ALAN v27n3 - The Research Connection: Creating a Censorship Simulation

The Research Connection

Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens

Creating a Censorship Simulation

Jean E. Brown

For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in addressing censorship issues in a variety of ways. These included being the SLATE Representative for Michigan; serving a term on the SLATE Steering Committee; presenting at national and state meetings; and chairing the CEE Commission on Intellectual Freedom which produced Preserving Intellectual Freedom , published by NCTE in 1995. I have had a continuing interest in providing practicing teachers and those preparing to teach with the skills and tools they need to address and combat challenges to the free exchange of ideas. The importance of the subject has, on an on-going basis, been a component of all my young adult literature classes, undergraduate and graduate. Therefore, in fall 1998, I was disturbed when two local high school teachers who were at that time my graduate students (both of whom had also been my undergraduates) revealed that they experienced challenges to books they selected for their classes. They were frustrated and angry, but they had not known what to do. One was planning to use Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher with a class of high school juniors and the other wanted to teach Victor Martinez's Parrot in the Oven with her high school students. Neither was allowed to teach the book. Both teachers accepted the decision without protest or reconsideration of their choices. While these two incidents were taking place, a third censorship case at a local middle school took place in the library/media center when the principal removed several popular magazines. The librarian contacted me for advice about how to respond. Through materials from NCTE and the American Library Association, and other professional assistance and recommendations, the librarian mounted a successful response and the magazines were returned to the library shelves.

I thought about these three cases at length. Finally, I realized, once I'd overcome my own feelings of failure, that censorship is an interesting academic topic for most students, one that evokes intellectual reactions, fervor, and even indignation. An intellectual response is not necessarily the way to combat a censorship challenge. Teachers need the skills and practice to respond to the challenge and take positive actions. The librarian had been involved in other cases. She acted and sought solutions; she had a level of "censorship savvy." The two English teachers were novices in the censor battles. It is difficult for those who have never experienced a censorship challenge to feel what teachers go through when their professional decisions are questioned. Without experiencing a censorship challenge, it is difficult to understand what a serious impact it has on teachers. On the other hand, for those who have experienced a censorship challenge, it is a significant and even life altering experience.

At the Fall NCTE in Nashville, during a presentation about censorship, I discussed these three cases and how each was resolved. The presentation made me think about ways in which I could address censorship in my graduate classes. I sought ways that would break down the academic barriers and help the teachers in our Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program to recognize that censorship is a real and potential danger to all teachers. The two teachers who had experienced censorship were enrolled in a graduate course that I was going to offer winter semester 1999. The course, Themes and Issues in Young Adult Literature, always focused on controversial issues, but this time I decided to add an additional component, a censorship simulation. The students enrolled in the class were primarily high school teachers; however, there were also several middle school and upper elementary grade teachers in the class. The middle and secondary teachers either taught English or social studies.

Structuring the Simulation

Once I decided to proceed with the Censorship Simulation, I created a framework for it. In this framework, I identified the major steps for creating and implementing the semester-long activity. The framework was as follows:

Steps in the Censorship Simulation
Steps in the Censorship Simualtion
Figure 1

Determine Goals and Objectives

  • Identify the educational purpose of the simulation
  • Articulate purpose

Fundamentally, the purpose of the simulation was to provide students with a realistic experience with censorship. So often censorship challenges are kept quiet in schools and the teachers involved are told not to discuss the situation with anyone. Isolating teachers and depriving them of any support system during this stressful time is damaging and demoralizing. Denying the existence of challenges will not make them go away. Censorship, to paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, has become the dirty little secret of the American schools.

Establish a rationale

  • Identify a need
  • Articulate a justification

The experiences of the two teachers provided a logical rationale for the simulation. These two teachers are bright and dedicated, with their students' best interests in mind; yet, when they faced opposition to their reading selections, they were at a loss about how to proceed. All the class discussions had not prepared them for this experience. They needed a more clearly articulated approach to know how to respond.

Create a setting

  • Establish a hypothetical community/school
  • Provide demographics

The teachers in my graduate class were from a fairly diverse geographical and socio-economic area; however, the majority of them were from either a suburban or rural community. I decided to create a community, which I called Brookville, an ethnically diverse suburban community with a regional high school where the challenge would "occur." I prepared a data sheet on the "community" demographics to give to the class members at the beginning of the semester.

