How to bring provocative books into the classroom

How to bring provocative books into the classroom

There is a plethora of controversial books that have been used for educational purposes, but for most schools, introducing them into the classroom is a daunting task.

For example, books like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, discuss the themes of racism, suicide and rape – not easy topics to raise with schoolchildren.

However, according to Boston University Assistant Professor Christina Dobbs and Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, encourage educators to embrace them in their lesson plans.

In an article published in Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge, Dobbs and Mason say that if educators avoid teaching texts that can lead to difficult conversations or upset the status quo, they may miss powerful learning opportunities.

“Controversial issues are often bigger in our heads than in children’s,” Mason told Usable Knowledge.

She says many adults struggle with challenging subject matter because they are concerned about potential fallout or they have difficulty separating their personal feelings from the content.

Dobbs said young people need a safe space in which to learn about, and process, “hard stories”.

“Confronting difficult issues in books that they may also encounter in real life may be tricky territory, but that’s part of why we have books,” she said.

Below, Mason and Dobbs outline how teachers can navigate this issue.

  • Choose carefully. Don’t discount a book because it’s been challenged or deemed “inappropriate.” Dobbs stresses the importance of getting to know your children’s librarian, watching to see which books win awards, and looking for the books getting banned — even checking out Twitter through #weneedmorediversebooks. Read about books through reviews on sites like Commonsense Media, Wormbook Guide, Goodreads, and even Amazon.
  • Make your case. Know why you want to introduce a challenging book in your class and be ready to defend it. Have a clear reason for the book you select and do research before introducing it to your administration, students, and school community.
  • Create a safe space. Make sure your classroom is safe for discussions, creating clear classroom norms of respect and safety from the start. Be sensitive to subject matter that may act as a trigger for students, and have strategies in place to avoid or deal with issues that may arise.
  • Communicate with parents. Introduce the book and explain why and how you plan to teach it. Reassure parents that you’ve created a safe space for discussions.
  • Be prepared for blowback. Do research to see whether there have been problems in the past with certain books in the school community. Create a plan with your principal about how you’ll handle complaints before introducing the book. This will also help provide insight into whether you’ll receive the necessary support from administration should anyone complain. If you don’t feel supported, then consider whether you want to move forward — and, in the long term, whether you’re teaching in the right district.
  • Teach the whole book. Be able to connect the book to broader learning outcomes, balancing exposure to culture and diversity with content and characters, as well as rigor and literary merit. Teach readers how to navigate the whole text.