WMU News

New book examines school censorship and controversy

June 3, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- Imagine being an English teacher and told you can't use Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in your class, or having your school board adopt an "America first" policy, requiring that you teach your students that American culture is superior to all others.

Such issues of censorship in the classroom are at the heart of a new book by Western Michigan University associate professor of English, Dr. Ellen H. Brinkley. Her book, "Caught Off Guard: Teachers Rethinking Censorship and Controversy" recently published by Allyn and Bacon, takes a look at the societal causes of these battles and what teachers can do to combat them.

By including experiences of educators involved in curricular controversies, the book gives practical information and insights to help educators respond to the concerns, fears and demands of parents and organized groups regarding educational curriculum.

Brinkley says that she developed the book because many times teachers don't want to think about these issues and will just do what they believe is "safe." She says that in cases where teachers' classroom materials, methods or philosophies are under fire, instructors should know "when it's good to resist and when it's better to find alternatives."

The issue of censorship in the classroom has intrigued Brinkley for more than two decades. Brinkley grew up and then taught in Kanawha County, W. Va., where, in 1974, a conflict over textbooks triggered protest marches, school boycotts and a strike by thousands of area coal miners and city bus drivers. The conflict, which inspired a book, song and documentary film, erupted into violence with the bombings of schools and the board of education building and gunfire at picket points.

"The objection to the textbooks was that they were multicultural and the protestors of this
county saw them as communist," explains Brinkley. "The resistance was led by the wife of a fundamentalist minister who used to read from the books in meetings to inflame people's passions. The issue became a lightning rod that attracted the disgruntled and disenfranchised."

While the Kanawha County case seems extreme, the underlying conflict over teachers' curriculum choices happens more often than most would like to admit. Brinkley says the pressures on teachers and public schools come from many fronts including parents, administration, community groups and corporations.

"There is a real sense of dissatisfaction with public schools and that creates a climate where there's more resistance," says Brinkley. "It is not an easy time for teachers because there is less willingness to accept their word and they are under a lot more scrutiny. As a result, they have to be ready to help the public understand the value of what happens in their classrooms."

Her book aims to give teachers valuable information to aid them in challenges to their curriculum. In addition to describing the types of resistance and controversies that can occur, she also gives practical tips for dealing with these conflicts. The first step, Brinkley says, is awareness.

"Teachers don't want to think about these issues, but they need to be aware of the public pressures on the classroom and curricula and the potential for what can happen," she says. "At the same time, you have to help them understand that just because there is that potential, it doesn't mean you don't take risks. Instead, teachers need to learn to play a unique role of explaining and defending curricular choices, working with parents and community in positive ways and becoming an activist and advocate for public education."

To that end, Brinkley gives detailed strategies for policies and plans to deal with controversies. In most chapters, Brinkley devotes a section to what teachers can do about censorship in a variety of areas including science, religion, writing and reading. She notes that these tips set her book apart from others dealing with the topic of educational censorship.

"I try to stay focused on what teachers would need to know," she says. "Teachers tend to operate in a default mode of 'when in doubt, leave it out.' But this book takes a broader perspective in that it gives people advice about designing curricula so that teachers can make wise classroom decisions."

Brinkley, a WMU faculty member since 1986, is past president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English and has played an active role in the leadership of the National Council of Teachers of English. She currently serves on the NCTE's Commission on Intellectual Freedom. Brinkley is director of the Third Coast Writing Project, WMU's National Writing Project site established in 1994, and was instrumental in developing Michigan's statewide writing assessment test.

She is a 1969 graduate of the University of Charleston, and she earned her master's degree in English from WMU in 1973. She earned a doctoral degree in English in 1991 from Michigan State University, specializing in composition and reading theory and English education.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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