Provide the situation

  • Select the book to be "challenged"
  • Create a context for the scenario

The selection of an appropriate book presented its own difficulties. I wanted to use a book that I knew students would read and enjoy. I didn't want to use a book that would be an obvious red flag. I felt that the book should be challenged not for the use of "bad" language or explicit sexual content, but for its ideas. I selected David Klass' California Blue as the challenged book. I felt that the environmental ramifications of the book made it appropriately controversial and I knew that the book was popular with students. I had included a paper mill as part of the economic base for Brookville, so the match seemed fortuitous. It is a book that could evoke a strong community reaction for its ecological versus industry conflict; however, there are also other issues that are more frequently evocative of challenges from conservative community members. Among the areas of potential concern are the explosive relationship between the protagonist and his father, a basic rejection of parental authority, and the problematic relationship between the protagonist and his attractive, young biology teacher. These two aspects of the book could easily be used as smokescreens for people who were seeking to suppress the ideas in a book. I felt that this bi-level potential for censorship was realistic.

Identify student roles

  • Students randomly select a role

Reflecting on the number of challenges that I have had referred to me over the years, I made a list of school personnel, students, and community representatives who are often involved in a censorship challenge. It was important to have a widely diverse group to lend a sense of realism to the simulation.

  • Sample roles are as follows:
    • Teacher
    • Administrator
    • School Board members
    • Citizen filing complaint
    • Community members
    • Supporting Complaint
    • Opposing Complaint
    • Teachers' Union Representative
    • English Department Chair
    • School librarian
    • Science teacher
    • English teacher
    • Secondary Curriculum Director
    • Supporter of complainant
    • High school students

The members of the graduate class randomly selected their roles for the simulation, with one exception. I decided to identify a member of the class who would assume the role of the teacher who was challenged. She had finished her graduate program and was taking the class simply because she was interested in it. I knew her well and felt that she would be a strong "character" in the face of difficulty. She was not concerned about grades or her program and could operate more comfortably than the rest of the students in the class.

After class members selected their roles, they were not given the opportunity to trade roles or select a different one. Those who were on the side of the complaint were initially disturbed, but as time progress they gained confidence. All the members of the class maintained their roles for the entire semester.

I decided that I would play a dual role in the simulation; first being actively involved as the school principal, everyone's nightmare of an administrator who over-reacts to the community, without supporting her faculty, and does not follow policies and procedures. In this role, I was able to establish the emotional tone for the simulation.

The second role was as an all-round media person: editor of the Brookville Sentinel , newspaper reporter, and newscaster for the local television station. This role allowed me to raise concerns and ideas of the case in order to help students discuss the issues of censorship, and help students to approach it rationally.

Create the initial complaint

  • Establish the cause for the challenge
  • Be deliberately vague

A parent complains to the principal that California Blue by David Klass is "inappropriate" and "disgusting." The parent demands that it be removed as a choice in the contemporary literature class and also removed from the school library. This is obviously so vague that it is difficult to have a real feel for what is happening; however, often, complaints do begin as emotionally charged, yet, imprecise as this. As the semester progresses, the complainant and the supporters of the complaint will clearly articulate the specific concerns about the book.

Develop a plan for action

  • Initial reflection
  • Dual entry journal writing

Reading, discussing, and writing about young adult literature were the major components of the course. The simulation was designed to be an additional, complementary facet to the total academic experience, an experience that was part of a range in that class. Since the majority of the course readings were all books that had generated controversy, an initial discussion of censorship was appropriate. For their first out-of-class assignment, the students were asked to create their own definitions of censorship. Additionally they were asked to discuss any incident of censorship in the schools that they had personally experienced or about which they had first hand knowledge.

The students were also asked to keep a simulation log, a weekly account of the experience. Each week the log was to include an entry reflection about what was happening in the "case," reflecting on role-playing experiences, readings, and group interactions. Each entry was actually a dual entry because the students were asked to respond first from their own perspective as a professional teacher and a parallel entry responding to the same issues, but in their simulation role.

Structure Experiences

  • Shape learning experiences
  • Determine length and sequence activities

The simulation log was one learning experience for the class. Other class experiences were designed to provide the class members with an in-depth knowledge of censorship cases, causes, and implications. The following are some of the activities that the class was involved in. They read and responded to journal articles. Additionally, they researched and discussed policies and procedures that area school districts use when a censorship challenge is lodged. In class, the students analyzed all of the policies and procedures in order to synthesize the "best" information into policies and procedures for the Brookville schools. Both sides of the censorship issue planned and presented their sides' position in a simulated board meeting.

Determine Assessment

  • Create assessment instruments
  • Determine grading procedures

I decided to have a two-tiered final assessment for the students. First, they would complete an assessment survey in which they responded to a number of issues about censorship and their experiences during the simulation. While this assessment instrument would not be graded, it was designed to help the students take an introspective look at the experience and help prepare them to write a synthesis paper. This paper, the assessment second tier, was to focus on the changes or reinforcement of their perceptions of censorship and addressing censorship in the schools.

In addition to the final paper, the class members were assessed on their class participation and their simulation logs. The students regularly were writing in response to the role-playing activities or to readings on censorship.

