Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Problematic Literature Part 2: Exploring Problematic Literature in the Classroom

Before you continue reading, have you read Part I yet?

Again, I would like to forewarn you that there are spoilers ahead for the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.

After I finished watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix and had a few days to process my thoughts, I had a conversation with one of my freshmen classes about the show. I hadn’t planned on having the conversation, but they had been asking me pretty unrelentingly if I had finished the show yet. This was after the literature circles unit was over, so I had six students who had read the novel as part of the unit and another six or seven who had read it of their own volition. On that particular day, after they discovered that I had indeed finished it, a girl asked me if we could talk about it. I am all for setting plans aside for the teachable moment, so I agreed. Here was her question:

“Why are schools banning the show and the book and sending letters home about it and stuff?”

Her question was in response to a nearby school district’s letter home in which they strongly encouraged parents to be aware of the show, its contents, and that students might be watching it. This letter is not a novelty; a quick Google search showed me there were school districts in Indiana, Kentucky, Colorado, and New York, to name a few, who did this.

Her question, continued: “Like, I just don’t get what the big deal is. Why are so many people upset about this show?”

Before I even had an opportunity to open my mouth, hands shot up in the air. By this point in the year we had established a pretty strong protocol for sticky classroom discussions. The bouncing, hand-waving, Hermione-esque responses from so many in the classroom indicated they wanted in on this, so I let them take it over.

“It’s because of all the sex scenes.”

“But there’s no nudity!”

“That doesn’t matter; it was rape. Violent sexual acts get a mature rating.”

“It’s probably also the fact that you watch a girl cut open her wrists in a bathtub. It was really bloody and gross.”

“But still,” the original questioner persisted, “I don’t get it. We watch stuff worse than this all the time. How many of us have seen other rated R movies and our parents don’t care? Why is this show different?”

Why is this show different. An excellent question.

I polled the class and about 75% of the students (freshmen, mind you) had at least begun watching the series. Of that 75%, about 90% readily admitted that their parents did not know they were watching it. When I asked why that was, they all generally stated that they didn’t feel a need to tell their parents they were watching it. It wasn’t that they were being deceitful; they just did not see why they would need to talk to their parents about watching the show. They were taken aback that I even asked the question because none of them saw a problem with watching the show without their parents’ knowledge.

I asked them if they felt that the show accurately portrayed life as a high schooler in 2017 and they unanimously agreed that it was very real. None of them seemed to feel it was over dramatized in any way. They began regaling me with all kinds of stories and personal experiences – Snapchat stories showing students from other schools snorting cocaine, screenshots of cruel cyberbullying, friends who had tried to commit suicide because they couldn’t deal with the world they were living in.

The conversation I had with my students was enlightening and terrifying, and it confirmed three things for me.
1. While a work of fiction, Thirteen Reasons Why is a work of realistic fiction, which is why it is problematic (as discussed in Part I).
2. My kids in my classroom are just like Hannah, Clay, Jessica, Alex, and others in that they have a perspective on things and rarely take into consideration the perspectives of others (like parents or friends).
3. I have to keep introducing problematic literature to my students, and I must be vigilant in talking to them about these topics.

The conversation we had in class that day - a conversation that took the full forty-five minutes - was an important one. Among other things, we talked about the term “suspension of disbelief,” which is when an audience willingly chooses to believe the unbelievable and they are willing to sacrifice reality for the sake of enjoyment. Several students kept making the point that their parents know they watch horror movies (“and we saw that guy’s guts and there was way more blood!”) and movies with lots of sex scenes (“there was a lot of nudity in that movie!”) and no one made a big deal about that. While I was tempted to take the dark and dangerous path of judging someone else’s parenting choices, we instead talked about how the scenarios in those films required suspension of disbelief, that they were highly unrealistic.

And then a student was able to answer the original question.

“So the problem with Thirteen Reasons Why is that it’s too real, isn’t it?”

That, I agreed, was a big part of the issue.

