under the law and right in the eyes of most people.

    Most, except those crying censorship. “The … elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny. …. [T]he reality is that it is those who cry “Censorship!” the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others.” Quote from Dan Gerstein, an independent consultant, former communications director for Joe Lieberman and a senior strategist for his presidential campaign.

  4. I have read both of those books and had no clue that those words were used. They didn’t stand out, but were just words in the story. I agree that there should be more discussions about books and more use of them in the classrooms as tools for teaching and exploring so many aspects of the world in which we live and the imagination.

    My daughter is 8, in the middle of HP 4, and I am allowing her to read the entire series at her pace. I intend to read the more controversial books either before or while she does simply because I believe that the written word offers a great opportunity to foster discussions and interaction.

    Sometimes highlighting a negative amplifies it more than it ever would have been were it left alone… like these words and others in books.

  5. […] At The Reading Zone, a blogger recounts a conversation between two teachers which reveals how they are Censoring in the Classroom. […]

  6. Ugh. I picked up some old classics at a yard sale and found a ton of words crossed out with rewriting–all obviously by an adult and most of it not really even a suitable substitute. So silly. Kids are exposed to so much worse elsewhere and often won;’t even notice such words when they are reading (I know I used to read everything I got my hands on, literally, and read quite a few unsuitable things–the only bits I noticed were the descriptive bits (and I did run into some things I would prefer my kids NOT be exposed to) but I individual words like that–if it belonged there then it belonged, and if it didn’t I just wondered what the author was thinking and moved on.

  7. My high school required The Grapes of Wrath for junior-year English. In the years previous to mine, they used an abridged version that omitted the final scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man. My mom was substitute-teaching for one of those classes and was trying to help the class through some worksheets the teacher had left, and she said something about what Rose of Sharon did. The students looked at her blankly and said, “It has been a long time since you read this.”
    When I was a junior, someone accidentally ordered the unabridged version to replace the worn-out copies. It was discovered too late to send them back. My teacher was outraged. He couldn’t believe anyone could think the unabridged version was appropriate reading for high schoolers. At the time I wondered why they didn’t just chose a different book then. What is the point of teaching an abridged novel, particularly one that omits not only the curse words, but the ultimate scene in the book?

  8. I ran into this problem when I was teaching a home school co-op lit class. One of the moms informed me that she was selling her daughters’ copy of the C.S. Lewis space trilogy as soon as they were through with it because of the bad language in it. She didn’t want her boys to ever be exposed to that. I was dumbfounded, I had to go back through the book to even figure out what she was talking about. It turns out it was, among other things, the language that Weston used in Perelandra. Every single instance of “bad” language that I could find was by evil characters. I felt like saying, “Duh, of course the bad guys use some (fairly mild) bad language, it’s how the author paints the character realistically.” Ironically , when her boys were finally the age to read the space trilogy what they were reading instead was Tom Clancy. Somehow the mom who diligently went through her daughter’s library books putting little pieces of paper over the bad words let her sons read Tom Clancy with no monitoring at all (I don’t think she even knew how bad the language was).

    I do think that some books are better not read too young. For example, I would not allow my daughter to read books like A House Like A Lotus that had graphic sexual scenes when she was still in high school. When she finally read it she’d been exposed to far worse in her college lit classes. I still think that preserving her innocence as a teen was a proper thing to do.

    However, she certainly knew what a scrotum was by fifth grade because we raise sheep and one of the perennial quiz bowl questions had to do with the circumference of a ram’s scrotum and she had to trim and wash many a ram’s scrotum before showing them. I will admit that non-animal raising adults and kids might be more scandalized to find the word in a kid’s book. We would have read right through it without blinking.

    What scandalizes one person won’t scandalize another. A Day No Pigs Would Die highly offends some people while others take it in stride. To Kill a Mockingbird offends some people while others cherish it as a classic.

    I’m far less bothered by isolated words than I am with themes or messages that are inappropriate for kids of a certain age or that really seek to tear down a Judeo-Christian value system and replace it with a nihilistic one. Even there I think that as kids get older it’s not bad for them to wrestle with those types of literature. The ideas are out there, they’re in the music, on the screen, in the conversation of many of their peers. It’s not bad for them to examine the ideas and figure out why to reject them. I just think that the time for controversial books is late in a child’s school career, not early.

    I’m sort of surprised that teachers were engaging in this sort of weeding out. In my experience around here it’s more apt to be parents that find books objectionable while the teachers are campaigning to include things that a lot of parents wouldn’t want their kids to read.

    I agree with Jen about abridged books. If they aren’t old enough to read the unexpurgated version, they aren’t ready for the book yet. It’s far better to set a book aside for later and read a different book than to pass an abridged version off as the real thing.

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