Controversy Can Work - When Well-Managed

Which books belong in the hands of students? Classics of undisputed literary value? Books of a known moral quantity? Provocative works that will promote lively discussion? Feelings about what's appropriate vary so widely in the United States that the required reading list at one school could be the banned book roster at another.

Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association in Chicago, says she's noticed recently that books by authors like John Steinbeck and Nathaniel Hawthorne - long considered classics in some school districts - are receiving growing numbers of challenges in others. "It's a more conservative climate in the last few years," she says.

Solange Bitol, legislative counsel on First Amendment issues for the American Civil Liberties Union, says she's often amazed and sometimes amused by what gets banned - including Cinderella and Snow White, barred recently from one prekindergarten class because parents thought the idea of getting married and living happily ever after promoted an unrealistic and unhealthy fantasy for young girls. When it comes to reading material, schools are governed by school boards, and school boards generally defer to parents, Ms. Bitol points out. "Never underestimate the power of a small, well-organized group of parents," she says.

"Kids have a natural talent for argument," says Gerald Graff, professor of English and education at the University of Chicago. Rightly directed, Professor Graff insists, that talent can become a powerful intellectual tool, helping students to organize their thoughts and to learn to enjoy intellectual give-and-take.

But making sure the discussion remains rational and meaningful is the teacher's job, Graff says. Here are some suggestions he has for making the most of controversial topics:

* Write. Discussions will be more rigorous and disciplined if students are asked to write on the topic before coming to class.

* Always assign critical readings for the students to look at alongside the main text. But don't overwhelm them; choose something short and clear that will help them understand what it means to criticize a text.

* Don't be afraid to be formal. Structure can help keep discussion rational rather than emotional. Graff sometimes hands out a form to help students formulate their thoughts before a writing project.

* Speak or write to another class discussing the same topic. Use the Internet. Turn the dialogue into a cross-class or even cross-school event.

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