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Leading the Conversation against Book Ratings and “Red Flags”: A Call to Action for English Teachers

This post was written by NCTE member Gretchen Oltman.

As a new school year gets underway, now is a great time to take a deep dive into your classroom syllabus. As teachers, we know that strong syllabi lay out course expectations, teaching philosophy, contact information, and learning objectives. However, in recent years, many teachers have also used syllabi to “red-flag” potentially troublesome pieces that will be taught for a variety of reasons—for example, the content might be considered “mature” or “controversial.” Class novels might challenge students to encounter difficult content like death or suicide or might challenge the status quo and explore topics like relationships, interpersonal conflict, and sexual encounters.

I admit, as a former high school teacher, it felt like a sound decision to alert parents and administrators that what went on within my classroom walls was going to be difficult, and in a way, I felt like I was protecting myself by warning everyone ahead of time. If a parent complained mid-year, I could always point back at the syllabus and say, “I warned you we would be reading material with adult themes.”

Yet, in hindsight, that alert, or “red flag,” was exactly what I should not have been doing. This summer, I had the chance to lead a committee tasked with revising the NCTE position statement on the practice of “red-flagging.” The result? Some important action items that put English/language arts teachers in the forefront of advocating against “red-flagging,” warning labels, censorship, and book ratings.

Here’s what we learned from writing this revised position statement and how English teachers can navigate this difficult topic:

 

“Red flags” reduce an entire book to a page or two.

 

As English teachers, we should stop the practice of warning people about what we teach. We are the professionals in the room. We have gone to school and earned degrees in the teaching of literature, writing, and reading. Our professional judgment should mean something and we should stand firm in our expertise.

The process of “red-flagging” books, using rating systems, or labeling literature with concepts like “mature themes,” “adult content,” “adolescent struggles” endorses the notion that literature can be judged as a whole on the content of a few pages. Think about this. Reducing classic or YA literature to a single conversation, a brief encounter, or the use of a few profanities completely defeats what we do as English teachers. We teach students to read a piece for its entire worth, not just what one finds on page 14 or the choice a character makes in one chapter.

The value of our job is not in a single passage, but in the consideration of what a writer accomplishes, or doesn’t, with an entire piece of writing. “Red-flagging” leads to a dangerous path of censorship and as English teachers, we should be at the front of the line protecting access to the best teaching materials for all students, not just those deemed acceptable by the popular crowd.

 

Teaching is not challenge-free. Ever.

 

The lack of a content warning in your syllabus does not mean everything you teach will be challenge-free. Our committee considered the role of “gatekeeping,” or the role that a teacher plays when selecting or not selecting literature to be taught. If you are avoiding certain pieces of literature that you know to be worthwhile because you fear an administrator or community member will complain, you are practicing censorship.

Think holistically about the role of an English teacher and the goals of the English classroom. Should this be where students learn that restricted access is acceptable? Where choices made by a select few should govern the whole? Or that as individuals and consumers, we are responsible for making informed choices based on our own reading?

I prefer the latter. I also understand the role of parents and respect their role to have a say in their child’s educational process. This should not be underestimated or dismissed. It is important that parents are recognized for their opinion and authority. Listen, but also insist that district policies to challenge course materials are followed (and if your district has no such policy, now is the time to advocate for one). Utilize the resources within the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center to find support and resources from others who have faced similar controversies in their schools.

 

Challenges to your curricular choices do not always end up in the news.

 

Districts with clear procedures on how parents and community members can challenge curricular selections require a bit of work on behalf of those challenging the course materials. That is, in districts with clear curriculum challenge policies, it takes more than a few loud voices to remove a text with a clear curricular connection.

One of the clear takeaways from the revised position statement is that all teachers should be prepared to provide a clear rationale for what they teach and how it is aligned with curricular goals and objectives. This means you need to prepare yourself as a professional. This also means reading texts before you teach (yes, it happens!), carefully crafting reasons the literature connects to engagement and student learning, and aligning any selections to support the promotion of reading and access to a wide variety of materials.

 

You set the tone for “red flags” at your school.

 

I ran across a Twitter chat among social studies teachers recently in which one of the questions raised was how a social studies teacher could defend teaching a novel in a social studies classroom if someone such as an administrator or parent complained.

Challenges to curricular choices are not exclusive to the English classroom—our colleagues face similar criticisms, and it is through our leadership and experience that we can help guide them to encourage creative teaching and the incorporation of literature in other courses beyond the English classroom. Our ability to model and advocate for wide text selection and professional judgment by the teacher will spill over into their classrooms.

 

You are your administrator’s best teacher.

 

I never underestimate the difficulty of being a school administrator in the midst of a book challenge. It cannot be easy to hear a complaint from a parent or community member and wonder what if what being taught in the classroom is really safe or appropriate. I believe that most administrators simply do not appreciate the inherent dangers in rating books based on a few pages of controversial, mature, or difficult content. After all, a rating system would make things a lot easier.

However, we must advocate for our students that the best selection of materials is a wide selection with unfettered access. This means we must initiate the conversation with our administrators about why we will not provide warning labels in our syllabi. This does not mean we remain unaccountable and free to do whatever we wish without repercussion.

To help open this dialogue, I penned a “Dear Principal” letter—I hope you can use it initiate a conversation with your school leaders. Through this conversation, we can also assure our school leaders that we will do our part to ensure our curricular choices are not made without thoughtful consideration and that we, in fact, are prepared to defend our text selections with clear rationales (again, thank you NCTE for a wealth of book rationales and resources!)

 

Special thanks to the talented committee who helped revise the NCTE Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books: Annamary Consalvo, Teri Lesesne, and Jocelyn A. Chadwick

 

 

Gretchen Oltman is an assistant professor, attorney, and former high school English teacher. She has served on the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship and as an NCTE State Policy Analyst. Follow her on Twitter @Dr_Oltman