Using Banned Books to Address Race in Class

September 21-27, 2014, marks Banned Books Week. This year, I’ve decided to take a different approach to talking about banned books with my students than I usually do. Because of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, at the start of the school year, my students have been incredibly eager to talk about race in the United States. They not only want to know how our nation is handling race issues like the clash between the mostly white police force and predominantly black citizens in Ferguson, but they also want to know how our country got to where we are today.

Their desire led me to discuss in class three challenged or banned books that explicitly address racial themes and provide insight into the racial tensions of their depicted time periods; in some cases, the banning of the book was related to its historically accurate depictions of race and racism.  

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I assign Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird every chance I get. The story features Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. The majority of the story centers around the court case her father, Atticus, is involved in. A lawyer, Atticus is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping and beating a poor white woman. While there is not a shred of evidence that Robinson committed the crime (and plenty that points to who did), the town generally accepts that Robinson committed the crime simply because he is black and the victim is white. As the case unfolds, readers see—through young Scout’s eyes—an accurate picture of race-based injustice in the South in the 1930s.

Even though the depictions of racism are historically accurate, the book has been banned and challenged over and over because of them. In the 1980s and again from 2003 to 2009 the book was challenged repeatedly for its use of the n-word and its descriptions of institutionalized racism.*

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain explores contemporary (1884) moral and social justice issues through the boyhood escapades of Huck Finn and his friend, Tom Sawyer. When Huck’s wayward father comes demanding money he and Tom stole, Huck ends up escaping to Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River where he meets Jim, a runaway slave. Despite questioning the morality of helping a runaway, Huck eventually decides to help Jim. What follows is both a hair-raising adventure and a commentary on the realities of slavery.

Considering the book was first published in 1884, not long after the Civil War, it was deemed ahead of its time in its open criticism of slavery in the United States. However, the book continues to be banned in schools and libraries across the country specifically because of its use of the n-word.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Upon its publication in 1952, Invisible Man became an instant classic. The book follows an unnamed narrator through his childhood and college years as a black person in the South and on to Harlem, which is strikingly less racially tolerant than we might expect from the lessons in our history books. The novel was instantly praised for its accurate portrayal of racial injustice in the 1950s. The narrator is purposely unnamed to draw attention to his invisibility—an invisibility forced upon him simply because he is a black man that white people refuse to truly see. Ellison’s novel has been critically admired for decades, in part for its graphic depictions of what it meant to be black during a time of great civil unrest in this country.

Unfortunately, the book has also been banned and challenged for decades. Most recently, in 2013, the book was banned in Randolph County, North Carolina, because, as the school board said, it had no “literary value.” This is a ridiculous claim to make about a novel that is considered one of the best of all time and that expertly addresses complex questions of identity, diversity, justice and action against injustice.

Each of these books addresses complex race-related questions—questions our students still grapple with in today’s increasingly diverse world—and the classroom is the perfect place to start talking about them.** Invisible Man provides many opportunities to explore issues of identity. For instance, “What does it feel like when society denies who we are?” To Kill A Mockingbird is ripe for justice-based questions like “How do bias and prejudice undermine equal rights?” And Huckleberry Finn is an ideal text for discussing the need for action in the face of injustice: “Do we have the same responsibility to act on behalf of those outside of our identity group as we do for members of our own identity groups?”

These books are only three of the great classics that show historically accurate portrayals of racism in this country. If you’re looking for a way to discuss racism with your students, consider adding one of these books to your curriculum—and be sure to discuss why it is has been historically challenged so frequently. You are guaranteed to have a great discussion with your students if you do.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.

*While Teaching Tolerance does not support banning books or teaching editions that remove controversial content altogether, we do support teachers making informed decisions about how and when to teach difficult or potentially upsetting content. See our piece "Straight Talk About the N-Word" for more on how to facilitate conversations when teaching books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn.

**The essential questions in this blog were adapted from Teaching Tolerance’s anti-bias curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America. You can find dozens of texts on the topic of race and ethnicity in Perspectives' Central Text Anthology.

The Activist Award Essay

Editor’s note: This is the final blog in a series about an English unit using activist memoirs to teach about social justice. Read the first, second and third blogs here.

My students and I had read activist memoirs and studied injustice and means of fighting it. We’d also written about how activists use their strengths to promote justice and discussed how to overcome internal barriers to acting on our values. Now that we’d come to the end of our unit on activism, I wanted to design a writing assignment that would allow students to connect their experiences to their activists.

As luck would have it, a lesson about Bayard Rustin in my Teaching Tolerance feed suggested that students create an award to recognize “students who embody the qualities that made Bayard Rustin such an important activist.” This gave me the idea to have my students write essays in which they would invent fictional awards named after their activists, awards they could imagine being given every year to a student at our school: for example, “The Irene Gut Opdyke Award” for ___ or “The Will Allen Award” for ___.

To brainstorm possible criteria for awards named after their activists, the students went through their notes and made lists: injustices a winner of this award might have stood up to, actions a winner of this award might have taken, strengths a winner of this award might show and ways a winner of this award might have overcome barriers to action. From these lists, each student selected a few criteria for the award and used examples from their activists’ lives to explain these criteria in their essays.

For example, one student’s “William Kamkwamba Award” was for using one’s love of learning in a way that benefits the community. She wrote about how Kamkwamba taught himself about electricity and engineering so he could build a windmill that would power his family’s farm. Another student’s “William Kamkwamba Award” was for taking action against injustice in spite of peer pressure, and he described how Kamkwamba endured name-calling and teasing as he worked.

