Think, Try, Do: A Framework by Shana Karnes

Copy of It gives you the power of choice.After a year of working with teachers and thinking about the C3WP framework, I have so many ideas about how I’d like to teach the concept of argument in the fall. My first brainwave came early on in our work: we cannot just teach students to write argumentatively; we must teach them what argument is, how to read arguments critically, how arguments are constructed.

So, to me, argument writing isn’t really the goal of C3WP: it’s argument itself.

This reframing of my thinking about instructional design–that we have to teach the what, the why, and the when–before we teach the essential HOW–has my mind spinning, and here we are nearing the end of July.

I need to boil down this reframing into a more simplified framework:


Step one is to think more purposefully about what it is we’d like our students to master: in this case, argument.

Not just the writing, but the knowing. Too often, I think we focus on strategies and required texts and essential questions, but we don’t take the time to sit and ponder the nuts and bolts of the skill itself we want students to master. Taking the time to really reflect on the what of our curricula can lead to the kind of looped thinking that lets students explore argument from multiple perspectives, as readers, writers, and thinkers.

images.pngStep two is to try this new thing you’ve been thinking about.

One of our central texts for the C3WP institute was Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen.  This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga.  The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into an unfamiliar pose. We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.

For me, approaching argument through the new lens of both a written mentor text as well as a writing process would definitely be a new stance. It’ll take some time to get my instructional design smoothed out, and my instinct is to worry about what this might look like in the fall.

But GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one–we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it.  “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4).  It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.

What this looks like in terms of our current theme of teaching argument writing is revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation.  This new mindset is requiring all of us to “wobble” as we try to conceive of it, and we’re wobbling in even our understandings of its many moving parts–what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices.  As we’re flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we’re all wobbling with the confidence we’ll eventually reach flow.

But once we do–some time during the school year when things are going smoothly and planning and teaching are underway–we’ll need to yank ourselves out of our newly-found comfort zones and get back into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more. We need to return, again and again, to the try portion of things.

This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers–just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.

The final step is to do: to walk the talk of our teaching and write and learn beside our students.

When looking through the lens of Pose, Wobble, Flow, it’s clear we must shift our identities from mere teachers to that of teacher-writers. As we engaged in C3WP work this year, we wrote constantly, even after an introductory session during which many of our teacher participants confessed that they identified mostly as readers, and not so much as writers.

I cannot count the number of teachers I know who feel this same way. Perhaps it is because writing seems such a nebulous process compared to the straightforward seeing, decoding, and meaning-making of the reading process, but many teachers struggle to teach writing because they are not writers themselves.

GODA strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write

Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:

  • Sharing articles with colleagues
  • Commenting on education blogs
  • Participating in Twitter chats about educational issues
  • Joining organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English
  • Participating in local workshops

Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27).  These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.

Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable.  If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer:  What It Means to Teach as a Writer.” These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it.  From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome.  


Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher.  I hope, like me, you’ll begin keeping a writer’s notebook, blogging regularly, or writing beside your students every time you see them in class. Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer–although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily–is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.

For our students, the do portion of the framework is equally important. They must inhabit the pose, wobble, flow process just as we do; this requires fits and starts and less-restrictive start and endpoints to the writing process than we might traditionally impose in the classroom. Conceiving of this new approach to teaching writing, particularly argument writing, will doubtless require me to think, try, and do again and again.

I’ll approach planning to teach argument itself, as well as the process of argument writing, through the lens of THINK + TRY + DO in the future. In the meantime, I will continue to ponder what it is I think students should do, try out approaches to doing it, and then practice it myself before its debut thanks to what I’ve learned through C3WP.

I hope our readers will explore Pose, Wobble, Flow and leave a comment with their thoughts on that text, this process, your identity as a writer, and more.

Shana Karnes finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing at Three Teachers Talk or on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.


C3WP and Conditions for Change by Sarah Morris

Recently, our National Writing Project site at West Virginia University completed a year-long professional development for teachers in argument writing. The College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) provides teachers and teacher consultants with instructional resources, readings, and approaches for teaching authentic and civil argument. C3WP is a research supported program that combines intensive professional development, curricular materials, and formative assessment to improve student argument writing. In developing resources for this program, NWP “answers the contemporary call for respectful argumentative discourse.” Through the resources, teachers and students practice critical reading, consider multiple perspectives, and make evidence-based, sound arguments on relevant and important issues.

