Banning words to protect children

It reads like a headline from The Onion (“NYC Department of Education wants to ban 50 forbidden words from state tests“), but it’s not. According to news reports, in New York, there are some words that are so powerful that students should be shielded from them in testing situations. On a day when I had planned to discuss censorship & challenges to literature with my students, the article seemed particularly fortuitous.

What are these dangerous words, you ask? Here they are:

Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological); Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs; Birthday celebrations (and birthdays); Bodily functions; Cancer (and other diseases); Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes); Celebrities; Children dealing with serious issues; Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia); Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting); Crime; Death and disease; Divorce; Evolution; Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes; Gambling involving money; Halloween; Homelessness; Homes with swimming pools; Hunting; Junk food; In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge; Loss of employment; Nuclear weapons; Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling); Parapsychology; Politics; Pornography; Poverty; Rap Music; Religion; Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan); Rock-and-Roll music; Running away; Sex; Slavery; Terrorism; Television and video games (excessive use); Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters); Vermin (rats and roaches); Violence; War and bloodshed; Weapons (guns, knives, etc.); Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

Leaving aside the fact that the paragraph above includes topics, not specific words, the list deserves scrutiny. When we talked about them in class last night, we did–I’ll admit–laugh, because some of the concepts were downright ludicrous. Seriously, why would a test administered in K-12 schools would even include references to alcohol? One of my students suggested maybe it was a math word-problem: “If you have two shots and your friend has five beers…” Same with “gambling involving money”; does that mean reading passages about gambling that doesn’t involve money would be OK?

Then we turned our attention to the other topics. Some are clearly motivated by some constituents’ religious beliefs (and therefore we did not laugh): birthdays, occult, religious celebrations/holidays, witchcraft. Having just discussed the American Library Association’s explanation about past and current challenges to books, we weren’t surprised to see topics related to religious viewpoints or sex as potential “dangers.” (Although, as another student said: “Do these people not know what kids today are up to?!?”) We were surprised / stunned / stupefied about some of the others.

  • Why do rap and rock-and-roll constitute potential danger, but not country music?
  • Would students living in poverty be so upset by a reference to unemployment in a reading that they’d be unable to complete the test? Wouldn’t the fact that they LIVE IN POVERTY be the real potentially upsetting thing?
  • If a student lives in a vermin-infested home, do the folks at the NYC DOE really think that reading a story with a rat in it (e.g. Charlotte’s Web) would upset that test-taker so much as to invalidate their measure?
  • Conversely, if a student who lives in poverty reads a passage about a home with a swimming pool (where are they getting these hypothetical reading passages, anyway?!?), she will be so crushed by aspirational envy that she won’t be able to correctly bubble in her answer?

These are silly-seeming questions, until we step back and look at the wider context of education in the United States. If teachers’ salaries are tied to test scores, one might imagine they will spend more time focusing on helping their students prepare for the tests. That’s not what most teachers view as “best practice,” but what else do we expect them to do if their lives livelihoods are on the line? If the tests are scrubbed of the topics listed above, then it seems reasonable to expect that instructional materials will also be sanitized, in order to more closely align instruction with assessment. Look at that list above again. What are those students going to be allowed to read to prepare for the tests? (Never mind read to learn, explore, think…) Using the list above as criteria, every text is potentially offensive or upsetting to someone. My students suggested an experiment: I chose a book at random from my book cart (it’s a class on teaching literacy through children’s & young adult literature, so I roll my cart to and from class each week), and started reading. Within the first few pages of Bill and Pete go down the Nile by Tomie dePaola, we had found several things that could be offensive or upsetting or problematic from someone’s point of view (e.g. non-Christian burial practices; representations of Egyptian characters–I’m sure someone somewhere might make a connection between the talking crocodile and a fear of an impending Muslim-takeover of the world…).

If we act on the rationale that we should remove words or topics from tests that might offend or upset students, we’re in trouble. As one of my students said, “I really want a puppy, and every time you mention your dog, it makes me sad.” What’s a teacher to do?

I’m not advocating that educators not be sensitive to students’ backgrounds. Not at all. Culturally-responsive pedagogy demands that we recognize and honor the lived experiences of all the students in the room, so that we can find more and more ways to create authentic and relevant learning opportunities. That includes–from my way of thinking–providing opportunities for critical engagement with difficult topics. (If not in school, where?) But if society (or in this case, the NYC DOE) bans ideas words in order to protect children from topics that are potentially upsetting, what happens when they leave school each day? Children in this country live in poverty. Our students are have experiential knowledge of violence, disease, unemployment, and abuse (to name just a few). If schools don’t provide students with safe spaces to think critically about their lives, who will? How will they ever learn that they are not alone in their experiences? Why on earth would we want to do anything that further exacerbates the disconnect between school and students’ “real” lives?

Words are tools for identifying, thinking about, and discussing the underlying concepts they represent. Banning words won’t make those realities disappear. If we really want to protect children, we should work to eradicate poverty and homelessness and abuse. Impossible task? Not if we put our minds to it instead of taking the easy route of banning thoughts words.

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