Monday, March 12, 2007

Teaching with Forbidden Words

The Gainesville Sun reported last week that a local high school teacher has been placed on leave “for giving students a poetry lesson that at least one parent claimed was inappropriate.” The poem is just one more example of the censorship practices that take place all too frequently in the U.S. The American Library Association reports that “More than a book a day faces expulsion from free and open public access in U.S. schools and libraries every year.”

What bothers me about this particular incident is what’s left out of the article. At no point does the writer identify the particular poem or words that caused the hubbub. The article tells us that the poem

  • was “inappropriate.”
  • used “some racially insensitive terminology.”
  • “included words . . . to describe or label other people and how the significance of those words have changed over time.”
  • highlighted “derogatory or inflammatory descriptions of groups of people.”
What we don’t know is what was really said, and that act of censorship simply extends the power of the poem. When people refuse to speak or read or hear certain words, those words become stronger, not weaker. In the Florida case, another parent explained that the poem in question
“What she taught in that class was more than just about words. It was also about the influence of words and that calling someone a name at any level will not only influence their life but it will also influence your life,” Hopper said. “It helped my son to understand that he should respect everyone.”
That’s what words used properly can do. The NCTE Guideline The Students’ Right to Read explains that when words and ideas are instead banned, “The most obvious and immediate victims are often found among our best and most creative English teachers, those who have ventured outside the narrow boundaries of conventional texts. Ultimately, however, the real victims are the students, denied the freedom to explore ideas and pursue truth wherever and however they wish.”

I don’t know what poem the teacher choose or the words involved, but I do know that given the chance I’d teach the same poem without reservation.


Anonymous said...

Traci Gardner captures my response to the "story" precisely. So much was not said in the article that we really have no idea what happened beyond some parents taking exception to a lesson about a poem that used some words.

It seems the reporter or her editors find the title of the poem and the offending words too hot for print; or, they do not want to give the poem any more power by giving the poet exposure in the press. However, as Ms. Gardner writes, the act of censorship empowers the poem.

I would much rather have my students/children exposed to potentially controversial texts/language under the guidance of a responsible adult (teacher or otherwise) than encountering them without a context within which to examine them.

Having routinely used potentially divisive/inflammatory/offensive texts in my classroom to make a point about the power of language and its impact on the human experience, I offer my support to Ms. Irrizary and hope the school district will support a teacher trying to do her job--teach students to think critically, rather than reflexively react.

ImagineMel said...

Hi Traci. I am Melody Irizarry, the teacher in question. It wasn't a particular poem but rather a warm-up discussion of how we influence society or how we let society influence us. The "take home" lesson was, the political and social climate of a time period influences literature...poetry in particular. It was actually a discussion to get their attention so I could make a connection with their real life and the poetry. On that particular day we were looking at Hughes, Whitman, Audre Lorde, and Lucille Clifton. I've included a link to my blog. It says all that I'm allowed to say in public. I continue to be on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. I hope this adds some clarity to a very sad, dark situation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Traci -- as with all of them. And thank you to the two previous posters -- especially to Ms. Irizarry -- for your thoughtfulness. You are both more even than I can be; I find it hard not to respond more angrily to those who, by shutting down conversation about how we understand each other, shut down our abilities to live respectfully with each other.

Traci Gardner said...

Thanks for Melody for sharing details on the situation. The additional information helps explain the article, though you'd think that they could have included the simple explanation that you posted here.

If you (or anyone else) need help, be sure to visit the NCTE Anti-Censorship Center.

James Biehl said...

What a sad,unbelievable story! That a parent's complaint can cause a superintendent to place a teacher on administrative leave BEFORE a thorough investigation reminds us of why so many teachers do not trust administrators. In the public's eye, and clearly in Karen Voyles' slanted story, Ms. Irizarry is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

How does one defend oneself against the charge of using "inappropriate language"? Does a community standard exist? A school district's standard? Inappropriate in whose judgment? The teacher is a trained specialist in language. Surely she knows what is and is not appropriate for the age group. Moreover, the context in which language is used clearly is relevant to its appropriateness.
Have we reached the point where a student's complaint that this or that offends becomes grounds for changing the teacher and the curriculum?
The concomitant right to free speech is the right to offend and to be offended. As a teacher, I assert that right and inform my students on day one that I guard that right jealously. One of my pacivist students found Virgil's Aeneid offensive. Fine. I heard you. Now read it, write about it, and take my quizzes on it or I will fail you. One young budding atheist found Dante's Inferno offensive. Fine. I heard you. Now read it...or I will fail you.
Why is it that classroom professionals have to bow to the judgment of amateurs? Would a surgeon tolerate a patient's telling him or her that the surgeon needs to modify surgical technique? Would a high school football coach tolerate a player's objection to the training regimen? Why, then, should we allow someone demonstrably ignorant, i.e., a student, to tell us how to teach English? The inmates are running the asylum.

Hang in there, Melody Irizarry. Maybe Superintendent Cliff Norris will come to his senses. And by the by, Ms. Irizarry, they're not paying you enough to endure this treatment. Doesn't this qualify legally as harassment? Is Superintendent Norris going to compensate you for the damage to your professional reputation? For the harmful message he's sending to every student in your classes?
Perhaps a threatened lawsuit from your teaching association's attorney might resolve this issue quickly.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in more of the story. However, shouldn't there be some sense of common-sense restraint in using inappropriate words in the high-school classroom?

This isn't quite a censorship issue if we are using certain words that are best left outside the classroom door.

