Q: I’m a middle school teacher working as part of a group to select novels for the curriculum. Some of us are struggling with books we love that are strong overall but that have individual scenes or elements that we know might raise eyebrows. How much should we pay attention to that possibility in deciding whether or not to choose a particular book?
You are certainly not alone in this struggle, which you probably share with most middle and high school teachers. We’re so glad you are working as part of a group. One of the most valuable things teachers can do when choosing books is to talk with one another about the books they are considering for the curriculum. By discussing the value of the books you are considering, as well as your potential concerns and fears, everyone gains in their understanding and confidence regarding not only the books they are selected, but also the support they have among colleagues.
Since you stated the books are strong overall, we assume this means your group not only appreciates them for their literary qualities but also their value to your curriculum. This is key. In order to defend any teaching choice you make, you must be able to articulate its connection and value to the curriculum .
There is no simple formula or checklist regarding how much weight to give individual elements, whether it’s a scene or a word or an idea, in evaluating a book’s suitability for the curriculum. Thankfully! Imagine how awful it would be to have to rule out books simply because they contain a certain word, action, or idea.
Instead, you must evaluate the elements that concern you in the context of the work as a whole. How? Ask yourself if the elements are necessary or important to expressing the theme, advancing the plot of the novel, establishing character, or another literary purpose. If the answer is yes, and you can articulate why, then you are already prepared to respond to concerns. If the potential “eyebrow-raising” scenes or elements to which you refer don’t serve a purpose you can explain in terms of the book’s overall literary quality, then you should think about letting it go.
Of course, all of this can be very subjective, which is why having the opportunity to discuss the works with colleagues is so valuable. You may not all agree. Most likely you won’t. But you can talk about your differing opinions, and those discussions may give you even greater insight into the book’s suitability. and will be invaluable when developing a rationale for your choice.
You must also ask yourself if you can support using the book with students who are in that grade. Look at the age/grade ranges suggested for the books in professional review journals for librarians and educators. (If you need help locating reviews, ask your school librarian for assistance.)
The reviews will give you a good idea of how your assessment of a book’s suitability for a specific grade is supported by other professionals. You will want to pay attention to whether the grade for which you are considering the book falls into the range suggested among the various reviews.
If all the reviews recommend the book for students older than the grade in which you want to use it, then reassess your choice. Even if you are confident the students at your particular school are ready for mature or difficult content, you put yourself in a more vulnerable position–if a challenge were to arise—-by teaching a book that does not have professional reviews or recommendations that support using the book with students in that grade. You may also be stepping on the toes of colleagues in higher grades if they are considering that particular book. (Make sure to pass it along to your colleagues teaching older students if you believe they would find it of value and interest.)
Once you have evaluate the elements that concern you from a literary perspective, and once you know the professional age or grade recommendations for a book will affirm your choices, then you can be confident that you have given each book careful consideration and that your decisions about what to teach are informed ones. You’ll know how and why those informed decisions were made, and you’ll be able to articulate them with confidence. And if a challenge should arise, you and your working group will already have done so much of the work that is critical to defending teaching choices.
Finally, make sure you and your group are following board-approved policies and procedures for selection of curriculum materials as you go through this process.