Ethical Dilemmas in Teaching Problem Novels:
The Psychological Impact of Troubling YA Literature on Adolescent Readers in the Classroom
Suzanne Reid and Sharon Stringer
This article is based on a session we presented at the 1995 ALAN Workshop and represents an ongoing dialogue with teachers, students, parents, and others who wish to respond constructively to an important moral challenge: How do teachers deal with sensitive topics in young adult literature without dodging controversies or overextending their expertise?
We decided to write this article a year earlier at the 1994 ALAN Workshop where we met. We were listening to a group of teachers and librarians discussing censorship of young adult literature in high school classrooms. "Censorship is wrong," pronounced one of the leaders, as others nodded in agreement. Both of us stiffened, viscerally expressing our deeply felt "But..," despite our generally liberal cultural views and teaching methods. Later, as we tried to understand the reasons for our reaction, we identified three dilemmas that complicate our choice of the literature we make available in our classroom, making our selections more than a simple decision to include everything we can afford.
Knowledge Is Power vs. The Right to Innocence
The basic motivation for most education is that knowledge empowers. Beyond the obvious advantages of teaching marketable skills and socially acceptable manners and speech, many schools are now expected to be responsible for the health and safety of their adolescents. With the steady erosion of family, church, and neighborhood, which traditionally passed down information and moral guidelines about sex, drugs, and crime, we see a reactionary influence from parents, teachers, and even students, who urge schools to fill that gap. Now that many adolescents have the same access as adults to drugs, sex, and freedom of movement, it seems appropriate to provide them with pertinent information about the danger and consequences of these powerful elements.
In a recent, informal survey of both high-school teachers and first-year college students, respondents indicated that schools have a responsibility to address the following issues with students between the ages of eleven and fourteen years: drug and alcohol abuse, sexuality, homosexuality, ethics, gangs, self-reliance, hope, prejudice, self-esteem, and AIDS. Most of these topics are controversial in our current society. Teaching these subjects includes disseminating information that many people feel uncomfortable discussing. However, our survey indicates that the people involved are willing to overcome this discomfort in order to empower young people with information about "the basic situations they might encounter," as one of the students phrased her answer. Young adult literature about these subjects is welcome. A point against censorship!
On the other hand, we wonder about the wisdom of bombarding young people with so much highly-charged information and so many provocative images that they either become desensitized or jaded. Psychologists and others (Garbarino, 1993; Steinberg, 1993; Peck, 1992) underline the importance of not trivializing signs of risk or dismissing adolescents' problems. Young people hear so much about disastrous behavior that they may begin to consider the abuse of drugs, sex, or personal boundaries as normal: "Everybody goes through this" becomes the mantra. The glibness of much of the popular media teaches young people to echo politically correct lines without entering into a sincere and thoughtful dialogue that might actually affect their behavior. One participant in our ALAN workshop asked if it is realistic to view young people as innocent today. What about focusing young people's attention on heroic ideals and the communal values of literature traditionally taught in schools? Would we be fostering a better future by encouraging a recommitment to these ideals rather than exposing children to knowledge that might lead to disillusionment or despair?
Or, do we run the risk of endangering students by keeping important information from them? Shouldn't we let them mentally rehearse possibly volatile situations by providing well-written literature about adolescent problems? Our thinking traced the kind of circular worry that plagues those of us who care about young people and recognize the complexity of their lives.
Then we explored a few solutions that might offer an acceptable compromise. First we decided that we might provide information at a safe emotional distance by arranging for students to research and study local options regarding these issues. Offering an array of relevant novels and reviewing the extent of disclosure and the intensity of emotional language can allow students to select reading material appropriate for their interest and maturity. An excellent resource is Joan Kaywell's article, "Using Young Adult Problem Fiction and Nonfiction to Produce Critical Readers" in The Alan Review, which outlines this teaching strategy.
