February 23 – March 1, 2014 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada. This annual event, which highlights issues of censorship, intellectual freedom and book banning, is an excellent chance to initiate a discussion with students about the books they read and why they choose to read them. The US has an equivalent, Banned Books Week, which takes place every September.
As a library that serves students in grades one through twelve, we try to initiate grade appropriate discussions with our students about the issues highlighted by Freedom to Read Week. As the focus of my posts on this blog is Lower School, I will give some examples of activities we have shared with our younger students. Interestingly, some of our best discussions over the years have been with grade seven and eight students; they are generally widely read, and are starting to become aware of media influences and how they as teens are influenced by issues in the wider world.
Our library technician puts together a display of ‘banned books’ a week or so before Freedom to Read week, and as our younger students study the display, I initiate informal conversations about why certain books might be banned. The example of And Tango Makes Three is always a great conversation starter; our school mascot is the penguin, and this book is much-loved in our library. When our junior classes stop by for their regular library period, I share some observations I’ve made about their comments about banned books (Harry Potter is also a good conversation starter!), discuss issues of censorship and selection, and give examples of how books have been separated from readers throughout history. I also share information about the challenges we’ve had in our own library (one serious, and a couple of more informal over the past ten years or so). We discuss how the library should tackle such challenges, with options ranging from pulling the book from the shelf and banning it outright, to having a discussion with the challenger, to ignoring the complaint altogether. We usually arrive at a consensus, which generally matches the challenge policy document we have, although we always have a few students who would like to ignore any and all challenges…
I am lucky to be teaching in a community that is open to us having these discussions with elementary age children. While it may not work in every school library, the chance to have these fascinating discussions with our youngest readers offers a real insight into their reading lives, and their consumption of media. We often broaden our discussion to chat about censorship in movies and on the internet, using our school internet filter as an example, and discuss issues around student safety and access to information. It’s always an interesting week!