To read or not to read (because of censorship). That is the question.

This is a strange time to be literary.

I have an intrinsic desire to share all the amazing books I have read with absolutely everyone I know. Like Whitman, I want to “sound my barbaric yawp from the rooftops of the world” when I truly love a book.

But sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t.

I am not allowed.

We live in an over protective society that has built glass walls around our children. Of the many issues I have with this fact, the censorship of books is at the top of my list.

It is a struggle, as a teacher, to know how a student, a parent, or a colleague is going to react to my choice of reading material. I have been approached because The Call of the Wild is too difficult for a vegetarian to read, Peter Pan has the word “orgy” in it, and the concern that Harry Potter is not, in fact, appropriate literature for private school students. Everything is a touchy subject with someone. Luckily, I have not had to stop teaching a book. I am fortunate.

Recently, a third grade teacher in North Carolina resigned after receiving little support from his school board for his read aloud of King and King, a picture book addressing the presence of o-KINGANDKING-570 same-sex marriages in our contemporary society. In the same week, a college student and her parents asked for the “eradication” of seminal graphic novels: Fun Home, Persepolis and Sandman (in a graphic novel English course, by the way), because she found the content too sexually explicit and violent.

She said she was expecting Batman and Robin, she obviously hasn’t read The Killing Joke, but I digress…. She, and her parents, called the books garbage.

They are among three of my favourite books, and since I consider myself to be quite literary, I refuse to accept the undignified slander she and her parents impose upon them. A word of wisdom, one needn’t like everything, but one should not insult nor eradicate books that bring pleasure to others.

If only more people were so obliging.

There was a time when teaching was content oriented and teacher centric. This is no longer the case. I teach the kids I have in front of me, I decide the content once I know them. Since the 1960’s teachers have been introducing kids to books that speak to them, about their lives, feelings and pressing social concerns. We treat the students as people who should be heard, who have an opinion. Trust me, teaching them this way is much more enjoyable for them and for us as teachers. The discussion is rich and engaging, and if we can successfully address some metaphor and alliteration along the way, bonus! Teachers are yearning to give their students choices for reading and a platform to sound their voices in the hallways of their schools, but those academic institutions who are slow on this transition are letting books be banned, and worse, are letting good teachers go as a result.

We are no longer teaching our students to anticipate the adult lives of the middle-class European white man or woman. We are teaching them to be global citizens who are aware of the ever-shrinking world we live in; aware of the connectivity between countries, classes, regions, religions, and culture. Our North American countries are increasingly becoming multicultural. They are becoming more accepting of sexuality and gender equality. Why should our youth not be allowed to read books that address these contemporary issues?

Even in libraries, some school library technicians I know are putting books behind their counters and in the office off the floor because parents do not want their kids exposed to the gruesome realities of mummification or the busting bosoms of caricatures in comic books.

I look at the list of most banned books, scanning titles like, Of Mice and Men, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies, and I am disheartened, knowing that the opportunity for some youth to enjoy these books has vanished.

This year, Sherman Alexi’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, was the most banned book in North America. I love this book. I would teach this book. I recommend it to The_Absolutely_True_Diary_of_a_Part-Time_Indiananyone who will listen to me talk about it. But many feel it is inappropriate because it deals with bullying, drugs and alcohol, and sexuality. It also addresses some racial tension between American aboriginal people and European descendants, an issue I suspect has more to do with it’s banning than the few passages about sex. The sad truth is that in the curriculum students do not get a real glimpse into the hardships suffered by the aboriginal people in North America. God forbid we should try to rectify that problem by reading a book about them by a member of their own community.

I feel bad for the kids growing up today. When I was a preteen I was fully immersed in overtly sexual films like Grease and Dirty Dancing. My parents bought me the movie, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for Christmas when I was twelve. I understood Romeo and Juliet before the end of elementary school and loafed with Walt Whitman before I was old enough to legally drive. I read contentious material, and I grew up fine. Much better than my students who live in glass houses.

It is a strange time to be literary; the adults of our world are attacking so much of the quality literature available to us, to kids, for being too something-or-other. The adults are put off by the words in these books. The kids aren’t. The kids are excited by them, they long for them.

What are the adults so afraid of?

I hope I am always the teacher who shares these books with the students who need them.

I hope I can guide their understanding of the world around them when the other adults in their lives refuse to, and in the process, I hope these kids learn to love to read.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

Why Should We Let Kids Choose Their Own Summer Reading?

Why would we not let kids choose their own summer reading material?

The idea that we, as adults, would presume to know what kids want to read while they are out enjoying the freedom from the confines of their schools is absurd to me.

Maybe it is because of my generation.

I never had a summer reading list growing up. Teachers did not preemptively assign work to be done over the summer to ready us for the following year (I am sure some of my peers would have benefited from such an exercise; I know far too many people who have not picked up a novel since high school), but I wonder if it would have made much of a difference. I mean kids who want to read are going to read, right? I always did. In fact, you had to encourage me to do anything else in the summer months. But maybe kids like me are not the ones who need the summer homework.

According to Erin Kelly, a fourth year paediatrics resident at the University of Rochester Medicinal Unit, kids who are not reading during their summer months lose a whole month worth of reading achievement. Children in low-income families, in particular, are at risk. The lack of available resources for these students often leads to what is referred to as The Summer Slide, a dropping off point in academics and a catalyst for poor achievement across academic disciplines in the future.

One way to curb these dismal results is to assign summer reading. Sounds easy enough, maybe to some it even sounds enjoyable. But wait, there is a catch- schools and teachers have been assigning books that they want kids to read, and in return, expect their students to write an essay about them before the fall semester begins.

I am a teacher. I am a student. I am a voracious reader. I think this idea stinks.

