Which Books Would You Ban?

polaroid_banned booksWhat do Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter have in common? How do they differ from Adolf Hitler, Ayn Rand, Michael Moore, Andrew Breitbart, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Michael Savage? A Rebel Pundit survey last month asked, “Which of these books would you be interested in having banned, if you could have books banned?”

The results were overwhelmingly in favor of banning the books of Palin, Beck and Coulter, though the math of the survey is a little confusing since the results don’t add up to 100%. That said, what’s going on here?

Rebel Pundit’s reporter set up on the street in Chicago, during the Printers Row Literary Festival. As these alleged book lovers passed by the reporter, he asked them which books they’d like banned, telling them they could ban up to three, and handing them a Sharpie so they could make tick marks under their choices. Before I go on, watch the Rebel Pundit video of folks participating in the survey:

Sadly, people take the marker and willingly step up to the poster. The editing of the video suggests the participants aren’t really thinking much. They don’t even interact much with the reporter, other than taking the Sharpie from his hand.

In fairness, Rebel Pundit does explain that there were naysayers:

Nine people explicitly stated to us they thought banning books was wrong, including two individuals who voted on the board but later approached us to say, (paraphrasing) “I think I made a mistake, and wanted to take my votes back if I could, because after further reflection, I think banning any book is wrong.”

Only nine people of 147 protested the idea of banning books. Of course, the point of the survey isn’t really book banning. It’s to demonstrate that people make choices without thinking.

My hunch is that the reporter expected people to vote unthinkingly. Rebel Pundit is a conservative blog. According to their About page, they are “a beacon of truth, showing the unholy alliance of the local mainstream media and the progressive Democratic Party.” Since Chicago is a traditionally liberal town, the video and related article depict the people of Chicago as foolish lemmings:

While there were in fact less than two handfuls of individuals who did tell us they don’t think any books should be banned, unfortunately there were a shocking amount of guests at this book fair who were quite open to the idea, and in fact lined up quite excited for the opportunity to voice their opinion.

Given the audience of the Rebel Pundit site, the site likely guessed that their readers would draw the connections that the liberal democrats at the book festival were actually interested in limiting individual freedoms by stepping up happily to ban books. You don’t need to read many of the comments to see that it worked.

How to Use the Video in the Classroom

Because of the way that people blindly choose to ban books, the video can be a useful part of class discussion of censorship and book banning. Though it’s a tempting idea, I would not set up a classroom or school survey to trap students into similar behavior. I want students to think critically about censorship, and I don’t think labeling them as unthinking is a good way to do that.

Instead, I want to play the video for students and ask them what they think is happening. Why are the participants so willing to participate in this book banning activity? I want them to identify how much thought is going into the participants’ decisions and how much peer pressure and the public nature of the survey contribute to participation. I’ll also ask students to look at the setup of the survey. It’s just a simple tick mark on a piece of poster paper. Does that simplicity or the presence of the reporter influence them to participate?

I don’t think the decision to add a vote to the poster is part of some great political agenda, so I will downplay those connections at the beginning of the discussion. When the political aspect of the survey does come up, and I’m sure it will, I’ll ask students to think about how the choice of books and the setting for the survey were part of the reason people were eager to ban the books on the poster. What would happen if the same survey were set up in a conservative town or event?

There are also questions of graphic design to consider: does the layout of book covers on the poster play a part in the response? What would happen if the books are arranged differently on the poster or if the choices were shared only with words (without those very identifiable faces on the book covers)? If the survey itself were presented some other way, would the decision to participate be different?

After all this discussion, I’m thinking of introducing a research project on book banning. Students can research censorship events, like Nazi book burning to more recent censorship of bloggers in countries like China and Egypt. The focus can be widened to include films, songs, and other texts as well. Research questions like these could inspire papers or presentations:

  • How does peer pressure contribute to participation in book burnings?
  • What other persuasive devices were involved?
  • Are there political agendas at play in the choice of what has been banned?
  • Does the fact that just one book is banned simplify participation?
  • Who decided what was banned? What motives were at play?
  • How did people involved respond to censorship?

Supplement your discussion with resources on censorship on the American Library Association website.

If I decide not to go with a research activity, I may stick with the survey itself and ask students to write short responses that they’d give if they were asked, “Which books would you ban?” Answers can be anything from a 140-character Twitter posts to a video response or PowerPoint presentation. The resulting pieces can be part of public service announcement campaign during Banned Books Week.

 

[Photo: polaroid_banned books by karen horton, on Flickr]

 

More Banned Books Week Resources

Muggles for Harry Potter PinOne of my cherished possessions is a Muggles for Harry Potter pin from 1999. Eric Crump gave it to me, having picked it up from the NCTE librarian. I hadn’t read a word of J. K. Rowling’s first book, but I was willing to join the anti-censorship campaign.

I wish all adults understood that while they are responsible for helping their family choose books, they aren’t responsible for telling the rest of us what we can read. Since the world doesn’t seem to work that way, we talk about banned books and the problems of censoring ideas in the classroom.

When I posted a list of Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Book earlier this week, I was accused on the English Companion Ning of being biased and working to indoctrinate students. Sigh .  .  .

I guess I do have a bias: people should be allowed to choose what they read. I fundamentally believe that students and families should be allowed to reject a text that doesn’t fit with their beliefs and values. But no one should be allowed to make that decision for everyone else.

I advocate choice, and I do so by talking about banned books. I want students to know that books have been banned. I want them to know how and why they get banned so that they understand censorship. And yes, I want them to realize that individuals should be free to read what they want.