Reflections of the Simulation

The post-simulation assessment instrument yielded positive reactions from the students. The following findings were among the student responses to the assessment. Seventy-eight percent of the students strongly agreed that they had a better understanding of censorship because of the simulation. Sixty-one per cent agreed and thirty-nine per cent strongly agreed that they felt confident about how to respond to a censorship challenge since taking the class. Twenty-two per cent strongly agreed and sixty-seven per cent agreed that they felt confident to assume a leadership role in their school/district to see that policies and procedures for handling a censorship challenge are in place and followed. Additionally, all the students agreed or strongly agreed that they were confident to share what they had learned with their colleagues. Ninety-four per cent agreed that they were comfortable in preparing a rationale for selection of books or other instructional materials.

Additionally, the students were asked to indicate what they considered to be useful aspects of the simulation. The following are selected responses:

  • Role playing
  • Exploring and researching role
  • Experiencing the feeling of being involved in a challenge
  • The realism of the number of people involved
  • Hearing both sides of the issue
  • Watching the evolution and resolution if the situation
  • Having to take a position in opposition to my own
  • Random selection of roles
  • Media and editorials
  • Developing a rationale
  • Broad representation of opinions
  • Reading California Blue
  • Seeing both sides more clearly
  • Thinking about issues that I wasn't aware of before
  • Realizing the inflammatory issues that surround a censorship case


As I have read student responses to the assessment and their simulation log entries, I realize that the simulation was a powerful experience for the students. Eighty-nine per cent of the students felt that they learned more through the simulation than by a more traditional learning experiences. I found that many of the students were surprised by the impact that censorship has. They were not prepared for the intensity of the experience. I was pleased and frankly surprised by the intensity and involvement of the students in the simulation. One of the most satisfying aspects of it for me was that the majority of the students realized the pervasiveness of censorship challenges and that they can happen to any teacher, regardless of how well prepared he or she is. Since the students indicated that they felt confident about how they would respond to censorship in their schools, my objectives for the simulation were achieved. My only hope is that these students will never have to practice what they learned in the simulation.

Jean E. Brown can be reached Rhode Island College, Providence, RI and Elaine C. Stephens can be reached at 409 Pearl Street, South Haven, Michigan 49090. Their e-mail addresses are: and and they welcome your responses.

Censorship Bibliography

Brinkley, Ellen. Caught off Guard Teachers Rethink Censorship and Controversy . Needham Heights, MA: 1999.

Brown, Jean E. with Elaine C. Stephens. "Being Proactive, Not Waiting for the Censor" in Preserving Intellectual Freedom . Urbana, IL. National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

_______."Close to Home: Responding to Censorship," The Michigan English Teacher , Winter, 1999.

_____."Defining Obscenity," The Michigan English Teacher , 42 (Spring) #2, 1992.

_____."Fighting the Same Battle," The Michigan English Teacher , August, 1998.

_____."Leadership and Intellectual Freedom: The Battle for Control of the Public Schools," The English Quarterly , December 1996.

_____ with Elaine C. Stephens. "Preparing for Challenges: Developing Rationales," a SLATE Starter Sheet , NCTE, 1994.

_____. Editor. Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools . Urbana, IL. National Council of Teachers of English, Fall 1994.

_____."The Relentless Campaign of the Radical Right," The Michigan English Teacher , Volume 47, #1, Fall, 1997.

_____."Resolved to Reject Censorship," The Michigan English Teacher , 42 (Summer) #3, 1992.

_____. Editor. SLATE on Intellectual Freedom , National Council of Teachers of English, 1995.

_____. "Taking a Stand Against Censorship in Michigan" in the SLATE Newsletter , Spring, 1992.

Collier, Christopher. "Censored: An Author's Perspective," in Brother Sam and All That , by Christopher Collier, Orange, CN: The Clearwater Press, 1999.

Cormier, Robert. "A Book is Not a House The Human Side of Censorship," in Authors' Insights: turning Teenagers into Readers and Writers, Don Gallo, editor. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1992.
Cormier relates his experiences with censorship and their impact on students. He also reflects on his own experiences with self-censorship.

Davis, Jim. Dealing with Censorship. Urbana, IL. National Council of Teachers of English, 1989.

Moffett, James. Storm in the Mountain A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness , Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Reichman, Henry. Censorship and Selection Issues and Answers for School . Chicago, IL, 1988.

Salvner, Gary. "A War of Words: Lessons from a Censorship Case," in The ALAN Review , Winter, 1998.

Signal, Special Issue on Censorship , editor Elizabeth Poe, Fall, 1994, Volume XIX, Issue, 1.

Simmons , John S. Editor. Censorship A threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking . Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1994.

Reference Citation: Brown, Jean E. (2000) "Creating a Censorship Simulation." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 3, Page 27 - 30.