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Teachers Tackle 'Uncomfortable' Books Head On

It's not yet 8 a.m. and sleep still hangs heavily in the faces of many of the students in Elizabeth Everette's 11th-grade English class. But the early hour doesn't fully explain the somewhat tentative and subdued atmosphere in the classroom.

The students are leaning cautiously over their desks, gazing at Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Under discussion: an exchange in which white characters speak lightly of the value of the lives of black slaves.

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"Does this make you uncomfortable?" Ms. Everette asks her students in this racially mixed class. After a silence, Jessica Lindsey, a black student, volunteers, "No." But, she adds emphatically, "I'd rather not read it. It's in the past. I'd rather think about the future."

A spark is suddenly lit. Raheem Brown, another black student, insists, "You've got to talk about stuff like that! You can't just leave it alone like it never happened."

Huck Finn is banned in many classrooms, considered too racially offensive. But not at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, N.J., where Everette teaches. Far from ignoring the controversy over the book, she prefers to jump right into it. "I start right out by saying [to the students]: 'This is a banned book and this is why.' It piques their interest. If anything it makes them more likely to read it."

Today, deciding what books students will read can be a source of conflict from the start. Banned-book lists are nothing new in American education, but some observers say that in recent years a more conservative climate is adding some surprising titles (see list, right). And since the 1980s, says Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association in Chicago, protests over the treatment of social issues - racism, sexism, ageism - in certain books have become more prevalent.

Add to this the debate over whether classics or more contemporary works ought to be at the core of a curriculum, and preparing a reading list can be akin to walking into a minefield.

Yet many teachers find that conflict in literature can serve as a valuable teaching tool. Rather than duck the issue, they are facing it head on and helping students confront and learn from difficult issues.

To Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Chicago, argument can be a powerful means of drawing students into a conversation about culture.

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"Students are sometimes shielded from differences," Professor Graff says. "But teaching conflict brings kids in. It makes education more fun and interesting - more like sports."

What's being overlooked, he says, is the central fact that many kids feel alienated by books altogether. "What good is it going to do to teach Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare if kids still need Cliffs Notes to read her?" he asks.

What teachers and schools ought to be focusing on, he says, is how to pull students in, how to make the contents of books exciting and relevant - and in some cases controversy may be just the hook required.

Jim Tracy, an American history instructor at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., says he's seen some very exciting class discussions grow out of topics like the Vietnam War; the treatment of native Americans; slavery; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; and the writings of Malcolm X.

Sure, he agrees, it's uncomfortable at times to deal with such issues - especially at a school like Hotchkiss, where there's a strong international contingent and American points of view may conflict with the feelings of students from abroad. But, he points out, these students will be living in a multicultural world and the sooner they get comfortable talking about differences the better off they'll be. "They'll need skills to deal with different points of view, to deal with ambiguities of different perspectives."

Mr. Tracy makes sure his students understand that even scholars disagree and that there's nothing wrong with that. "I try to show them the differing interpretations of the cold war, of Reconstruction," he explains. "I want them to see that we can know a lot of data, but still disagree about the meaning of the data."

Sometimes when teaching controversial material there's a legitimate concern that certain material will be too graphic or frightening for kids. Everette loves to teach "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou, for example, but had some doubts at one point about how some students in a certain class would react to the rape scene in the novel.

She decided to teach the book, but rather than assign that scene as homework, she read it out loud in class. No one seemed unduly troubled by it, she says, but it sparked a lively debate about whether the scene should have been included in the book. Some students insisted it was important in order to understand the character, others accused Ms. Angelou of sensationalism. Everette says she was impressed by how adult the discussion seemed.

Occasionally there are students who just can't get comfortable with certain books. Joe Barrett, chairman of the English department at Oakcrest, says one student felt so strongly about the racism in Huck Finn that she chose to take an "F" rather than read it. A deeply religious student in another English class refused to read Voltaire's "Candide" because she found the book's tone too irreverent.

Mr. Barrett says that in more than 20 years of teaching, he has yet to hear from a parent unhappy about a reading assignment. "I wish we would hear from some parents," he says. "That would mean they were reading what the kids are reading and that would be great."

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Books That Have Been Challenged

Here is a sampling of books that were challenged or banned from school libraries or curricula, as reported in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom of March 1996 through March 1997, and the reasons given for the challenge.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

(Too sexually explicit; doesn't represent traditional values.)

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Conflicts with values of the community.)

A Separate Peace

John Knowles

(Graphic language.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee Harper

(Conflicts with values of the community.)

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L'Engle

(Undermines religious beliefs.)

Moby Dick

Herman Melville

(Conflicts with values of

the community.)


Toni Morrison

(Too violent.)

Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger

(Use of profanity.)

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare

(Encourages homosexuality.)

A Light in the Attic

Shel Silverstein

(Too dreary and negative.)

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck

(Use of profanity.)

The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan

(Conflicts with values of the community.)

The Adventures of

Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain

(Racially offensive.)

Little House in the Big Woods

Laura Ingalls Wilder

(Racially offensive.)

Native Son

Richard Wright

(Sexually graphic and violent.)

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