Since I posted my Top 10 Things, some additional resources have been released. Some, unfortunately, have been created in response to a sweeping call for censorship by Dr. Wesley Scroggins. If you want to learn more about censorship or to find some additional classroom resources, check out these resources:

Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text

Banned Book Week 2010 Poster from the American Library AssociationHow will you discuss Banned Books Week (BBW) this year? It’s easy to find ideas for displays and activities for libraries. The problem is that most of them are too general or would be difficult to use in the writing classroom.

To solve that problem, I began brainstorming ways that students can think critically about censorship. The result is this collection of projects that focus primarily on argument and persuasion. When possible, I tried to think of options that allow students to speak their own minds, for or against limiting access to a text.

So here are the top ten things to do with a banned book—other than read it, of course!

  1. [Mock Trial] Put the author of the banned book on trial (or a character from the text). Let Gustave Flaubert’s experience with Madame Bovary be your inspiration. You can adapt Mock Trial resources and the ALA’s suggestions for conducting a challenge hearing for the project.
     
  2. [PSA] Make a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that supports the text and the freedom to read (or BBW). You can create a video, audio, or slide show PSA. There are audio examples at the ALA site. Your announcement can focus on BBW as a whole or might be a campaign for the freedom to read a particular text.
     
  3. [Character Diary] Write a diary entry from the perspective of a character from a banned text. The character may be one whose actions are cited when people talk about banning the book or someone else in the text. There’s a List of Ten Character Diary Prompts you can use if you want to extend this activity.
     
    Adapt this writing prompt for students: Someone wrote the story of your life, and the book has been banned from _____ because of _____. Write your reaction as a diary entry—Are you shocked? pleased? upset? Do you think the banning was fair?
     
  4. [Warning] Create a warning label for a banned text. Examine that appearance and wording of warnings that are added to movie and television shows, cigarettes, and prescription drug commercials and ads. Have students then create a label that would be placed on the cover of the text. The label can be realistic or satirical. Here’s an example for Huck Finn and some additional tips on designing warning labels you can use to supplement discussion.
     
    Introduce the Warning Label Generator to add some play to the project. The images may not match properly, but the tool is fun. And if students think no one would ever put a warning on a book, you can share “Ratings, warning labels don’t belong on books.”
     
  5. [Testimonial] Write a testimonial letter or blog entry that explains why you support (or don’t) a banned text. Your goal is to convince readers to read (or not read) the text. Alternately, you can argue that the text be kept (or not kept) in the school or public library or read by students in a particular class.
     
    Your testimonial needs to personal, based on your experiences and beliefs. This is your chance to make a personal statement about why the text should (or shouldn’t) be read.
     
  6. [Language of Persuasion] Choose a statement for or against banned text, and examine how the language contributes to the argument. These questions can guide your analysis:
     
    • How are specific examples from the text used? When and to what effect?
    • What about euphemisms — how do the authors sugarcoat or generalize their messages with their word choice?
    • What about their sense of audience? Do they understand their readers? How can you tell?

    After you’ve examined the language, compose a blog entry, podcast, or video presentation that analyzes the authors’ language, explaining what you can conclude about their goals, their sense of audience, and their ideas on the issues.
     

  7. [A Fable] Have each student brainstorm a list of things that might happen if a text is banned from a library or classroom. You can focus on a specific text or just banned books in general. Next, students share their lists with the class, and identify the items that recur and those that seem particularly significant or surprising. Ask each student to choose an item to focus on, and write a fable that tells the story of the banned text and ends with or discusses the item chosen from the class lists. The moral of the fable will be related to whether books should (or shouldn’t) be banned.
     
  8. [Biggest Myth] What is the biggest myth that you’ve heard in the media about a banned book? Write a letter to the editor, to the television show, or to the general public that explains why you disagree with the coverage they have given to the myth you’ve identified.
     
    In your letter, describe the myth that you’ve heard and read, explain why you believe the assertion is untrue, and suggest reasons that the myth has developed. Identify and share more realistic explanations. Persuade your readers to change the way that they talk about the banned text.
     
  9. [Investigative Report] Describe the book banning in the form of an investigative report—the kind of piece you’d hear on 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Start with a question or issue that the banning focuses on, explain all of the facts and details that you uncover in relationship to the issue, and conclude with the insights you gain as a result of your investigation.
     
    Like an investigative report on TV, your report should stir your reader to some kind of implicit action as a part of the conclusion — the point might be to stir the reader’s emotions, to inspire the reader to challenge the banning, or to suggest that the reader take an active role in how books are chosen for the library or classroom.
     
  10. [Censor It] Identify passages from a banned text that have been cited for using inappropriate language. Have students work in small groups to rewrite the sections. Ideally each group should have a different section of text to work with. Collect the two versions of the passages. Share the rewritten version of each passage with the whole class first, and then reveal the original version. Talk about what is lost (or not) in the censored versions.
     
    Use the activity to talk about how rewriting, expurgation, and omission are used as a way to talk about banned texts. Class discussion can include:
     
    • Radio versions of songs that get air play versus original versions with explicit lyrics.
    • Beeping out words in audio and video broadcasts.
    • Blocking images with a black box or blurred area in television broadcasts.
    • Adding a “clean” voiceover for inappropriate words said in a movie played on television (e.g., “shoot” for “shit”).
    • Cutting scenes and events from a movie before playing it on broadcast television.
    • The name of the CBS sitcom referred to as “Stuff My Dad Says” when spoken and often shown in print as $#*! My Dad Says. (The show based on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says and the related book Sh*t My Dad Says.)

For some specific lesson plans, see ReadWriteThink’s calendar entry for Banned Books Week. Check out my Bedford Bits post for Persuasion, Argument, and Book Banning in 10 Steps.