Are you interested in teaching controversial literature, but feeling a little nervous? You’re not alone!
Lately, I’ve been receiving e-mails and TPT questions like this: I really want to teach The Hate U Give. I know my students would love it. I know they NEED it! But I’m getting pushback from my principal/school/district. What do I do if my school won’t let me teach The Hate U Give?
In this post, I want to offer a few ideas for getting your The Hate U Give or other controversial unit approved. (If you still can’t get your district to approve of The Hate U Give, I offer some alternatives at the end of this post.)
While I could absolutely turn this into a soapbox about censorship, I’m going to focus less on the why of changing your curriculum and more on the how.
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Teaching Controversial Literature Tip #1: CYA
I want to preface all of this with a warning.
You know your district, students, parents, and administration better than I do.
Don’t do anything that will put your job in jeopardy.
By all means, push where you can, fight if you feel you can win, but don’t risk your job. Even if you are willing to sacrifice your livelihood for the sake of fighting censorship, stop to think about your students. They need teachers like you–teachers who seek to diversify their curriculum and really stop to see their students. Taking yourself out of the game doesn’t help them. Live to fight another day.
And if you do secure approval, get it in writing. Ultimately, teaching is political, and like it or not, covering your, er, bases is part of the job.
Ok! Warning over.
Now, how should you go about teaching controversial literature if you haven’t before?
Teaching Controversial Literature Tip #2: Get Admin on Board
First, before you jump into teaching controversial literature–The Hate U Give or otherwise–get permission.
Make sure your principal is on board and that the district has approved any curriculum changes.
I am lucky in that I work at an alternative school. Our Literacy Coordinator knows my kids need a different approach. As long as I vow to stick to the same standards and learning targets, she pretty much lets me do whatever I want. Once she was on board, my principal didn’t see an issue with it.
If you’re a new teacher in a large district, reaching out to someone you may have never met before can be intimidating. I feel you. Do it anyway.
Ask a coworker, your principal, another English teacher, or anyone you do feel comfortable approaching in your building and ask about who to contact. It’s the Coordinator of Literacy’s job to field questions like this, so don’t worry about wasting anyone’s time.
If you can get your principal or another member of administration on board first, you’ll have someone who has your back later. Got a parent complaint? Well you have administration on your side! Even if you need to create an alternative curriculum for a student, you know you’re choices will be supported.
Teaching Controversial Literature Tip #3: Prepare Before Bringing Up the Idea
Be prepared to discuss why you feel the curriculum change is needed.
My main point when seeking an alternative book choice was that our current African American literature unit was outdated; the challenges of being black in America have grown and evolved since Maya Angelou’s teen years.
I also pointed out that I worked with a highly disengaged student population (many of my students end up at my school because they failed elsewhere). I hoped to increase engagement by offering a book that mirrored my own students’ speech, experiences, and love of family and community.
The Hate U Give, I told my Literacy Coordinator, instructional coach, and principal (all of whom I worked with while creating my unit), would, hopefully, be literature that my students would connect to.
(Spoiler alert: it did just that! Read about my experiences actually teaching the novel here.)
Whatever your reasons are, just make sure you have them. Be sure to explain how teaching controversial literature will make a bigger impact than the current curriculum.
Hopefully, your district will be so impressed by the thought you put into your classroom that not only do they give you permission, but they throw a raise in too! (Hey, we can dream!)
If not, try…
Teaching Controversial Literature Tip #4: Get Permission From Parents
If your district is a little uneasy, offer up parent contact. My district gave me permission, but I still sent out letters letting parents know that we’d be reading a controversial novel. My letter did not ask for permission, but merely informed parents. You may decide to pass out permission slips and require that they are turned in.
Contact with parents always makes me nervous, but it’s actually a great opportunity for parent outreach. In these notes home, I also offer extra copies for parents
What if only some students have permission?
I have been pretty lucky so far. Only one student and his parent have refused to participate in my unit. My super supportive school pulled him out and put him in our online lab for that English credit. That won’t work with every student, school, or situation.
If some parents are wary, you could do literature circles instead.
There are so many great books out now about police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and America’s social justice system. You could have students pick from a few of these and still have some of those courageous conversations in class. Only allow the students with permission to read The Hate U Give. The rest could pick from other novels with milder language.
Dear Martin is shorter and a lower Lexile than The Hate U Give, and it also has less swearing and fewer adult situations. All American Boys is longer than Dear Martin but it’s the most “child-friendly” title of the three, and it really takes some time to look at police brutality through multiple lenses.
If this appeals to you, I really recommend my Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Bundle. This resource takes all the prep work away, so you and your students can just focus on reading and discussing. It also includes a speech activity and a few more other resources.
There are plenty of other titles you could mix in with controversial titles though. Ghost Boys by Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is another great police brutality title that is mild (and an easy read!).
If your controversial literature of choice isn’t related to race or police brutality, there are still plenty of other options. You can do a literature circle based on the theme, the author, genre, or do a complete independent novel unit!
Teaching Controversial Literature Tip #5: Keep Trying to Make a Change
Like I said at the beginning of this post, don’t put your job in jeopardy. If your district can’t see past the language in the novel or doesn’t want to take on having these heavy conversations, then I’m afraid you’ll have to let the novel go.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have these conversations in class. If there’s just too much swearing in the book for your district, I really recommend Dear Martin or All American Boys as a whole class alternative.
They are both much milder in terms of language.
If your THUG unit never gets off the ground, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be in your classroom. If you can’t formally teach it, feel out your district’s response to the book.
Decide if you can get some copies onto your classroom library shelves. Book talk it and make sure it gets into the hands of students who need it. Make sure the title is on your list of recommended reads or put up a THUG poster. Just because the students can’t study it, doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t read it on their own.