I believe in these aims, and working with teachers to focus on argument has only deepened that belief. Our participants strengthened their teaching strategies in a range of ways. They used TED Talks, Shamwow ads, and Buzzfeed lists to teach persuasive strategies. Their students created multi-voiced poems to engage with several perspectives, wrote “arguments for their futures,” and compiled sets of related texts to show complicated positions around different issues. I used the resources too. In my classes, I focused on helping my college composition students engage in research conversations using the “moves” outlined by Joseph Harris in his book, Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. As we practiced throughout the year, we found students making sense of argument structure, employing valid evidence, reading critically, and seeing the presence of argument everywhere. One teacher even started each day by asking her eighth graders, “What’s your claim?”

A big takeaway from our intensive work together was that reading, writing, and teaching are deeply connected, recursive processes, and that everything is an argument. I already knew this–I think we all did–but our year of practice illuminated this idea in new ways.

As a high school teacher, I knew that my students believed what they did often because their parents or friends believed it. They accepted unquestioningly the doctrines of those around them, and they held fast to their beliefs even when facts revealed a different truth. I thought then that part of the problem was a lack of exposure to a range of perspectives in our homogenous, semi-rural community. But now, as a college teacher, I’m not so sure. I see the same patterns of belief among my college writers. The Pew Research Center recently found that even adults struggle to distinguish between opinion and fact in the news.

When I look around me these days, I see complete chaotic dissonance rather than a range of measured perspectives. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” and by his measure, these are dangerous times.  We are living in a world of conflicting story, “fake news,” and falsehoods touted as fact. It’s difficult to discern what is real from what is distorted reality, and what is outright lie. Popular and political arguments are too often grounded in unfounded opinion and fueled by “ignorance with confidence,” as my friend Pete would say.

Lucy Calkins expresses that teachers create conditions for learning, and that “Writing can help those conditions by encouraging students to ask questions, to notice and wonder and connect and inspire,” and “to stay wide awake in life” (p. 484). Being awake in life, in this case, means being able to look around, take in the facts, ask questions, and come to reasoned conclusions. Argument that helps us learn is the kind that enriches our understanding and finds compromises. Good argument changes our minds, so that the “winner” is the one who learns and grows, whose mind changes, not the one who stands rigid in belief without questioning, without hearing other perspectives or shifting in thought. Philosopher Daniel Cohen discusses this in his Ted Talk, and poet Taylor Mali illustrates this in his performance of Like Lily Like Wilson. When we change our minds because we have read critically and listened carefully, we are learning in a rich, discursive, recursive way. In writing classrooms, we must create conditions for this.

In my own classroom, I struggle to teach students to move from evidence to argument, delaying judgement and dwelling in the questions as they begin to gather information about a topic before they make claims. I responded to this by shifting an editorial argument unit from the beginning of the term to the end, after students had completed nearly a semester’s research work. I also brought in real world arguments, like Kelly Gallagher’s articles of the week or the New York Times student editorials, as well as more academic texts appropriate for my college writers. Like Gallagher, I want to “build real-world writers” through authentic purpose and audience, meaningful reading, and models. I also want to cultivate writing as a tool for justice, asking students to write for change about topics they care about, using relevant evidence and clear reasoning–to school officials, public readers, and government leadership, as well as to academic audiences.

These changes have resulted in better-researched, more authentic arguments from my students. For example, one writer researched the risks to students on football game days by reading studies on alcohol use, collegiate drinking, and risk factors; reviewing local police reports for game-day crime patterns; and interviewing school officials. When she realized that a university police spokesperson’s claims about student safety conflicted with police reports and academic studies, she followed her research report with an open letter editorial that wrestled with that dissonance–one that allowed her to deeply question without finding a clear or simple resolution. I am still thinking about her arguments, and I believe she is, too.

I will continue to practice these strategies in my classroom, extending into my own research process, exploring helpful resources on the C3WP site, and deepening my own claims and evidence about teaching argument writing. I want to create conditions that help my students understand that thoughtful disagreement is an important way of engaging with others to create shared meaning, and to help build a better world. I want my students to be able to write and think beyond the classroom, to make sound decisions, and to be able to engage critically and thoughtfully–even when, maybe especially when–they disagree.

NWP@WVU Co-Director Sarah Morris teaches undergraduate writing courses and is the associate coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Program at West Virginia University. Her research interests include human science phenomenology, embodiment, writing process, and student-centered teaching. Connect with Sarah on Twitter at @DrCerelyn.

