Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission

That last post on choosing books to include in a classroom library was a good little thinking exercise for me.  Even though I'd hit the "publish" button and walked away, the question continued to roll around in my mind-vice.

I have to ask: why bother keep a classroom library or books for pleasure reading, anyway

My response is to have books on hand that students can enjoy.  The fact of the matter is that many of the books we read in high school weren't meant for consumption by teens or tweens; I somehow very much doubt that John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway were worried about what Justin Bieber might get out of their works.  Though Shakespeare wrote for even the crude groundlings, his work has lost touch with the groundlings' modern equivalents from a pure linguistic evolution.  So, bottom line is, even though these pieces are timelessly relevant or part of a cultural awareness, it's not always right for our kids*.  Pieces that weren't written for them are turning them off to reading, making them believe that reading is an exercise that must be avoided when possible and (mildly) tolerated when not.

So, if my point of stocking the classroom shelves with "fun" books, should I really be "censoring" them?  My gut says "no."  I want to be able to hand a book to a kid and say, "Try this, you'll love it."  OK, maybe it has a sex scene.  OK, maybe the main characters engage in some illegal activity.  But if s/he could like that one book and know that there is more out there, more to love...isn't that worth it?  Besides, is one "clean" book really going to change a teen's mind about drugs/sex/etc.?  Chances are, that mind has already been made up, more heavily influenced by their peer groups and role models.  Note to self: Stop worrying so much about what the moral of that book is and just get the kid reading.  They might not "get" that moral anyway, but if they enjoy the book anyway, isn't that the point?

I still wonder if a parent were to pick up this child's book and catch a scene with drinking/smoking/sex, how is that backlash going to affect me? (C'mon you know it's going to happen.  How many times did you watch a movie as a kid and have a parent come in at exactly the wrong moment.  For me, it was Eddie Izzard's "Dress to Kill" routine where he is imitating Robert de Niro and literally dropping the F-Bomb every other word.  Cue Dad walking in.  Cue hand to forehead)  While you and I both know the parents could use it as a great conversation starter with his/her child, it is more likely going to be a controversy-starter, with the parent charging into my room, waving the book about and demanding to know just exactly where my ethical compass is. (Nevermind that these same students could have rented or attended an R movie with said parent just last week)   I've been known to be a little too cautious at times.  Perhaps this is one area in which I could take a risk, throw off my cautious restraint. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

I still think I'll lean more towards stocking my shelves with YA.  It's written for them, so I can feel a little more confident about content.  I also know it's going to be more immediately relevant to them.  But if I read a book and think a kid might enjoy it - for whatever reason - I shouldn't be afraid to put my copy on the shelf or recommend it to a student.

*I don't think we should throw out those classics.  There are certain pieces that are part of our cultural consciousness, and they might not be read outside of the classroom.  They should be part of a balanced diet, pairing them with contemporary books with similar (or even contrasting!) themes.  If we could just work more contemporary literature into our classroom at all, we might some significant headway towards regaining a love of reading. 

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