Reading Banned Books Out Loud

As many teachers know, September is the time for setting classroom routines, meeting families and setting goals for your students. In the frenzy of all the things teachers have to do in a day, we hold on to the routines we enjoy the most, or feel are the most productive. With Banned Books Week running through Saturday, I thought I’d digress on the importance of intellectual freedom and the many benefits of doing daily read alouds with your students.

After six years of teaching, I can safely say much of what I learned in grad school about educational pedagogy has escaped me. That said, I remember the day I learned that reading aloud is one of (if not the) best ways to help students become become better readers. Despite all of my weaknesses as a new teacher (and there were many), reading out loud was something I knew I could do. No lesson plan required, no guided reading groups, no modifications necessary.  It was me, them and our book for at least 15 minutes. Teaching at its most glorious.

Initially, I selected read aloud books for my kids that I knew they would love. I chose books like Harry Potter (challenged for occult/Satanism and violence ) and Captain Underpants (challenged for offensive language and being unsuited to age group.) At the time, I didn’t know these books were challenged or banned. As a first (and second) year teacher, that might have affected my selection decision.  I was, after all, only trying to stay afloat. I didn’t want to offend anyone, and I especially didn’t want angry parents. But then I had no reason to second guess my selections; my principal, my kids and I loved our read aloud routine and that was enough to convince me it was a successful classroom practice. Despite being challenged or banned in some places, these books were a safety to us. My kids knew what these stories were and wanted to hear them.  What more could a teacher want?

After we had our reading routine down and my students fully trusted my book selection skills, I got daring. I started to take advantage of our read aloud periods (the *only* quiet part of our day) by incorporating books that had a deeper message. During a period of classroom management challenges I read Roald Dahl’s The Witches (one of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s) and started wearing square toed shoes every day, a subtle visual reminder (for anyone paying attention) of who was really in charge. When I thought that as a group, we needed to work on our empathy and friendship building skills,  I read Charlotte’s Web (also challenged) by E. B. White. The lesson was mine that time; nothing brings a class together like a good cry.

Perhaps my most compelling read aloud experience was during an intense chapter of Helen Keller. Up until this point, Helen had many temper tantrums and my students were worried about her. I began the chapter where Annie Sullivan (Helen’s teacher) takes Helen’s hand and traces the letters d-o-l-l onto it to teach her that her doll has a name. As I trace the letters onto one of my student’s hands to demonstrate, my kids actually start to chant d-o-l-l. (So much for quiet:)  One of my students even jumped up and started to dance. My class was overwhelmed by Annie’s loyalty to Helen and Helen’s new found ability to learn to read. I was blown away at how deeply they were listening and feeling this story. (As far as I know Helen Keller has never been challenged or banned but I just had to share the story.)

There are a plethora of pedagogical reasons to read aloud to students. For me, the chance to see them so engrossed they forget their short attention spans or so attached to a character they modify their own behavior, was enough. It is shocking to me that in the year 2010 some of the books that evoked this behavior are challenged or banned in some places.

Though many of us teach in schools that lack resources (my own stories are shared from a “corrective action” school in the Bronx) we must remind ourselves that the access we have to rich and varied children’s literature is one of our biggest assets. We cannot take for granted that many of the books our students get the most out of, are in danger of being censored. I for one, could not imagine my formative years without the voice of Shel Silverstein or advice of Judy Blume (both challened, Blume frequently.) Nor could I imagine going through high school without George Orwell’s warnings, J.D. Salinger’s sarcasm or Toni Morrison’s perspective. During Banned Books week (and beyond) we should remember the value of our intellectual freedom and maximize the time we have with our kids to give them the stories that will guide them, the stories that they will remember. Choose wisely, and importantly, choose freely.

For more information about Banned Books week, visit the ALA’s website, and check out the most recent list of Challenged and/or Banned Books.