Rewriting Our Definition of Writing by Shana Karnes

It gives you the power of choice.Last summer, the National Writing Project at West Virginia University was awarded a grant to participate in the then-College Ready Writers Program, now the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP). Over the course of this yearlong journey, our site worked with incredible teachers from all over West Virginia.

We explored the idea of argument writing, how to teach it, and how to keep it authentic–but we returned, again and again, to the fact that our biggest learning experience was a growing belief that argument was everywhere, and vital for all to be able to recognize, analyze, unpack–to read–and to ponder, craft, and build–to write.

We explore here, in the following weeks, this belief: why argument? Our institute facilitators and participants will share their thinking around why this discipline transcends a written genre and is so transformative for all.

Today’s post, written by C3WP co-facilitator and WVU College of Education instructor Shana Karnes, is a leap back in time to the earliest days of the workshop in the summer of 2017.

9780874216424I really don’t think there’s anything more invigorating than learning with other teachers, and this week, I’m doing just that.

I’m feeling lucky to be encamped in the mountains of southern West Virginia at Pipestem State Park, working with National Writing Project teachers on the College Ready Writers Program.  This isn’t my first NWP workshop, but it’s my first time leading one, and the thinking and planning and writing that have surrounded our work has been absolutely energizing.

(“You’re like a wind-up toy,” my co-leader remarked yesterday as we planned over dinner.  “You just never stop!”)

It’s true–all week, I haven’t stopped thinking, connecting, writing, reading, and wondering about our course topic, which is argument writing.  One of our central reads, Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to do Things with Texts, has been inspiring and informative.  Harris has gotten me to revise how I think of writing and its purpose in a classroom.

Writing, in my experience, is a process of discovery.  We write to learn, to help us grow into ways of thinking.

When we frame writing this way for our students, the entire writing process as we usually approach it must be revised.  There can be no more, “brainstorm an idea, then write a draft, then revise it, then turn in a final draft.


Make sure you show me you can do ______ throughout.”

Instead, the process needs to become one of starts and stops, of constant learning and revision of thinking, and a process that is never completely independent of other learning.  What I mean by this is that we can never just write for writing’s sake–we will always be writing to learn about our topic: the reading we’re writing about, the questions we’re asking, or the craft moves we’re making.

Writing is never separate from its subject.  It is always both art and craft, both structure and content, both phrasing and approach.  When we rewrite our notions of what writing is, we see that the way we approach, assess, and value the writing process must reflect those beliefs.

Harris asserts that students are often asked to assume the roles of disciples as they write, adopting the moves and beliefs of another thinker (often the teacher or the author of whatever text they’re studying) rather than adapting them.  “Little new knowledge is created.  Instead the disciple simply shows that the master is correct,” (74) in this type of teaching.  I’ve seen, and experienced, this kind of writing in classrooms.

How many of our students’ writing experiences have stifled their voices?

Just one is too many.  Our students do enough of this posturing.  They’re teens, for crying out loud, constantly adopting the moves and beliefs of others.  We need to help them find their voices, and not just their writing voices–a voice in which to sing a song of themselves.

All this thinking only reaffirms my belief in a writers workshop approach:  one in which a community of students can safely take risks, engage in high volumes of low-stakes, choice-driven, mentor-text-rich, craft-study-laden writing, confer with a practiced writer about their growth, and take on the identity of a writer themselves.

If you’re interested in working toward a classroom that values this kind of writing, I highly recommend reading Joseph Harris’ Rewriting.

How might your classroom look this fall if you rewrite your definition of writing to match Harris’?  Please leave us a comment, connect with us on Twitter @nwpwvu, and share!

Shana Karnes finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing at Three Teachers Talk or on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

2018 Teaching Writing Institutes

Summer 2018 Institutes Long FlyerThis summer, NWP@WVU is hosting six free fantastic workshop sessions, all on teaching writing, and we would love for you to join us. Here are the details:

The workshops are on the last three Wednesdays of July: July 11, July 18, and July 25. Each day has a two parts: a morning session from 9-12 and an afternoon session from 1-4. You can mix and match by just coming to a morning session or just an afternoon, you can come to just one day, or you can come to all of them. All we ask is that you register here:

We are so excited to offer these workshops. Several are extended versions of presentations from the WVELA18 Conference in April. If you missed the conference, or if you are looking for more in-depth time with these concepts and facilitators, then this is the summer for you!


