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Persuasion, Argument, and Book Banning in 10 Steps

posted: 9.21.10 by Traci Gardner

Banned Books WeekALA_BBW_Poster_2010_sm is September 25−October 2, 2010. Every fall, the American Library Association (ALA) encourages the public to fight censorship and celebrate the right to read. For writing teachers, it’s also a chance to talk about persuasion and argument.

Every time a book, film, or Web site is banned from a library or classroom, argument and persuasion play a part. Students can examine these real-world arguments to see how people use argument and persuasion in everyday life.

To get started, choose some banned texts to discuss. Sadly, there are always stories about censorship and book banning in the news. All it requires is a search of Google News for “book banning” or “censorship.”

You can choose an internationally sensational event, like Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s plan to burn the Qur’an on September 11, or a more local example, such as the recent Stockton, Missouri decision to ban Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Once you’ve chosen your case, have students work through the following discussion topics to explore the rhetorical situation and persuasive techniques being used:

1. What is the book about? Begin by learning about the book and its author(s). Ideally, students will read the book. Alternately, students can read summaries and reviews. Identify the basic plot or information, the typical audience, and other significant aspects of the text.

2. Have students explore their own feelings about the text before talking about the positions that others have taken. Explain that the book has been challenged as inappropriate for some readers, and ask them to jot down their feelings on whether there should be limits on who reads the book (and why).

3. Review the reports on the banning and identify the parameters of the situation. Agree on the basic details—what book(s) or text(s) are involved, who has requested the ban, and what do the two opposing sides want done with the book? Simply outline the general information. More complex analysis comes in the following steps.

4. Examine the reasons for the challenges. Compare the reasons in articles about the banning to those listed in the ALA’s chart of Challenges by reason (the second chart on the page). Try to separate objective and subjective reasons for the banning.

5. Talk about who wants the book banned. Look at their positions and supporting arguments. What category are they in on the Challenged by initiator chart (the third chart on the page)? Imagine what you would say to someone from this category. Identify counterarguments, explanations, and solutions that are specifically appropriate for this audience.

6. Find rationales for keeping the book in the library or school curriculum in the articles and available resources. What reasons do the opponents to the ban give for keeping the text available? The National Council of Teachers of English has information on writing formal text rationales that can guide the discussion.

7. Look at when the text has been banned. What else was going on in the local area, nation, and world at that time? Identify how time and place are related to the arguments each side makes about the text.

8. Examine the language that is used in the arguments. How does word choice affect the way that reasons for the challenge are presented? Look for the words that each side uses to describe the reasons for the challenge and the action that they want taken.

9. Now that the class has considered the rhetorical situations surrounding the book banning, identify the argumentative and persuasive techniques involved. Analyze the reasons, appeals, and related details using the Basic Principles of Persuasive Writing site. Use the Fallacy Files site to identify any fallacies in the argument.

10. Ask students to draw conclusions on the book banning based on their analysis. Use guiding questions such as, Which arguments are most convincing and why? Have you changed your position on the book? How would you handle the situation if you were one of the people involved? How can you strengthen the arguments for or against the book? Finally, identify which position’s arguments are most persuasive and why.

You can complete some steps of this analysis as a class (such as reading and discussing the text and the basic situation).Then students can break into small groups to tackle the specific analytical tasks. For instance, one group can explore the reasons for the ban while another explores the rationale for keeping the book.

Once they complete the steps, students should have a better idea of how and why texts are banned, and should have tools they need to support their position should such a situation arise.

For additional classroom activities, see the Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text.

Note: ALA provides the free images to promote Banned Books Week. See this page.

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