3 Tips to Prevent Challenges to Your Curriculum

Banned Books Week

Imagine being so excited to introduce your favorite novel to a new group of students only to have a student say, "My mom said I can't read that book."

It's every teacher's fear to have a parent or community member question what you are teaching. Unfortunately, opposition to the reading material we select for our classrooms and libraries is so popular, a week was created in the 1980s to advocate for and educate the public about challenged and banned books. September 23rd kicks off this year's Banned Books Week.

During the sixteen years I taught in my last school district, two books were formally challenged by groups of parents. One group of junior (grade 11) parents opposed Robert Cormier's We All Fall Down because of its "inappropriate language" and depiction of teenagers doing "immoral" things.

Five years later, another group of parents of elementary-aged students opposed the read-aloud of Todd Parr's The Family Book during Tolerance Week because of the line "Some families have two moms or two dads." The parents believed it was "pushing a gay agenda."

Banned Books Week

Can you guess which one was banned? Probably not the one you thought...

In 2012, The Family Book was permanently removed from the elementary library and the curriculum for Tolerance Week (ironic, right?). We All Fall Down was retained in 2007 after a select committee deemed it to be age-appropriate. It is still taught in grade 11.

We had two different outcomes because the new (at the time) administrators were unaware of the proper procedure put in place five years earlier. Instead, they left the decision up to the school board who voted to ban The Family Book from the elementary and all GLSEN materials from being used in the entire district. Their decision was--and still is--a shameful embarrassment for our district that could have easily been prevented.

In recognition of Banned Books Week, I wanted to share my experience and tips for preventing a book (or any material) from being challenged AND what you can do if a parent or community member does challenge it.

Let your students and parents know at the beginning of the year which novels, short stories, plays, poems, nonfiction passages, movies, etc. your students will cover throughout the year. Distribute a paper copy (as part of your syllabus) and post it on your website; make it easy for parents and students to find. This way if anything is questioned, you can point out that you informed students and parents at the beginning of the year what was going to be covered.

Send home a permission slip before reading or viewing material that could be questionable. In your permission slip, state your objectives for the unit or lesson and explain how the material you are reading or showing is vital to the learning process. Let the parent/guardian know that if permission is not granted, an alternative book or material that covers the same learning standards will be used in its place for their child. This will alleviate students trying to use the permission slip as a way out of doing the work altogether. You can download a free permission slip template here.

Free Download Editable Permission Slip

I began celebrating Banned Books Week in my high school classroom after We All Fall Down was challenged to educate students about their freedom to read and the danger of censorship. I have an activity where students can choose if they want a piece of candy or a carrot stick for a snack. Halfway through the activity, I stop and take all the pieces of candy back and let them know that I forgot that I had received a complaint from a parent (or community member) about the dangers of sugar, so no one gets to choose candy. This sparks a great discussion about how one complaint affects the freedom of choice for all students.

  One of my favorite displays to coincide with this activity is an interactive bulletin board showing the reasons a book was challenged or banned. Students lift the flap to reveal the title. They are always shocked to see the titles of some of their favorite books revealed. I will also select books from my classroom library and wrap them with the Caution Labels. The curiosity alone is enough to make a student want to check out a book labeled "Drug use, profanity, offensive language, and considered 'pervasively vulgar'" (which are the reasons The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has been challenged).

The Hate U Give - Banned Books Week

While these measures will help prevent some challenges, you may still encounter opposition in your district. When I began teaching and selling materials for The Hunger Games in 2009, I soon realized that opposition to certain books was far too common. Teachers began reaching out to me asking what they should do when parents complain about the book. Here is the advice I shared with them; it applies to any curriculum, whether it is a book, video/movie, poem, short story, etc.

Find out from your building principal if your school has a plan in place and what it is. If not, follow these steps to be prepared before it happens:

Know exactly what to do when a parent/guardian or group/organization comes forward with a complaint. For instance, if talking directly to the parent/guardian and offering an alternative for the student doesn't work, take the next step and contact your department head and building principal. From there, an example procedure should be handled by the principal and/or department head and may include the following steps:

   1. Send the parent/guardian/group a formal letter asking if they wish to file a formal request for reconsideration of the material being taught. Include a reconsideration request form in the letter (see below) and give a deadline for when it needs to be filled out and returned to the principal (10 days seems standard).

  2. Have a committee in place for handling the request. This committee should be appointed by the principal and may include an administrator, a classroom teacher, a language arts teacher or reading specialist, a librarian, a community member, and a student. The committee will meet and discuss the request. They will also need to be familiar with the material being challenged (whether it's a book, video, etc.). After reviewing both sides (the teacher's and the parent/guardian/group's), the committee will make a final decision on whether the material(s) should be removed or not.

  3. Make sure the procedure is part of the school's handbook and/or posted publicly (i.e. on the school's website) so future administrators and teachers are aware of the proper protocol. Have copies of all documents ready to download and distribute, if needed. (See below for free editable forms.)

This plan is based on the American Library Association's (ALA) advice for schools and libraries facing a challenge. You can find numerous resources on their website.

I have also created editable documents based on their drafts that you can download here.

banned books week

Most importantly, do not let a challenge get you down. One or two or even a group of parents challenging the materials in your classroom in no way reflects your teaching ability or your good judgment. Do not back down. Many novels have been challenged over the years but that doesn't mean they should be removed from the shelves or from the curriculum.

Even though they may not be vocal, you probably have far more people on your side than you realize. Reach out to other teachers, your followers on social media, and the ALA (you can report a challenge here) and I guarantee you will find parents and teachers who will support your cause.

If you have any questions or concerns, please comment below. Also, check out these amazing resources for books that are frequently challenged or banned:

To Kill a Mockingbird Bundle by Room 213

The Giver Unit Plan by Presto Plans

Of Mice and Men Escape Room by The Classroom Sparrow

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