Institute 1: Poetry, Identity, & Place | Wednesday, July 11

“Roots: Exploring the Archives of Italian Appalachian Culture”

  • with Nancy Caronia, Teaching Assistant Professor of English
  • 9AM-12PM, 113 Colson Hall & the WVU WV Regional Historical Archives

West Virginia has a rich history of Italian American culture in West Virginia and the greater Appalachian area. Italians immigrated at the turn of the last century in order to work in the coal mines and as tailors, restauranteurs, and construction workers. In this workshop, we will explore Italian and Italian American Appalachian culture through archival research. In learning of the digital resources as well as a short visit to the West Virginia and Regional History Center, this workshop will assist teachers in creating a module that explores ethnicity, West Virginia, and Appalachian history.

“Appalachian Poetry, Appalachian Identities: A Writing and Teaching Workshop”

  • with Amy Alvarez, Teaching Assistant Professor of English
  • 1-4PM, 113 Colson Hall

In this workshop, we will read and create poems, find inspiration for writing in unique places, and investigate how educators can bring poetry into their classrooms while addressing many aspects of our state’s curriculum. We will focus on the work of Appalachian poets and explore the importance of bringing diverse voices into West Virginia classrooms. Bring a notebook, a pen, and your wild and wonderful self!

Institute 2: Finding the Words for Art & Poetry| Wednesday, July 18

“A Visual Language: Art as Impetus for Writing”

  • with Heather Harris, Educational Programs Coordinator
  • 9AM-12PM, WVU Art Museum

This session will provide a variety of tools for using visual art to inspire writing. Participants will view works of art on display at the Art Museum of West Virginia University. Museum educator, Heather Harris, will then model a variety of strategies for developing initial sensory responses into descriptive, poetic, and narrative writing.

“What to Do With All Those Words: Why We All Need Poetry”

  • with Daniel Summers & Brian Elliott, high school English teachers
  • 1-4PM WVU Art Museum Classroom

Communities require shared experiences and a willingness to go deeper into language than everyday conversation. This session will bring poetry out of the dusty realm it is often forced into, often through misguided ideas of the art form, and challenge you to see poetry as a powerful way to guide reading and writing practices in ourselves and those we teach. But, most importantly, the session will give strategies and philosophies on how poetry can build us into better, more empathetic citizens. Come to explore language and leave with some poetry.

Institute 3: Planning Your Writing Instruction for the New Year| Wednesday, July 25

“Daring to Engage: Democratic Discussions to Sponsor Argument Writing”

  • with Shana Karnes, teaching consultant, Sarah Morris, Teaching Assistant Professor in English, and Audra Slocum, Assistant Professor of English Education
  • 9AM-12PM, 600 Allen Hall

Come engage in democratic discussion strategies and experience how arguments are elaborated, extended, and built on evidence – the perfect set up for argument writing.

“Teacher Time: Planning Writing Instruction For the New Year”

  • with Cynthia Garcia, middle school English teacher, Sarah Morris, TeachingAssistant Professor in English, and Audra Slocum, Assistant Professor of EnglishEducation
  • 1-4PM 600 Allen Hall

Come with ideas, questions, wonderings, and plans for how you will engage your students in writing, and how you might write with your students. Explore possibilities and workshop plans with a trusted community of teachers of writing.

Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and Teaching West Virginia by Sarah Morris

The recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia has me thinking about my Grandmother, Mercia Dunmire. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Monongah, West Virginia, a community framed by mountains and mines, teaching the children of coal miners and subsistence farmers in a multi-grade classroom.

As family mythology tells it, after noticing children coming to school hungry, Grandma Mercia organized an effort to feed everyone every day. Parents who could do so donated from their gardens and pantries, and older students cooked lunch, learning to prepare food and sustain the group by working and eating together. In the guise of a daily home economics lesson, Grandma Mercia’s students learned service and community, caring for each other as an act of equity. She fed others’ children even while she struggled to feed her own, racking up debt for groceries on credit at Manchins’ store after her husband died, sealed in a fire-filled mine.

Grandma Mercia was like that–she saw opportunities out of need and struggled to help her students in ways beyond teaching them to write and read. She filled my shelves with books, but, more importantly, she influenced me to be aware in the world, to see and struggle against injustice, and to teach.

