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Banned Books: Language Arts 8 Project Combines Research, Writing and Design Thinking

By Karen Westbrook and Angela Finn

Who decides what you read?

First-place submission

Have you ever been told you couldn’t read something? Since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, books have been distributed across everywhere. As a result, readers all over the world have delighted in stories both realistic and fantastical. However, not all readers are pleased with every story.

When individuals are offended by information or stories in books, they sometimes challenge a book’s presence in a local school, library, or town. Sometimes such challenges are successful, resulting in a ban of the book in a particular institution or town. Sometimes these challenges are unsuccessful, and the book merely gains greater visibility or even notoriety.

— Overview of Banned Book Project

Students in Karen Westbrook’s Language Arts 8 class recently dug into a project on banned books that involved research and analysis, design thinking and work in the Middle School MakerSpace to create a poster that explored their conclusions on the issue of censorship of reading materials. The essential question of the project: Why is access to books important?

Students began by choosing a book that had been challenged or banned, often at a school or public library. This process began in stacks of the Keim Center with the guidance of Angela Finn and the Library Services staff. After choosing their book, students were tasked with researching the reason or reasons for the ban as well as with reading the book themselves to find evidence for or against such a challenge.

Once they developed their personal opinion on the book’s suitability, students created a thesis that articulated their position on whether the book should or should not be banned, which they could qualify by age group, and why. Students then worked to support the arguments in their thesis with studies, statistics, facts and ideas from scholarly sources, ultimately producing a persuasive essay arguing for or against the banning of their book.

"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" submission

Hannah Silverman ’23, who researched challenges to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” a novel that explores two boys’ friendship through the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz, concluded that the sensitivity of the topic shouldn’t outweigh its important message.

“I was surprised that parents wouldn't want their children reading about the Holocaust due to mature content, even though it is a part of history. If we don't learn about our past mistakes, then we could repeat them,” she said. “I disagree with parents who believe the book should be banned, because sheltering children from the truth does more harm than good.”

Once the essays were done, students moved into design-thinking mode with Janet Vande Berg in the MakerSpace. Their final task was to create a poster that reflected the opinion in their essay, making creative use of elements of propaganda (purposeful color choices, slogans and artwork) as well as themes and motifs found in the book to reflect the reason for the ban. Upping the challenge from last year, students had to use some design-thinking element, such as pop-ups, slides or 3-D features. Students also wrote an artistic statement sharing their inspiration and reasons for their design choices.

“Adding the moveable element to the propaganda posters took them to the next level and gave viewers a way to interact with the poster that they didn’t have before,” Vande Berg said. “Mrs. Westbrook’s students enjoyed their time in the MakerSpace learning how to make these elements. Excitement was high, and the final products excellent.”

“The most challenging part about the assignment was probably finding good scholarly evidence,” said Laurel Carter ’23, who did research on efforts to ban “Heroes of Olympus,” part of a Young Adult series that details conflict between Greek and Roman demigods and Gaea, the earth goddess. “The best part was definitely drawing and creating the poster.”

Seven finalists were chosen from the classes’ work, and a committee of school leaders selected first-, second- and third-place winners, which are currently on display in the stacks in the Keim Center. 

First Place: Jenna Seidenfrau ’23, “Speak”
Second Place: Hannah Silverman ’23, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
Third Place: Laurel Carter ’23, “Heroes of Olympus”

Check out this album of banned book posters on display! 

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