This Bookshelf Hack Will Eliminate Content Challenges

As an AP Lit teacher in a parochial school, I’ve constantly had to walk the tightrope between books that are rigorous and books that are “parent-approved.” It’s no secret that most of the books published in the past 40 years contain some element of strong language, violence, drug abuse, or sexual activity. There are also so many wonderful books that have some or even all of these elements that are great reads for AP Lit students. When making a book list or recommending a title to a student for independent reading, I usually have to know that student’s parents before I can recommend some of my more “colorful” titles.

For those who don’t have to worry about parental concerns, there are still some books that are dark or disturbing enough to trigger some students. Despite the freedom we have as advanced literature teachers, I believe some element of sensitivity is needed when recommending a book to a teenager. Recommending a book is like arranging a setup, so it’s important to ask yourself, is this a book that will hurt this student or a relationship in that student’s life? Or am I recommending a title that could deepen their empathy, widen their view into the world, and strengthen their feelings of kindness and humanity?

Once you think about it, recommending a book to a student is a pretty big responsibility.

In the fall of last year, I tried a new strategy that completely erased all parental concerns for the entire school year and helped me get to know my students’ comfort levels in reading during the first few weeks. It also increased my students’ interests in independent reading. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A roll of masking tape or washi tape
  • A permanent marker
  • A classroom library (even small collections are great for a start!)
Here’s my current classroom library, labeled in my simple 1-2-3 system to make book selection easier.

Next, go through and label each book with a 1, 2, or 3 by putting a small strip of tape on the spine. Here’s a breakdown of what each number means:

1 – Little to no objectionable material. Some infrequent uses of “TV-level cursing” (words you can say on television) or mild acts of violence may be used. (examples: Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, etc.)

2 – Infrequent objectionable material, which may include frequent “TV-level cursing,”  infrequent stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity (but not graphic portrayals), and some strong acts of violence (examples: Brave New World, The Road, 1984)

3 – Objectionable material, which may include regular use of stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity which may be graphic or violent, and several strong acts of violence (examples: Beloved, Atonement, The Things They Carried)

In the first week of the school year, I send an email home to my AP Lit students’ families, explaining the 1-2-3 system. However, I also use this as an opportunity to explain why 2- and 3- level titles are worth reading, despite having a strong religious or moral stance against some of the content within. In my first year of doing this, all but one family gave me the okay for their child to read 3-level books at my discretion.

That discretion is important; it’s a tool that AP and other advanced literature teachers should practice before doling out any title. For example, my student who loves animals more than humans would perhaps not do well with a title that contains animal abuse. And a child that you know struggles with an eating disorder should stay away from a narrative that has an unhealthy relationship with food. And obviously, students who have shared with you a struggle with an abusive relationship should avoid reading about a similar relationship, unless they particularly request this.

I only endorse books that I myself have read, so if I have to go to bat for a book I’m fully informed.

Obviously these details will not be apparent in the first few weeks of school (and sometimes not even in the final few weeks), but I’ve learned that students open up in surprising ways when they’re asking for a book recommendation. This is a special gift bestowed unto few people, but particularly English teachers.

We can take measures to respect this special relationship and endorse titles that are rigorous and even provocative, as long as we know our students can handle it.

Implementation of this system shows a respect for both higher literature and the emotional development of your students. It also keeps parents informed, which is an added bonus. I can attest that I did not have a single challenge from an AP parent all year, and several came forward to appreciate this approach in particular.

If you’re interested in implementing this system you can access my AP Lit parent email here, just copy and change the text to match your own voice or decisions in the classroom. And to learn more about my independent reading strategies in AP Lit you can explore some of my other blog posts on the topic, or get a jump-start by purchasing my Independent Novel Project on TpT.

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