Assigning homework, particularly of the expositional variety, is a sure fire way to discourage reading. Summer is a time to get outside, play, get creative and blow off academic steam. Adding books that kids are not excited about does not help.

I think summer reading is a great idea. I wish all kids read, regardless of the season, with as much gusto as I always have. My own son, who is in grade one, could do with some of his mother’s scholarship. He is not a book-nerd like me; and nine times out of ten he would rather play soccer, karate chop his sister, or defeat King Bowser on his 3DS. But even in the summer he does read, and the way I encourage him to pick up a book is by letting him pick it out himself.

Do I wish he were already reading Beverly Cleary novels like I was when I was his age? Sure. Am I going to discourage him from getting to that novella stage by rejecting Star Wars stories and Scooby Doo mystery comics? Absolutely not! The reason he meets his summer reading goal every year is because he gets to choose the books he is destined to spend time with over his precious summer months.

His school also offers a terrific reading program. I guess it is, in its own way, assigned summer reading. But there is an awesome catch: before the summer books are shipped out, the students have to fill out a survey detailing exactly what they like to read. Lo and behold, when the books come in the mail, the kids are excited to see them. The books are unlikely to be filled with tremendous literary merit and there are not any classics. But there are some terrific Garfield cartoons, secret agent super spies, and books about dragons or hockey. That is why my son likes to read in the summer. It’s his time, so the books better have him written all over them.

All kids should have this luxury. The sad truth, however, is that this is not the case. It is the exception, not the rule, and I firmly believe that with this sort of opportunity more children would be eager to read.

What shocks me is that our society is relying on case studies to prove that reading retention improves when children select their own material. Shouldn’t we know this intrinsically?! This is not an academic issue. This is a personal issue. Adults rarely spend their time reading the things they don’t want to. Why should kids?

Let’s let children choose their own books, then when teachers want them to write an essay, that essay will be filled with an analysis worthy of an erudite, literary child; not the ramblings of a kid who would rather be outside as far away from books and academia as possible.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke download (25)

Why I Can’t Afford to be a Book Snob

I can be a snob.

In fact, I guarantee you that I will exude snobbery in the following situations:

  • If you try to be a bigger PInk Floyd fan than me. Not gonna happen, my friend. Let it go.
  • That being said, if you try to be a bigger Pearl Jam fan than me I might disown you. Depending. Maybe.
  • If you try to argue the point of the Oxford comma. I like it, move on.
  • If you presume that I am not a qualified geek because I didn’t read Marvel growing up. Snikt! You got a problem with that, Bub?

But there is one situation in which I will never be a snob, and that is when it comes to books.

I will never be a book snob.

Recently I was engaged in a discussion with a number of avid readers about the merits, or lack thereof, of teaching contemporary novels in high school classrooms. I was shocked to discover that many of my bookish peers were against the inclusion of new material to secondary English syllabi, preferring instead to travel only the well worn paths of canon. After all, they learned the classics and they came out splendidly intelligent. Why change something that has worked for so long?

Because it’s not working. Not really.

I cannot be a book snob because I am a teacher. An English teacher, in fact.

I have been tremendously lucky to teach advanced, academic, and communications English to my secondary students over the last number of years. Together we have plotted with Oberon, travelled to Mordor,  stood on the gallows of Salem, branded ourselves with a scarlet letter, had great expectations, fought an uprising of pigs, partied with Gatsby, deduced with Sherlock, and laid in a tomb with star-crossed lovers. We did the standard syllabus. I threw in some Chaucer, Thoreau, Whitman, and Frost for good measure. And I adore every minute I spend with these characters, authors, and my students. I love teaching these books largely because I have read them and I enjoy reading them again and again. That is, after all, what a lover of books and a lover of the classics does. But those of us who can withstand the bombardment of iambic pentameter and archaic language are few and far between. The truth is that many students today are not resonating or engaging with these texts. The themes, yes. The texts not so much. It is a somber truth.

The trick, as I have learned, is to cater to my students, not to the expectation of what they should be reading because of what I read when I was their age (reading I did largely out of pleasure, not for academia). The majority of them will be reluctant readers. This is a challenge in of itself without trying to shove Shakespeare or Dickens down their throats. But the silver lining is in the word “reluctant”. Reluctant. Not unwilling. Finding the right book for a student, regardless of age or grade, can create a life long learner, an enthusiastic reader, a lover of books.

Many of the books I include in my syllabus, along with the classics, are contemporary. Some are fantasy  novels like Tuck Everlasting and A Wrinkle in Time. Stories that address the concepts of love, change and impermanence. Themes students themselves are struggling to understand in their everyday lives.

We talk about Sartre and the notions of existentialism and then debate whether Dumbledore and the Mirror of Erised are not existential themselves.

We flip heads and tails with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to make more sense of Hamlet when we get to it.

We read comics. Maus, Persepolis, Superman Red Son, An American Born Chinese, because these stories teach us history in a meaningful and visually stunning way that today’s kids get. Man, do they ever GET IT.

We have seen two roads diverge in a wood in Riverdale with Archie Andrews.

We come of age with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

We struggle to make sense of art with The Soloist.

We have mourned the treatment of indigenous peoples with April Raintree. We have read secrets in the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

We have followed Elie Wisel into the very darkest Night.

And the students engage. They connect, they feel, and they ask for more books to read.

That’s why we can’t stick to the classics alone. With them only some students will ask for more. The goal is to encourage them all to ask for more. Why close my mind to a book because it is new? Why create a negative reading experience for my students because their preference is contemporary?

I may be a snob sometimes, but I will never be a book snob. I am a teacher, I need to read, to learn, and to relate.

That and I love to read. I love to read everything.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke  @ldchiasson17

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