In 2007, I represented West Virginia as our state’s Teacher of the Year, attending several events and conferences where teachers from all US states and territories gathered together to learn from each other and raise our collective voice. At one of our events, we dressed to represent our home states. Given that so many recognizable costumes related to West Virginia are caricatures grounded in stereotype, I wanted to choose a memorable and impactful way of representing our heritage and history.


Mother Jones

I dressed as Mother Jones. I pulled my hair in a bun and donned a black dress and wire rim glasses. I carried a sign marked with her words: “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” I found myself explaining many times who she was, what she meant to miners, what she meant to West Virginia, and what she meant to me. Like Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones taught me through her legacy about how to be in the world.

Today, I’m thinking of Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and teaching in West Virginia. This week, teachers are picketing and rallying, closing down the schools, fighting to raise pay from 48th in the nation and for adequate healthcare for all public employees (myself included, since I’ve moved to the university classroom).

Today, our governor owes more in back taxes than a teacher will see in a lifetime, our state legislature refuses to pass a severance tax that could fund public health insurance, and a coal boss runs for senate with the blood of 29 miners on his hands; our world doesn’t look much different now than it did 100 years ago, echoing with injustice.

Today, it’s our teachers, red bandanas around their necks and holding signs, who are waging the fight, yet they are still caring for students, even out of the classroom: packing lunches, spreading word about how we can help through organizations like Morgantown’s Pantry Plus More who are feeding students while they’re out of school.

These are my thoughts and my experiences, but I know they resonate with other teachers. This is just my story, except when it’s not. I can see, in this moment, that West Virginia teachers are standing in the light of Grandma Mercia and Mother Jones. Whether she is a hellraiser heroine on the picket line or an everyday activist peeling potatoes for the soup, a West Virginia teacher is an agent of change and a fierce advocate for students.

download.jpgAnd, at the heart of it all, is literacy. Reading is revolution. Writing is power. We must remember, as Mother Jones said, “reformation, like education, is a journey.” Teachers do the work of progress every day, in and out of the classroom. Especially in this moment, our teachers are educating us: these strike days are readings in civic literacy, in social movements, in what it means to be a West Virginian. The teachers walk the line, writing the people’s history, and we are students, all.

NWP@WVU Co-Director Sarah Morris teaches undergraduate writing courses and is the associate coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Program at West Virginia University. Her research interests include human science phenomenology, embodiment, writing process, and student-centered teaching.

November 11: Teacher’s Day of Writing

22282115_10157413295284988_8466861799866998897_n.jpgGreetings, Teacher Friends!

  • Do you have a writing itch that needs to be scratched?
  • Do you have a piece of writing that’s growing dust?
  • Do you want to jumpstart your National Boards writing tasks?
  • Do you thirst for a community of writers?
  • Do you need a mental break from grading?

Join NWP@WVU for a “Teacher’s Day of Writing”! This is a great way to treat yourself with time, the rarest of resources.

On Saturday, November 11th, we are hosting a day for teachers to be writers! This is a free event to help you meet your writing goals, whatever they may be. Wannabe poets, essayists, memoirists, and National Board-seekers are all welcome.

We have three options for you:

  • Option 1: Come in the morning from 9am-12pm to write in peace and quiet, plus time to share writing goals and doubts with colleagues.
  • Option 2: Come in the afternoon 12pm-3pm to share your work and receive feedback.
  • Option 3: Come for the whole day!

The event is in 103 Colson Hall on WVU’s downtown campus. Parking is available in the Mountainlair parking garage (free on Saturdays).

RSVP Requested by Friday, October 27th.  Please complete the following form to reserve your spot and make your request for a boxed lunch.

You are welcome to share this event with colleagues!

Questions? Contact Keisha Kibler:

Fifty Shades of Censorship, or How We Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Let Kids Read by Rosemary Hathaway

Ydhdk51D.pngIn honor of Banned Books Week, we’re sharing this post written by NWP@WVU teacher-consultant and Advisory Board member Rosemary Hathaway. Originally published at Nerdy Book Club in 2014, this post and the titles it celebrates are just as timely today as they were three years ago.

Sometime in mid-July, I got a text from an English teacher friend at a local high school. She’d just heard, via her principal, that a parent had complained about The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s brilliant short-story collection based in part on his own experiences fighting in Vietnam.

