Teaching Controversial Texts
This post originally published on ednewscolorado.com.
Early in my teaching career, a parent responded negatively
to , Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton
Trumbo, a WWI novel read by my class.
While I own that not all of my teaching strategies with this
book were spectacular, I learned a great deal from this process about how to
teach the book differently and alleviate the concerns that were raised. I knew
I had room for growth. Unfortunately, neither the student nor the mother ever read
the whole book, which meant that there was no opportunity for shared reflection
I am now in my tenth year of teaching and I have learned
that books like Johnny get challenged
all the time. Books like Beloved, The
Kite Runner, Native Son, Speak, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and countless
others have sparked debates in my building and other high schools similar to
mine. Even our excerpted readings from The Bible in our classical studies
classes have been questioned.
As I have heard the grumblings on all sides of the rumor
mill about book challenges, I am left with questions: Where is the balance? How
can I as a teacher ensure that I am providing students with a rigorous, compelling
curriculum that is also acceptable to a diverse community?
The Common Core State Standards require texts with higher complexity
for language arts classrooms. We are being asked to help students learn how to
analyze and apply information in a variety of ways. As we select books of
appropriate difficulty that are both engaging and applicable, we will be
reading fiction with mature themes, which often also include controversial
When I teach Johnny,
I ask the students to consider the perspective of the author—a man who lived
through two world wars and questioned what is worth fighting for. I want my
students to think about those things because someday they may be called upon to
answer similar questions themselves. Growing up is a challenging thing to do—it
is our job as educators to provide opportunities for students to learn ways to
navigate this process.
To me this makes the question of balance seem miniscule
compared to the question of value. What is the value of teaching literature in
the high school classroom? And can we afford not to?
The truth is that I can’t be both parent and teacher to my
students and that isn’t my desire. My students desperately need their parents
to engage with their educational experiences. Students need to be able to consider the
difficult themes and dialogues that begin in the classroom, discussing these
ideas with their families through the lens and filters of the home. It is
important to teach students values and it is inappropriate for me to teach them
mine. My job is to offer a rich assortment of texts and ideas to interact with
so that students can decide what they will believe and how they will act when
they are no longer in my classroom. Additionally, I am teaching them analytical
and critical thinking skills so that they can make and support their own decisions
I wish I had asked the parent who challenged Johnny to read the entire book so we
could have an authentic conversation about the text as a whole. I know I could
have learned something from her perspective and I hope she could have learned
something from mine. Most importantly, though, her daughter would have learned
much more by observing our interactions than any classroom novel could ever
teach. By watching her teacher and parent work in partnership, we could have
created a model for her to mimic in future interactions with others.
That missed opportunity is not one I will soon forget. I will
continue to put challenging books and ideas into the hands of my students; I
will also work to continue to forge partnerships with their parents as we all
seek what’s best for each student’s future.
The potential for shared reflection, growth and learning
will always be a reality in my classroom. And I hope I will always have willing
partners to take advantage of those realities.