Banned Book Week: Tips for Teaching Censorship

Consider how book censorship erodes our right to free speech and intellectual freedom.

By Erin Bailey


stack of books wrapped in a chain

Banned Books Week is celebrating thirty years of highlighting “the benefits of intellectual freedom and drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States, including books commonly taught in secondary schools.” 1 This year, Banned Books Week will be held September 30th through October 6th.

Free Speech vs. Questionable Material

According to the American Library Association, 326 books were challenged in 2011. Because most challenges are not reported to the ALA, it is believed that this represents about one quarter of all challenges made in school and public libraries. The First Amendment protects the content of books. When a book is challenged, the initiator is essentially making a decision about not only what he will read, but also what you and I will read. As a teacher or a librarian, is it more important to teach this cornerstone of American freedom or protect children from questionable material?

To answer this question, I investigated historic cases of book challenges and bans and spoke with Cara Russell, library director of the Dripping Springs Community Library in central Texas. She said that selecting books should be about community demand and a collection’s balance. Libraries have procedures in place for selecting books, as well as how to deal with requests to remove a book. She said that many of the most frequently banned books have homes on the Dripping Spring’s library shelves and are among the most often circulated.

The Fear of Parental Reprisal

Perhaps you are familiar with the arguments for banning these classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Grapes of Wrath. Among the more surprising targets are In the Night Kitchen, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Tango Makes Three. A few teachers I spoke with admitted that they have not used a book that went along with their curriculum for fear of parental reprisal.

Teaching about Censorship

As teachers, we have the job of teaching children to think. That should include a discussion about the harmful effects of censorship on a society. Try a few of these activities in your classroom and tell Lesson Planet’s Facebook community about your class’ discoveries.

  • Encourage your class to adopt a banned book, read it, and write a review for the school library.
  • Start an afterschool book club that focuses on banned books.
  • Have students create a collage of the book jackets of banned books.
  • Have pupils conduct a school-wide poll to find out how many people have read a banned book. Be sure to provide a list of the most commonly banned titles.
  • Create a video in support of a banned book. Upload it to: Banned Books Virtual Read Out
  • Investigate other forms of censorship: music, film, art, and websites. What potential effects does censorship have in any of these areas?
  • Research a country where the government’s power to censor is strong. Brainstorm how this power affects the citizens.
  • Ask learners to read a banned book. Afterwards, they should identify objectionable material and write a persuasive essay about whether or not the title belongs in a school or library.
  • Ask the school’s librarian to speak to the class about how books are selected and what the procedure is for challenging a book.  Learners can then evaluate the policy and decide whether or not they think it does enough to protect a book from being censored.
  • Visit the website for the NY Times which includes actual letters to the Brooklyn Public Library for removing a book.  Students should read one of the mentioned books and form an opinion either in favor of removing the book or for leaving it on the shelves.  

1 The New York Times 

Celebrate Banned Books Week

Censorship is a serious issue that deserves attention. Observe Banned Books Week or use one of these lessons to teach your class about it.

Debate: Press Censorship

Secondary learners gather examples of times in US history when the government exercised censorship over the media in order to protect national security. They form an opinion on whether or not this should be allowed and debate their opinion.

Keeping It Quiet 

Junior and senior high school learners investigate the ways that some countries control information through censorship. Specific cases are given for consideration, but more recent cases may be substituted. Individuals then respond to an example of censorship by writing a paper.

Television CensorChip

Sixth through twelfth graders poll the student body for the most popular television shows. They review the current television ratings system and research how parental control devices operate. Then they make a determination on whether or not the parental control devices are able to censor the content that is intended.