Anonymous said...

When confronted with this issue in my classrooms (and even though I teach adults, freshmen in college, I still face this!)I like to use a lesson I got from one of my Logic textbooks about the difference between "use" and "mention" in language. "Use," it tells us, is when the word's denotative or connotative meaning is part of the author's intent. "Mention" is when the author is telling about the word. The lesson in my text uses this simple example: Use: This marker is blue. Mention: 'Blue' is a a four letter word. The difference is obvious: If the marker is in fact blue, any other word but 'blue' would render the 'use' statement meaningless or at least false. But there are hundreds of words which can be enclosed in the snare quotes and leave the 'mention' statement meaningful. Mention is like pointing to a word, not its meaning.

All of this is made more complicated in expressive fiction. In an essay, an editorial, a memoir, etc., we sense that the author is in charge, rhetorically, of his use of words. But in, for example, a novel, we have at least three rhetorical layers to navigate -- the author, the narrator, and the speakers. If characters in Faulkner's "Light in August" use a racially offensive term (and, Heaven help us, they do!), that is still one step removed from the fictional narrator's report of this use and even further from Faulkner's description of the speaker, any listeners, and the narrative presence who reports it all.

I am glad that Melody Irizarry understands how important this lesson is. Thanks, Melody.

ImagineMel said...

hi everyone, it's Melody. Thanks so much for the support and interest. I met with the district office this afternoon. Good news, I am back in the classroom. Not so good news, letter of reprimand in my personnel file and attend a cultural sensitivity class. I am just relieved to have it over with. Thanks again. I will never make this mistake again. Others, probably!! God bless you all!

Anonymous said...

This is so typical of parents today. Did the parent complaining have a child who is normally a discipline problem, has there been a problem with the teacher and student before...too much is left out of the article. I am disappointed in the administration at this school for not supporting its teacher. If I had to give up every novel, or poem that had "inappropriate" words in it, we would have nothing to read. Shakespeare is noted for his blatant sexual nature. Just because we don't point it out doesn't mean it isn't there. That parent really needs to get over herself, and open her mind.
The article states that the teacher referred to the poem and its words, not that she was imposing an opinion on anything. This is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

How utterly absurd. When are the hundreds of thousands of teachers across this country going to find a way to scold, shame, punish, sue, whatever... the narrow-minded dopes who haven't a clue about what matters inside a classroom, how to engage students to think critically, how to run towards ideas rather than run away from them. How did we get into such a miserable climate of oppression and criticism that teachers everywhere are subject to the damaging, hateful, punitive, harassing pressures of "the administration?". I teach in NYC and the climate is awful. Why can we not as a large group of well-educated professionals find a way to stand up, en masse, to the idiots who get into education for all the wrong reasons? WHere are the Michael Moore's of the world making "Farenheit 911"-type documentaries illuminating the appalling state of public education in this country? Power to you Ms. Irizarry. Disgusted, disgusted, disgusted.

Anonymous said...

When I read this article, I could not believe what my eyes were reading. I felt mired in a science-fiction novel ala 1984 in which ideas are dangerous and must be eradicated and thinking a subversive activity. Where are the professional organizations that should be taking up the cause of true education, real thinking, and opposition to censorship? Is this event another fallout of this political adminstration? Thoughtful and passionate responses on a blog cannot replace the action that we need to take to ensure leadership that inspires and to defeat pseudo-leaders who seek conformity to public pressure rather than exposure to different points of view.

Anonymous said...

Comment quote from constance carter: "It seems the reporter or her editors find the title of the poem and the offending words too hot for print; or, they do not want to give the poem any more power by giving the poet exposure in the press."
I agree that censorship is wrong, however I am glad the poem or poet was not mentioned. Too many folks would love to jump on the censorship bandwagon, and if one of these people sees the info, s/he will be scouting for that poem, regardless of the circumstance. Often, censors only read commentary on a work before raising the red flag, rather than reading the whole work. As a librarian, I know we need to be cautious and aware of what we are advertising. By no means do I believe we should shy away from works in fear of being censored. I do not blatantly publicize where our library shelves material on sexuality or witchcraft, but we still own the material. This protects us in some ways from those who would censor our materials, but still makes the material available to our patronage.

Anonymous said...

What was the 'word' in question? In what context was the 'word' used? Until we know that we can't understand any of this.

Millie Davis said...

For decades, NCTE has maintained an interest in preserving intellectual freedom and preventing censorship. In 1953 during the years of Senator Joseph McCarthy, NCTE collaborated with the U.S. Office of Education to publish Censorship and Controversy, “a 56-page pamphlet which was the first in a long series of Council pleas for open access to any material that could contribute to the attainment of worthy educational aims.” About 20 years later The Students’ Right to Read , the seminal NCTE intellectual freedom document, was distributed to thousands.

NCTE currently has an active anti-censorship program that provides support to an average of 80 teachers/schools and districts a year. We are the only organization of those that address censorship challenges whose work focuses on materials used in classrooms. The support NCTE provides includes policies and advice, rationales for commonly taught works, letters of support for teaching a work and for following a challenge policy, publicizing challenges (as in this case and through our Intellectual Freedom Awards), and, on occasion, testimony before school boards or in court and endorsement of amicus curiae briefs.

For what it’s worth, NCTE did not receive more challenge reports than ever last year as ALA did, and the number of reports we receive is not steadily rising.

Millie Davis
Director of NCTE's Anti-Censorship Program

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