Because of the controversy surrounding many books that deal honestly with adolescents' problems, teachers who care enough to provide this literature should be prepared for opposition. We need to be aware of the censorship policies in our own school and community. We find it helpful to remember that there is little difference in the minds of students and parents between requiring a book, recommending a book, and having the book available in the classroom. Teachers who have been involved in controversies about literature urge other teachers to know about the books they decide to use and why they are including them. When teachers decide that a book will be useful to even one student, they need to articulate reasons why this knowledge is more important than innocence (or ignorance) before any challenge arises. Blanket statements about the need for knowledge and the desire for innocence are as useless as most panaceas. Teachers recognize the differences among students and can provide individuals with appropriate literature without recommending the same texts to others. "Censorship" implies making literature absolutely unavailable to anyone. Teachers, trained to recognize the learning needs of students, should be trusted to make judgments about what texts to provide to individual students and when those texts might be most helpful.
I Feel So Alone vs. This Happens to Everyone
On the one hand, adolescents need opportunities to recognize that they are not alone, no matter how different they may feel. Young adult literature can fill this need for many students, reducing their isolation by telling a story that they can relate to, that sounds familiar enough to reassure them of their normality. In the aforementioned survey, students and teachers alike identified the basic problems of adolescents as the lack of self-esteem and concern about peer pressures. For most adolescents, feeling different is not so much feeling special as feeling out of touch and marginalized from a communal culture, which is probably more an imagined construct than a real unity in modern high schools.
On the other hand, we are concerned that the constant exposure to violence, substance abuse, and other affronts to human dignity through the media may convince students that this kind of behavior is normal. In our high-school and college classes, we meet students who are already disillusioned about human nature, who seem to believe that the future is a bleak canvas of decreasing opportunities for heroic acts and communal salvation of society or the physical world. It is discouraging to see such despair in people so young, who are in the midst of forming new identities.
We believe in the redemption of the future by our students, and we challenge them to identify obstructions to a better life and to seek solutions to problems of the present. To that end, we support anything that encourages hopefulness and courage. Well-written literature can foster and preserve sensitivity to the restoration of human dignity. Many young adult novels do describe the long-term painful effects of "problems," yet usually offer hope, a sense that young people can be strong. For us, this window of light is a prerequisite for literature that we would recommend, because we feel that adolescents, without the buffer of longterm varied experiences, do run a greater risk of despair than adults. We like to reassure students that most situations are safe and most people today are well-intentioned, because, in our experiences, we have found this positive view of our world to be so. One way to accomplish this reassurance of young readers in the positive nature of their worlds is by recommending literature that includes respectful portraits of honorable young people who, although they may make mistakes, hold on to the kinds of ideals that build community. Some of these characters may not look like traditional heroes. However, their actions and their relationships with others, particularly those less fortunate than themselves, communicate idealism and hope. Adolescents need to know that they are not alone in their wishes for a better world and desire to believe in the goodness of people as well as in their pain.
Because adolescents tend to be self-absorbed, especially those who feel isolated because of personal problems, good literature that helps them focus their attention outside themselves offers a healthy antidote. Young adult literature offers an increasing range of nonfiction designed to be accessible and interesting for even the reluctant learner, and we think it is important to present this variety of viewpoints. By focusing on the joys of different experiences, the interesting details of other cultures, and the advantages of modern life where so many viewpoints are accessible, students can learn to celebrate their lives no matter how different or disconnected they may feel. As adolescents learn to accept others who may at first seem distant and different, they surely will become more accepting of themselves. Although we would encourage the teaching of literature that welcomes differing cultural viewpoints, yet, both of us would probably censor texts that endorse only a single view of life. More simply, we censor literature that excludes, because we feel that during adolescence, students should be allowed to explore various options before making definitive choices about their own identities. We hope to encourage them to feel unique and special as individual thinkers but also to appreciate that none of their experiences separate them from humanity. Whatever their situation, each of them needs to feel that they are acceptable to the human family.
A Teacher Is Not a Counselor vs. Any Discussion Is Helpful
The last dilemma is one we face anytime we open up our classrooms for spontaneous discussion. How much should we encourage or even allow self-disclosure in the classroom? Effective teachers often draw more openness from their students. Thus, they are faced with more challenges. English teachers become aware of their students' problems especially through their responses to reading and through their writing. However, we lack the appropriate training, the time, and the resources to counsel any individual student with professional depth. Yet many young adult texts that we select for the classroom are written effectively enough to elicit strong emotional reactions either to the text itself or to memories triggered by the closeness of the plot to the reader's actual experience.
