Debate: “Black Swan Green” & Censorship

“What is ‘appropriate’ for high school students? What is the value reading texts that contain violence or inappropriate language? Why do schools, teachers and parents censor? To what extent should they censor information?” These are some of the questions that I posed to students at the end of our last unit from EngageNY that asked them to compare an informational text (Rilke’s “Letter One“) and a fictional text (excerpts from Black Swan Green by David Mitchell).

Students need the opportunity to form their own, evidence-based opinions about meaningful themes and issues, and a recent controversy over Mitchell’s book at Newburgh School District seemed to present ideal opportunity to discuss questions about censorship and appropriateness. Through this lesson, students learned additional academic vocabulary words like “premise;” they read additional informational texts, and were evaluated on their ability to use academic transitions and strong evidence during a Socratic Seminar.

First, a little bit about the texts

In both texts, there is a young poet who seeks advice from a mentor. In “Letter One,” Rilke tells the young poet that he needs to stop looking to others for approval and that he needs to search inside of himself to discover if he has a need to write. Rilke also tells the poet to avoid writing about “general themes” like love. Rilke writes: “write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty.” In order to be original, Rilke says, the poet must be able to call forth the “riches” in his own, everyday experience.

In Black Swan Green,  Madame (the mentor) tells Jason (the protagonist of the story) that he must be truthful about his own experiences and about who he is. Jason hides his identity, and his stammer, because he is afraid that he will not be accepted by others if he reveals himself to poetic, or perhaps different. Through conversations with Madame, he comes to discover that cannot lead a double life: He be a true poet and fit in with the “hairy barbarians” who eschew art and bully him. Jason must learn to be honest about pain, and he must use his poetry to express beauty.

Lesson Plan (4 Days)

  • Warm Up Quick Write: Should high school students be able to read books that contain foul language or explicit material? Is Black Swan Green inappropriate for teens? Will lessons presented in Black Swan Green go “over the heads” of students?
  • Students discuss questions in small-groups.
  • Additional question: How do you think you are currently shielded from information at home and at school?
  • Students draw the following table in their academic journals to use as they read and annotate article in small-groups.
Claim Logic Problem
Example: Ice cream is healthy   Ice cream is healthier than eating a stick of butter, and therefore is healthy Problem with premise: Ice cream is not healthy simply because it is healthier than butter.
  • Whole-class discussion about claims, logic and any problems with arguments (example: students noted that they were not assigned to read the controversial aspects of Black Swan Green. The curriculum only asks students to read approximately 20 pages of the text).
  • Discuss logic of censorship. These resources might be helpful for promoting a more meaningful discussion about the logic of censorship (consider reading ahead of time, or offering excerpts as appropriate).
  • A note: I found the need to censor several pro-censorship articles because 1) They gave graphic descriptions of censored material, 2) Many were from unreliable sources, 3) Some did not make sense in the context of our argument and might lead to illogical arguments/discussions.
  • Jigsaw activity: Students arranged into groups of 3-4 and are assigned excerpts from an “expert” text. Students read, annotate and answer guiding questions about their text. Texts: “The Students’ Right to Read”, “Cenorship and the Myth of Appropriateness” & “The Effects of Cenorship
  • Note: Here’s a list of additional resources from the National Council of Teachers of English that might be helpful and that vary in complexity.
  • Mini-lesson on finding reliable sources online (See: Project LookSharp)
  • Internet Search: Students go to the computer lab to find resources to support their argument. Goal: Find and evaluate a minimum of three resources.
  • Socratic Seminar: I changed the original debate format that I planned to use after watching this excellent Socratic Seminar example on The Learning Channel.
  • Self-evaluation: Students write a 3-4 paragraph reflection on the discussion. Students self-evaluate using a Discussion Skills checklist. Censorship Socratic Seminar protocol


  • An additional resource that I should have used: Legal dictionary. Students used some terms too loosely, and really needed to narrow those down. What I like about debate is that it really should force students to define all of their terms. For example, if they say that something is “inappropriate,” they should explain how it is inappropriate, for whom is it inappropriate and how they can prove that it’s inappropriate.
  • We need to map out major tensions in the discussion on an anchor chart so that we can track these tensions and their development. (Example: Maturity is organic vs. maturity is developed; parents’ right to shelter children vs. academic demands of school; students’ right to access information vs. school’s desire to protect itself from attack)
  • I wish that I had drawn students’ attention to course offerings at elite private schools. Philips Exeter Academy and St. Paul’s offer Humanities courses in “Human Sexuality,” for example. Most of the English courses that I saw ask students to read texts that frequently appear on the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Book lists. This might have helped to give the students more perspective on this topic and would have asked them to compare texts that they’ve encountered with texts that elite schools present to students.

Additional lesson created

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