Most of the kids in that particular class came from pretty healthy home lives and, to my knowledge, were of sound mind. So the idea that someone would think of killing themselves because they saw Hannah do it was borderline absurd to them. These students are fifteen years old. They lack perspective. They are unable to see why someone would do such a thing.

You and I know better; we know that this story is all too real and there is potential for it to get into the wrong hands. On last week’s post, Erin wrote a comment where she expressed her fears about this narrative, that it might incite a student to do the unthinkable. It is a fear I totally get, because I feel it too. I see the value in Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also see why this book and this show could be a problem. As I said to Erin, in my opinion that's the kind of fear that comes along with anything getting into the wrong hands at the wrong time. We hope that our children are not watching mature television shows and that our teenagers aren't drinking alcohol; both are things that can be safely consumed in moderation by a responsible adult, but can be harmful to the wrong "audience." I think problematic literature is kind of the same way. And, like mature film and alcohol, I’ve always been led to believe it is the job of the parents to watch their children, to be very involved in their lives, and to make sure they aren’t getting ahold of something that is going to hurt them. Then I became a teacher and I quickly realized that not everyone has parents like mine. Not all teens have that open line of communication with a parent or guardian. Heck, some of them have a “parent” who barely passes the requirements to be considered such. So, sometimes, it falls on the other responsible adults in that student’s life to help them with character education.

Problematic literature is incredibly valuable in a classroom full of teenagers. English and theatre are two of my greatest passions, and both of those things deal with the exploration of the human condition. Through stories, we are able to put ourselves in the position of another person, and we are able to learn about what it is like to be that person. Reading fiction develops empathy, and empathy is the cure to hatred.

So, how do I tackle problematic literature in my classroom? My method is not tried and true; it is new and ever-evolving. But here’s my protocol as it currently stands.

1. Before introducing any piece of literature - be it something canon like Romeo and Juliet that features murder, suicide, and implied sex; something historical like Night that depicts incredible violence towards Jewish people and thoughts of suicide; or something contemporary like Butter that features a kid who is planning who own suicide to the cheers of his peers - I make sure I am very clear with students what they can expect from the story. No secrets when it comes to something that could potentially be upsetting.

2. I give students an “out.” If they feel uncomfortable with a piece of literature or a discussion we are going to have in class, I have an alternative for them, something that still works thematically in some way without being as upsetting.

3. I front-load context. I educate students about what they are going to encounter. When we read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, we have a large group discussion over what constitutes rape, sexual assault, and bullying. Before we read Night we discuss the violent crimes committed against Hitler’s Undesirables and I answer their questions with honesty and sensitivity. I teach context as often as I teach figurative language and plot devices.

4. I tell my students over and over, time and time again, that my door is always open. They are welcome to come by and talk to me about anything. They know that I will tell the guidance office if they tell me something that makes me concerned they will hurt themselves or others. And they take advantage of this invitation. Most of the time, the students who come in just need clarification about what they are reading or why something was included in a novel, or they just need help processing whatever they've read. Sometimes, students use this open-door policy because they recognize that they need help, and I’m the third-party adult in their life who said I would be there for them.

5. We talk a lot about what we read. Our literature units are very strongly discussion based. I work very hard at the beginning of the school year to build a classroom culture where everyone feels safe and free to express their thoughts. So once we have built that classroom community, we do a lot of talking and learning and exploring and thinking in a safe space.

Allow me to go back to Erin’s comment and my response for a second. This fear that Erin, parents, teachers, communities, and school corporations have expressed… it is unavoidable. It is reality. All we can do is provide support and encouragement and love to our students - to the victims and the perpetrators. We can put the right resources in their hands, we can put the right ideas in their heads, and we can pray.

Here is a list of other books I often recommend to students and for those of you who are interested in exploring books that are similar to Thirteen Reasons Why. All of the books I mention here are YA and, unlike Hannah Baker, the victim overcomes their circumstance in some way. These could potentially be great books for students who are victims or are struggling with mental illness (if monitored appropriately):
- It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky
- What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Butter by Erin Jade Lange
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Teachers, you do noble work, and you are not appreciated enough. Thank you for everything you do to support our students' growth, both as academics and as people.