Because these novels are patterned after the lives of adolescents, often their plots and characters mirror more closely our students' lives than more traditional texts, which distance the reader because they occur in an unfamiliar time or setting or are written in a more formal style. The impact of young adult novels is strong because they tend to deal with issues that are immediately relevant to adolescents and to use a style that is so accessible that it bypasses the need for translation by the intellect into emotional imagery. For both teachers and students, this strong, immediate impact is exciting and attractive because it is so close to the intellectual excitement we crave for our students and yet find difficult to engender. However, if we induce controversy and emotional excitement in our classroom, aren't we responsible for guaranteeing that it be channeled safely? Is such safety possible in a classroom setting with no protection against interruption or breach of confidence?
On the other hand, we are in a prime position to affect our students' lives positively. As teachers who are in daily contact with students and who can influence them greatly, we need to avoid trivializing the dramas, and traumas, of adolescents. Our attention or lack of attention to an issue sends a powerful message. How much do we owe our students and/or our community in addressing these issues? What are we censoring by simply omitting or ignoring?
We feel that the most appropriate answers to these questions must vary with each individual teacher. Despite the stereotypical statements constantly engendered by politicians and other "experts" on education, we are not interchangable cookie-cutter agents. More than most professionals with their clients, teachers' relationships with each student differ, and every teacher must know him or herself well enough to accurately judge his or her responses to problematic subjects. Being honest enough with ourselves and our students to avoid involvement in issues that overextend our energies, knowledge, and abilities is vitally important to making wise judgments. We need to remember to be fair to ourselves as well as generous to our students in deciding to omit (or censor) a discussion topic or text.
Seasoned teachers know that each class has a separate "personality," depending on innumerable variables and a text that is appropriate and even valuable for one group may be a dud for another group. We need to know our students well enough to judge what is absolutely vital to discuss or read about and what is best left alone for the time being. We need to help students learn to act appropriately in classroom settings without too much personal risk or misplaced trust. "Letting it all hang out" is not safe in all situations, and censoring certain topics in some classrooms protects our students from painful behaviors beyond our control.
Finally, we should know the most appropriate people for referral. Before we broach potentially volatile situations, we can find a counselor or other person in a position of authority who we trust will respect clients' needs for confidentiality and offer sound advice. We need to assess our instincts toward the person rather than trust in the title or position and to talk to her or him frequently about our concerns. We should help our students learn how to find help and strength from appropriate sources with as much honesty and knowledge as is possible.
In summary, we try to follow these guidelines:
1. We only use YA problem literature that we have read and evaluated.
2. We try to balance awareness of the problems of adolescence with a reasonable vision of life's breadth and of human strength.
3. We try to provide our students with a variety of resources, helping them select options which are appropriate for their individual needs and strengths.
We believe that our personal judgment is valid in selecting what is best for our students. Yes, we are censoring the literature we select and read in class, the topics we discuss, and even the sources for help we recommend. We find the courage to make these judgments because we care about fostering the health and safety of our individual students more than upholding to a principle of justice. In a perfect world, where students could react to all ideas with reasoned responses, censorship would be wrong. But in the messy world where we teach, we should have the power to rely on our training and our judgments about what is most appropriate for the emotional safety and well-being of individual students.
The two of us are grateful for those who fight against censorship and give us the choice to make selections based on our informed judgments. We also urge all teachers to avoid a knee-jerk reaction against censorship and to select literature for their classroom with thoughtful consideration to the impact on students. Literature is powerful, and we must use that power with care.
Garbarino, J. "Enhancing Adolescent Development Through Social Policy." In Handbook of Clinical Research and Practice with Adolescents. Eds. P.H. Tolan and B.J. Cohler. John Wiley and Sons, 1993, pp. 469-488.
Suzanne Reid teaches in the English and Education Departments at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. Sharon Stringer teaches in the Department of Psychology at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Reid, Suzanne, and Sharon Stringer. (1997). Ethical dilemmas in teaching problem novels: The psychological impact of troubling YA literature on adolescent readers in the classroom. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 16-18.