The book was assigned as summer reading for the student’s upcoming AP language and composition class, and the parent—having looked through it—asked for an alternate text. My friend texted to ask for ideas about what she might suggest. I made several recommendations—Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels among them—but the parent rejected all of our candidates and made her own choice, John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Given that we’re just coming out of Banned Books Week, I’d like to use my Reading Lives moment to address not the dramatic cases of book challenges, like the ongoing battle over The Miseducation of Cameron Post at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware, but the quieter and more common challenges posed to young people’s reading choices, often by parents themselves.

In reply to a story about the Cameron Post challenge that I posted to Facebook, a former student of mine commented, “OK, help! Now that my daughter is nine and reading above her grade level, these debates take on a new meaning for me. She has a friend reading lots of teen and YA novels, and while I don’t want to squelch her interests, these books have much more to offer a high schooler than a 4th grader. I always rely on the ‘age appropriate’ reasoning, and don’t know when I’m ready for her to be reading f-bombs, although if she’s a good listener, she certainly heard a few!”

The concern about “age-appropriateness” is legitimate, and is one of the reasons why Lexile measurements can be so misleading: just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for them personally. And parents, certainly, are the best equipped to gauge what their child can handle in a book. But it often seems that the concern isn’t so much about a book’s potential to disturb or “corrupt” its reader as it is anxiety about the very private and personal nature of the act of reading itself.

I have long thought, and discussed with students in my YA lit classes, that book challenges are motivated not so much by the specific, offensive content of any given text, but by the privacy of the act of reading itself.  Concerned parent sees child deeply engaged in a book, oblivious to the external world (oblivious, in fact, to the parent), and becomes suspicious. What’s in that book that’s so interesting?  And why can’t I monitor that experience? The process of reading, and the images and thoughts that reading generates, are largely internal and invisible, and some adults find that completely unnerving.

As a voracious, lifelong reader, I understand that reading can be a powerful, life-changing experience. Parents who are concerned about the potential of books to disturb their children clearly also believe that the act of reading is powerful—but they construct that power negatively, casting the act of reading and books themselves as dangerous and potentially corrupting.

In her now-infamous Wall Street Journal article about “dark” YA books, Meghan Cox Gurdon suggested that such books might not only disturb kids, but that they might also cultivate (gasp!) bad taste in literature. “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” she says, claiming that it is “a dereliction of duty [for parents] not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options.”

Rod McKuenLet me tell you a story:  One summer when I was in middle school, my parents and I went on a long road trip to the east coast.  We spent a night at Chautauqua in New York, and before we left the next morning, we browsed around a bookshop and my parents offered to buy me a book for the trip.  I chose a book of poems by Rod McKuen.  (Hey, it was the late 1970s.)

My mom, an English teacher, objected on the basis of taste:  “He’s a terrible poet.”  My dad, not wanting to start a long day in a small car with a quarrel, intervened, saying, “Let her buy it.  If that’s what she wants to read, let her read it.”  Smugly, I carried Mr. McKuen’s book to the cashier.

Of course, my mom was right:  the poems were terrible, even though I didn’t recognize that at the time.

And guess what happened as a result of my parents’ “dereliction of duty”?  Dear Reader, I grew up to be an English professor.

Clearly, that book ruined me.  If only she’d snatched that book from my hands and given me a “more desirable option.”  Which I probably would have studiously refused to read. Gurdon clearly has forgotten how unwelcome such lessons in taste are to the average person between the ages of, oh, seven and death.

And what is the magical age at which books cease to be “harmful”? I remember being utterly freaked out by the scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure when the title character arrives home to find that his eldest child has hanged himself and his siblings in a closet “because we were too menny.”  I was haunted by World War I for weeks after reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  And John Irving’s The Cider House Rules repeatedly describes an explicit photo of a donkey that no amount of brain bleach will ever eradicate.

All of these I read when I was in college or grad school.  I’ve read other books in the two decades since that have disturbed me, as well as many that have moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, or inspired me.  Don’t good books continue to affect us deeply regardless of our age?  Isn’t that why we read in the first place?

Adults who challenge books are more often trying to protect themselves and their ideas about what childhood and adolescence should be than they are trying to protect real children and adolescents.

So, I’ll end with an affirmation (shamelessly paraphrased from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) that I wish such adults would repeat to themselves when they see a kid engrossed in a book:  A child, even the smallest one, is filled with thoughts you can’t know.  Instead of balking at such a thought, let’s embrace and encourage the complex, private mystery that is reading.

Rosemary Hathaway is an Associate Professor of English at West Virginia University where  she teaches courses in young-adult literature and folklore.