Monday, September 20, 2010

We Must Speak Loudly

Here we are, approaching another Banned Books Week (9/25-10/2), and the haters are already crawling out of their dank, dismal crevices to wreak their havoc. The current threat against our freedom to read what we choose, and to offer quality literature to students is one Wesley Scroggins. You can read his rant here. He has attacked several books in his letter to the editor, but the one that is causing the troops to rally the most is Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Laurie has responded to this newest crisis in censorship at her blog: Mad Woman in the Forest. It is a much more satisfying read than Mr. Scroggins'.

Across the virtual world, people are sharing their experiences with Speak to give support to Halse Anderson and to speak out against censorship. I am joining them, because I think Speak is such an important book. Many people can share how this book touched them personally, allowed them to find their own voice and speak out about the problems in their lives that, before reading Speak, had remained buried. That is the power of the written word.

But one does not need to have shared the experiences of the main character in Speak to have a powerful reaction to the book. I used this book the last two years that I taught 8th grade, at the end of the school year when the students' excitement and trepidation for entering high school was beginning to grow. I framed the unit around essential questions of decision-making and consequences. Students examined the multitude of relationships present in the book to see that the problems experienced by the main character were compounded by the decisions, inaction, and apathy of others around her. More than any other book I used in the classroom, students connected to this book. It made them evaluate their own relationships with friends, parents, peers, and teachers. As a teacher, it made me look more closely at every student.

Two instances illustrate the fact that this book truly touches readers. Because I used it at the end of the year, I had students working on their final projects right up until and including ON the last day of school. They did not complain, they worked with great zeal and put forth such effort to create a collage that would capture the theme of the book:

or to write a "letter in a bottle," in a theme-decorated bottle, to tell someone else why they should read the book:

or to create their own piece of art:

Their work showed their depth of thinking and understanding.

The second instance occurred a year or two later. Speak was made into a movie after I used it in the classroom. After it was broadcast, I couldn't even count how many students made a special trip back to the middle school to leave notes in my mailbox. They wanted to make sure I had seen it. Some of them wanted to thank me for "making" them read it, and many of them wanted to tell me that the movie could in no way, shape, or form, compete with the book. Laurie Halse Anderson's writing showed them that a good book can outshine a movie like a thousand suns. She has created many readers with her book.

I ran into my own problems with censorship and Speak. I had a mother who requested her daughter not read it. I had no problem with that (other than the fact that I personally felt she was robbing her daughter of a valuable reading experience...even if she believed it couldn't happen to her child, who's to say it couldn't happen to her daughter's best friend?) But parents have a right to decide if there is something they do not want their child to read. What they should not have the right to do is to attempt to enforce that censorship on other students. This mother tried, taking her complaints to the principal.

Thankfully, he had faith in my abilities to take a tough topic and to make it relevant and appropriate for my students. Many administrators don't have the backbone to stand up to vocal parents. I am proud of the fact that my administrator and the students I taught using this novel have the tools they need to Speak Loudly.

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