Cobalt Institute of Math and Science students saw several of their school books “banned” this week as part of a lesson about censorship, and school faculty was taken aback by how strongly the students reacted.
On Tuesday, CIMS teachers showed their students a cease and desist letter from a law firm claiming to represent a parent who objected to several books being taught in the school’s English classes, including classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, George Orwell’s “1984” and S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”
The parent purportedly objected to the books because they “exposed students to violence, sex, drugs and alcohol … and other crimes.” Teachers then confiscated the books, and at the time students thought the ban was real.
“I was really mad,” said CIMS ninth-grader Julissa Deleon, whose class was reading “Fahrenheit 451” before it was taken away. “I was like, ‘These are our books. There’s nothing wrong with these books!’ ”
The exercise was the kickoff to a project-based learning program incorporating controversial books that have sometimes been banned or challenged by school districts or governments around the world. The project involved several English classes at the grade 7-12 school of choice within the Victor Valley Union High School District.
“We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we pretended that we got an actual parent complaint and we were going to take away all the books so we wouldn't get sued,’ ” CIMS English teacher Kristen Savko said. “(The students) were more shocked and more outraged than I expected. Whole classes were like, ‘They can’t do that to us! That’s what we’re supposed to be reading!’ And they wanted to make posters and make a petition, and they were writing letters to the President. It got much bigger than we expected.”
Students, including 11th-grader Josh Givens, soon took to social media in protest, using hashtags such as #bringourbooksback on Instagram and other sites.
“I just thought, ‘that’s completely wrong and shouldn’t happen,’ ” said Givens, whose class had been reading “The Great Gatsby” before it was taken away. “I just felt really motivated to either spread awareness to it or put a stop to it.”
The teachers had planned to keep the ban in place for at least another day, but by the end of the school day it was clear they’d have to let the students in on what they were doing to avoid a flood of parent complaints.
According to an email sent out by Savko to fellow teachers, students were told that the purpose of the exercise was “to put each student into the shoes of students in other cities, states, and countries dealing with censorship. We wanted each student to see that censorship can have a devastating effect on education and to get students interested in learning more about banned and challenged books.”
CIMS English teachers Mandy Oakes, Svenja Swager, Shannon Gibson, Antonia Vignocchi, Bonnie Vigil and Sterling Self also took part in the experiment with their students.
“I was surprised about all the energy (the students) put into this,” said Swager, who teamed up with Savko to come up with the idea. “In every classroom the kids were screaming; they were demanding their books back. Definitely they got some kind of wake-up call from this. … They became aware of the issue of book-banning and the issue of censoring books, taking away their freedom to get educated.”