Better Safe Than Sorry
by John S. Simmons
Borrowing, for the moment, the title of Jonathan Swift's famous essay, I would like to offer "A Modest Proposal" to assist teachers and other school personnel in their attempts to anticipate censorship trouble. This proposal holds for all teachers at all grade levels but is directed most particularly at middle school Language Arts teachers as they prepare to present materials of various kinds to their students and even more particularly as they select turn-of-the-century Young Adult (YA) literature. Given the broad range of complaints and challenges being raised by parents and "concerned citizens" about what is taught these days, an ounce of prevention can truly be worth a pound of cure.
The essence of this proposal lies in the direction of post-school planning activities held in just about all schools in the late spring or early summer. To supplement or replace the required attendance at hortatory spiels from school district moguls, and/or removing chewing gum from desks and classroom tables, a kind of team effort might well help to deflect future censorship crises. When middle school teacher teams gather to consider the next academic year, they could develop a carefully planned, coordinated materials list. This list, hereafter called Published Materials List (PML), could prove invaluable in avoiding censorship problems.
The teams' responsibilities, under this proposal, would be to inventory what texts, films, videos, audio cassettes, pass outs, and the like which will be used in future programs of study. After the teams were through discussing, winnowing, adding to, and prioritizing these materials (noting gaps and overlaps), each team member would choose or be assigned a number of these selections. For selections to be placed on individualized reading lists, outside study, or other supplementary listings, the teachers in question would create a one or two sentence annotation. For materials to be the subject of all-class study, the annotations should be a bit longer, say three to five sentences--all expressed in concise, lay person's language.
For those teachers to whom certain selections--print and non-print--are unfamiliar, there are numerous professional resources available in the school media center, the district professional library, reference libraries in nearby junior colleges, four-year institutions and universities, young adult sections of public libraries, and materials published by national organizations whose memberships are composed of teachers and librarians. Some representative ones:
1. Publications (several) of the American Library Association
2. National Council of Teachers of English - Books for Your, Your Reading, English Journal, and frequent, specialized publications
3. International Reading Association - Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy
4. American Council of Education - Reading Ladders for Human Relations
5. H. W. Wilson, Standard Catalogues for Junior and Senior High School Libraries
6. Our own ALAN Review
7. And many more
For entries on individualized lists, the annotations found in most of the above (especially ALAN Review ), will be more than adequate.
Common sense should govern the nature and extent of annotations; i.e., most grammar/usage texts or writing style manuals require little or no explanation/defense. It is in the choice of literary and historical texts where these brief critiques would be most helpful. Two facts of contemporary public school life support such a need:
1. It is virtually impossible to find texts which are entirely "safe". Since they are all inevitably about something, individual parents/citizens may have cause for questioning any of them. This is particularly pertinent to well-written, contemporary YA selections which often are expressed in realistic terms and which are not widely considered to be "classics".
2. Attacks on most texts, films, etc., are almost always unanticipated by teachers, administrators, guidance personnel, media center/library directors, or district supervisory officials. These educators may be totally unaware of the potentially offensive nature of the selections in question. This is especially true of first-year teachers and those experienced ones who are new to the district/school.
The following briefly outlines next steps for creating and disseminating a Published Materials List. The department head, team leader, etc., would collect the annotated materials and, with the help of fellow teachers, assemble the list. School administrators and other affected officials would be provided with all of the above; in fact, their involvement during the whole procedure being welcomed. A final review session involving all participating parties would be a very good idea. To such a meeting would also be invited school board members, parent-teacher organizations, (PTO) school advisory council (SAC) participants, district superintendents and their staffs, and any other individuals the faculty feels might have some interest in the product.
Drafts of the PML would probably suffice for such a meeting. During the summer months, when the exigencies of daily school life are greatly reduced, school office personnel can be asked to prepare the annotated list in final, attractive (the current operant label is "reader friendly") form. A cover letter explaining the nature of and rationale for the PML should also be prepared. This letter would be co-signed by the building principal and the department heads/team leaders. Then, the completed document would be mailed out to the concerned individuals who are identified in the previous paragraph. Copies of the Published Materials List could be made available to all involved school personnel. Given the widespread and unpredictable nature of today's censorship incidence, that group would probably include just about everybody with the possible exception of the school custodians and cafeteria staff.
In the fall, the Published Materials List can be discussed in pre-school faculty meetings, with input encouraged. With an appropriate cover letter, it can also be distributed to students' homes. The cover letter should include an unequivocal, emphatic invitation for parental response: to the team leader/department head, using any means of communication including telephone, FAX, on-site visit, e-mail, or snail mail. Any such communications, needless to say, should be dealt with ASAP--and filed in the workroom cabinet. Further publicity may even be possible in the "school section" of the local newspaper. It is possible that the school board, PTO, and SAC may underwrite the cost of such a distribution. In any event, if the dissemination of the PML helps to create good will and succeeds in circumventing contentious hostilities, it's money well spent.
A review of this project would make a good topic for certain public meetings of school-related agencies such as Parent-Teacher Organization meetings (preferably in early fall), School Advisory Council sessions (same time frame), and School Board Agendas (any time; they usually meet throughout the year).
All of the above is suggested in the spirit of making the newly developed, Published Materials List both available and visible to all concerned . New, challenging inclusions, as represented by any teaching material or approach (meditation, improvised drama, and the like) should never be the world's best-kept secret. Such lessons, when they catch parents unaware, can cause reactions which are often spontaneous, emotional, unreasoning, and almost always hostile. It goes without saying that principals, team leaders/department heads, teachers, and librarians would like to avoid these kinds of confrontations. These potentially ugly battles can be an enormous waste of time and energy, and are bad for just about everybody--administrators, teachers, parents, and individual students.
The production of the Published Materials List may be a way to avoid the conflict. In fact, the PML can have a variety of payoffs:
- It can inform and protect principals.
- It can be significantly informative, both to departments and teams.
- It can be educative for new, inexperienced teachers.
- It can bring classroom teachers and library/media specialists more closely in sync.
- It can keep district supervisory personnel informed.
- It can enhance school-community relations--clearly one of the hot button issues as the new century dawns--by helping to deflect claims that parents are not informed, seldom heeded, left "out of the loop".
For all of these reasons, and most especially the last, the creation and dissemination of an annual Published Materials List should be gratefully reassuring for concerned school/district personnel. These folks are probably waiting nervously for the next book-banners' shoe to drop--as it probably will.
John S. Simmons is a Professor of English Education and Reading at Florida State University, where he has taught pre-service and in-service teachers of English for over 30 years.
Reference Citation: Simmons, John S . (1999) "Better Safe Than Sorry." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 23-24.