The harder part of the assignment was nominating a fellow student to win the fictional award. I asked the students to find someone enrolled at our school so they couldn’t avoid the opportunity to notice the “activist potential” in their classmates. That potential might have manifested as taking small but significant actions against injustices such as online bullying or teachers’ misuse of power, or it might have meant showing character strengths like kindness, creativity and prudence that could one day be used to combat injustice.

I then asked students to share their concerns and suggestions. Many said they felt awkward writing about a classmate or worried their friends might feel bad for not getting nominated. They suggested keeping their nominees private or deliberately nominating a student who wasn’t a friend. Another common worry was that they wouldn’t be able to find anyone to nominate. Some asked if they could change their criteria, saying things like, “I don’t think there’s anyone here who designed a creative alternative to an unjust system like Will Allen did.” I reminded them that people like Will Allen who write memoirs have “big” actions to write about, but that smaller acts count, too. In fact, part of the point of this project is to appreciate these small yet significant acts. I encouraged the students to look for people and actions they hadn’t noticed before.

Many students ended up writing about their friends, but many didn’t. One boy, a popular athlete, nominated for his “William Kamkwamba Award” a less popular boy who’d pursued his music in spite of being teased. A girl nominated for her “Irene Gut Opdyke Award” a sixth-grader who’d overcome her fears to star in the school play. Some students appeared in multiple essays, like the boy who started a club to educate his peers about racial injustices and the girl who created a survey to convince school leaders that a daily snack would help improve students’ focus in class.

An assignment like this could be used in classes besides English, too. Students could learn about human rights activists in history or civics. In science, they could study advocates of justice for health care or the environment, and in the arts, they could read about artist-activists. Even a short article about an activist could give students a sense of how the course’s content intersects with social justice and how practitioners of the disciplines they’re studying use their work to effect change. From there, students could choose award criteria, nominate a classmate and write an essay that demonstrates their understanding of the subject and helps them notice and appreciate their classmates.

As I continue to teach this unit, I want my seventh-graders to use their assignments as opportunities to discover within themselves and each other the potential to be citizens, leaders and activists in their communities. I want them to be more than readers and writers of texts; I want them to be readers and writers of their own lives.

Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.


Gear Up for Mix with “Mixers”

One way to get into the Mix It Up spirit before Mix It Up at Lunch Day is with…mixers. Confused? Don’t be.

Teaching Tolerance offers dozens of free online resources to use in the classroom during the weeks before your Mix It Up event. We call them “mixers.” These lessons are available for all grade levels, and they cover a variety of subjects.

Mixers are a great way to help raise awareness about divisions and boundaries that might be present at your school. Check out these options.

It’s About Me: Students introduce themselves using a photo or object that is important to them. (Grades 1-12)

Human Scavenger Hunt: Students get to know each other while searching for their partners. (Grades PreK-5)

Fact or Fiction?: Students must guess whether statements about their group members are true or false. (Grades 6-12)

Use these mixers before the “official” Mix It Up at Lunch Day on Oct. 28 to deepen the impact of your event.

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here!

Mix It Up Any Way You Can

Yes, it’s called Mix It Up at Lunch Day, but lunch means different things to different schools.

Some schools may have multiple lunch times starting as early as 10:30 a.m. Students in sunny states might eat outside and spread out across campus. Does your school even use the cafeteria? Or is your lunch break so short there’s barely time to eat, much less socialize?

Your school’s schedule may have you feeling like a lunchtime activity is too complicated. But with a little creativity from students, teachers and staff, you can make Mix It Up happen.

Last year, some schools began the day with Mix It Up advisory periods or pep rallies. Other schools kept the “Mix spirit” going throughout the day by exchanging teachers or students. Some even mixed up their P.E. and art classes!

Keep your plan flexible. Can’t do lunch? Do breakfast or an after-school meal. Can’t do Oct. 28? Pick another date that works. If you can’t turn Mix It Up at Lunch into one school-wide event, host multiple events throughout the school day or over a week. 

Remember: Flexibility and creativity are your friends. Don’t let “lunch” get in the way of your Mix It Up event. If you’ve found a solution to your “lunchtime” problem, share it with us on Facebook or Twitter so others can learn about innovative options for Mix It Up at Lunch!

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here!

The Fall Issue Has Arrived!

Fall is upon us, and a new issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine is hot off the press and making its way into schools across the country.

Equity issues take center stage throughout our Fall issue. The cover story, “Lunch Lines,” explores how some school cafeteria policies can single out and stigmatize students from low-income families. “BYOD? [Bring Your Own Device]” examines how relying on students to provide their own digital learning devices can have unintended emotional and financial consequences. “404 Error: Teacher Not Found” delves into the world of online education—a field that provides options for some students but shortchanges others.

This issue also features a one-on-one interview with The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, who discusses mass incarceration and why it’s important to teach about it.  

And—in case you haven’t heard—Teaching Tolerance just released a new anti-bias curriculum. The Fall issue includes a fun and colorful user guide that will walk you through Perspectives for a Diverse America. (It’s one of our favorite infographics ever!)

These feature stories just scratch the surface of this new issue. Our departments, including What We’re Reading, What We’re Watching and Ed Café, also provide resources and strategies you can use immediately.

Teaching Tolerance is published three times a year and distributed free of charge to educators nationwide. Subscribe today, and you can immediately download it on your iPad or read it online!

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