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This is my 18th year of teaching junior high English at NRHEG. This is also my 18th year of teaching the American classic Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. This is a novel that is considered a must read by most English teachers, if only in preparation for one of the great American novels, Huckleberry Finn.

However, a couple years ago, publishers came out with new editions of these books, having changed some of the vocabulary. Set during the mid-1800s, both novels use a derogatory term for slaves. Tom Sawyer also has a negative word for Native Americans. Twain was portraying a realistic vision of life at that time, since he lived it. But because of that language, some areas have banned the books and created these new, “improved” versions.

Yuck. You’ll never see one of those in my classroom. I view this as a valuable teaching opportunity to show how the words we use can demean others, even if many think it’s okay. If you grew up in the 1840s, you might very well have used that type of language; your parents probably did. Much like I commented on last week with profanity, we learn at the feet of our parents what language is okay to use. Plus, we should learn the ugly parts of history that infected our country, not just the good things.

Censorship is a foul word. That might seem a contradiction after I ranted about swearing last week and how I change some words when reading to my son. Let me clarify: I wouldn’t teach Tom Sawyer to third graders. There are other books my students read that have profanity and other mature themes. I wouldn’t let my own kids read those until they reached my class either. But let’s be realistic: every one of those kids sitting in my classroom has either heard and/or used every word that is in those books.

Again, these make for prime teaching moments. Just because one of the antagonists in The Revealers gets upset at one point and cuts loose a bit doesn’t mean that it is not good literature. It might be looked on as unfortunate, but it’s realistic to hear a middle school student use that kind of language in anger.

Using profanity for the sake of shock value doesn’t hold much water with me. However, when it seems to fit a character and is not part of every chapter, I find it okay to suggest as reading. I ask people who protest the use of these books if they’ve ever watched TV with their kids where there is swearing or seen a movie like that. The answer is always, “Yes, but…”

But nothing. Use that as a chance to have a candid discussion with your child. Why is that language being used? What function does it serve? Is it okay for us to use it?

Early in my career, my friend and colleague, Mike Weber, had a novel he was teaching removed from his classroom by his administrator, based on the complaint of ONE parent about mature content. Guess what? The waiting list at the library was overflowing with students who wanted to finish the book. Censorship only serves to make kids want to read this supposed bad book. You want kids to read something? Tell them they’re not allowed to do so!

If we hide our children from all the ugly realities of the world, they will not be prepared to cope with those realities when faced with them. My 8th graders read a book called Tex, by S.E. Hinton. There are scenes of kids getting drunk and stoned. Teachable moments! The novel does a nice job of showing the after-effects of such activities, things that teens often don’t think about when making those choices.

I have always asked parents who have questioned my choice in reading material to read the book before decrying its validity. I invite them to keep a copy at home and have family discussions each night. Every parent who has taken me up on this has found that these books provide a great experience, especially when shared.

The old saying tells us not to judge a book by its cover. You need to delve in to find the gems inside, and banning books or changing them doesn’t allow those gems to be discovered.

Word of the Week: This week’s word is tragus, which is the small fleshy projection at the front of the ear, extending over the opening, as in, “The student kept scratching at his tragus as the teacher read the novel, not quite sure he was hearing things correctly.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!


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