Where should schools draw the line when it comes to books containing sensitive content matter or controversial topics?
This is a question that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately.
Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has long been a staple in high school English classrooms. However, it has also had a history full of controversy, for its use of derogatory language and depictions of violence. Just last year, an Ontario school board made the decision to limit how the novel could be taught, writing in a memo that teachers would be required to use a “critical anti-oppression lens” if they chose to use the book in their classrooms.
I wholeheartedly agree with this idea of cultural responsibility. In an age when marginalized groups are beginning to reclaim slurs that have historically been used against them, it’s important for others who are not a part of those groups to understand the complex meaning behind these words, and discussing them in a literary context is an excellent way to start.
That said, the issue of censorship versus sensitivity doesn’t only apply to discussions of violence and racism.
In March 2017 Netflix debuted a television show based on Jay Asher’s bestselling 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why. The novel – and then television series – follows a young man named Clay as he listens to a series of twelve cassette tapes left behind by a recently deceased girl named Hannah. The tapes explain Hannah’s thirteen reasons for commiting suicide, and name twelve different people who she deems responsible for her death.
Netflix received a huge onslaught of criticism after the release of the first season of the show, the final episode of which depicted Hannah’s suicide in graphic detail.
Psychiatrist Mark Sinyor told CBC News that Thirteen Reasons Why “violated several best practices for safe reporting on suicide,” as it “glamorized and romanticized suicide, presented suicide methods, and failed to describe how mental illnesses are treatable.”
Furthermore, the show’s Mature rating was not dissuading younger children from watching it.
In fact, an Edmonton school principal decided to take extreme measures after hearing grade six students discussing the more graphic parts of the show with their classmates.
In April 2017, CBC News reported that Principal Azza Ghali of St. Vincent Elementary School had made the decision to ban all discussion of the show, asking parents to “ let [their children] know that discussion of 13 Reasons Why [was] not permitted at school due to the disturbing subject matter.”
This is where things get difficult when it comes to censorship versus sensitivity, especially when it comes to younger children.
Suicide is an extremely difficult concept to comprehend, especially for elementary-schoolers. It is understandable that school administration did not want their students discussing the show with each other, especially considering the fact that it was impossible to know if students would be receiving follow-up discussions at home with their parents.
On the other hand, it’s important that students learn about mental health issues in a safe and age-appropriate environment, and I believe that schools are an excellent place for this. A show and/or novel like Thirteen Reasons Why could provide an excellent jumping-off point for a discussion about suicide and how to get help.
In the end, when it comes to censorship in schools, I am decidedly against the complete banning of any sort of media. After all, telling children that they’re “not allowed” to read a certain novel or watch a certain show will likely just increase their curiosity about it.
Everyone will, at some point, come into contact with topics such as suicide, racism, and violence, and what better place to explore, question, and learn about these ideas than in a school library or classroom?
That said, when it comes to teaching controversial pieces such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Thirteen Reasons Why, educators need to be responsible in their actions.
If teachers are intimidated by a certain unit of curriculum, they should bring in experts from the outside to talk to their classes. In the instance of Thirteen Reasons Why, having a counsellor come in and speak to the class about what the novel got wrong about suicide could be extremely valuable.
If this isn’t possible, there is also the option of using a lesson guide prepared by an expert source. For example, the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary has prepared a guide to teaching Thirteen Reasons Why that aims to educate on the complexity of suicide as well as equipping students to help a friend who may be in crisis.
Teachers might also consider teaching a contrasting novel alongside a difficult or controversial piece. This especially pertinent to novels that discuss forms of discrimination such as racism and homophobia.
The Toronto District School Board has implemented this strategy, and recommends pairing Mildred D. Taylor’s story Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with To Kill a Mockingbird, because Taylor’s novel is “told from the perspective of a young African-American girl living in the southern United States during the Depression,” and “shows that African Americans did not rely solely on whites to fight their battles against discrimination for them.” This difference of perspective would allow students reflect critically on how author bias affects the ways that stories are written.
Finally, classrooms should be treated as safe spaces where students feel free to express their ideas and opinions without the fear of teasing from classmates or punishment from teachers. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants all Canadians the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
This must be upheld in classrooms, especially when it comes to teaching controversial issues. Students need to be given the opportunity to question what they’re reading and discuss their opinions with their peers, otherwise they will not be able to form their own beliefs and values. Having a sort of ‘classroom code of conduct’ that outlines the tenants of respect and open mindedness necessary for a good debate could be especially useful in these situations.
I have faith in our school system, and believe that these novels can and should be taught. They are excellent conversation starters, and can lead to important discussions about race, privilege, mental health, and all sorts of other issues.
As it turns out, it’s not about “drawing a line” at all when it comes to controversial topics. Instead we should focus on erasing that line using critical thinking, compassion, and cultural responsibility.