I have taught children who have never owned a home. Some who owned several. Others who have lived solely on the generosity of strangers. I have taught children who have watched their parents get arrested. Children who have watched family members drink until they passed out, shoot up, or take pills. I have taught children whose earliest memories were of a parent walking out on them. Children who have found God, or Allah, or nothing at all. I have taught children who believe that family matters above everything else and some who do not know what family means. I have taught children who from an early age knew they were not straight or the gender they were born with. Every year I teach a new child whose story breaks my heart and makes me question humanity. We probably all have, whether we know it or not. This is why one of the biggest responsibilities we have is to offer a safe environment for students to explore their identity, no matter the age of a child. We must create an environment where students can relate to each other, even if their lives seem very different. We must create an environment where every child can find out that they are good enough, that they are smart enough, that they are not broken. We must create a community where all children are accepted, no matter their background, their race, their religion, or any other identifier that may shape their lives.
Books create communities
We can do this through the very books we place in our libraries and through the very experiences we share as a reading community. Our classroom library spans age groups, it spans ability levels, and it spans topics that may not be suited for all but are certainly suited for some. The students I teach deserve to have a library that will allow them to explore topics that matter to them. The students I teach deserve to have a library that will allow them to feel found. They deserve to have a library that is not based on what I think they need, but rather on a myriad of books that may bring topics into their lives that they need to learn about. That they may already know about but no one else does. We teach children whose lives we can never imagine. Who may go home to a life that looks nothing like the one we thought they had. We teach children who are curious by nature, whose curiosity may lead them down a path that is destructive unless we somehow find a way to warn them. We teach children who have so many questions about the bigger world but no idea how to answer them.
Censorship is not for all children
Books help us reach these children. Books that may not work for all children, but may work for some. So when we censor the books we allow into our reading communities we are telling some of our students that the story they live every day is not suitable for the rest of the class. That the life they lead is not meant to be discussed by us. That the experiences they have had is so different/ hard/awful/mature that we will not allow a fictional character to experience it along with them, to allow them to feel less alone, less scared, and less broken. So while we, of course, should read the books in our libraries as there are books better suited for some age groups, we should do everything we can to make sure our library is for all of the children we teach. [pullquote position=“right”]Our library becomes a way for students to discuss and explore things that they may not be exposed to yet, but that they should know about. Libraries become opportunities for students to learn about other ideas, beliefs, or lives that may seem foreign from their own. Our job was never to censor, but always to educate. Make sure that your library is for all of the children you teach, and not just those whose story mirrors your own.
Pernille Ripp is a seventh-grade English teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin.
In 2010, Ripp founded Global Read Aloud, a global reading project that has connected more than 500,000 students on six continents. The project has been nominated for two Edublog awards, one for best use of Wikis and the other for Best Social Network for Educators.