When I was in high school, I often hosted writers’ workshops for all students K-12, though most were in middle and high school. To offer this as an extracurricular, if I included certain pieces of fiction and poetry in our readings lists that had profanity and traumatic experiences, I needed to receive permission from parents to let the students read these works. The same went for writing: if a parent did not want their child writing a short story or poem that included things like profanity, abuse, sexuality, etc., I would have to monitor that student’s work and report anything that wasn’t “allowed” for that student if it came up. This happened more often than I would’ve liked – sure, students would not come to the workshop because the reading list that week included certain content that their parents did not want them to read, and some students expressed that they felt stifled or limited in what they wanted to the right.
I was wary of experiencing the same challenge with the WBS students, and of preventing any such difficulty, I reached out to Dora with this concern. I wanted to know if there was any level of appropriateness that we must adhere to with the group. I asked if we had a responsibility to share poetry that was “appropriate” (in whatever way “appropriate” is defined).
Her response mentioned the use of Content Warnings as a helpful tool in facing this challenge. I was not familiar with Content Warnings when I was in high school, and the first time I heard of them was in an intro fiction and poetry course during my sophomore year in college. The presence of Content Warnings in writing – and in any form of media – exists to let an individual consume media that includes content that might illicit a potentially harmful and damaging emotional response. It thereby “warns,” as its name suggests, of its strong content to prepare a person for that content or deter them from viewing the media if they believe the potential emotional response will be too much for them. I don’t know if this would have been helpful for me back in high school, but it made me think of the way that censorship permeates creative and educational spaces for youth.
I am against censorship. There is a wealth of attainable knowledge in any media, even if its content is difficult to consume. I believe that the existence of Content Warnings is effective in preventing emotional harm for certain people of particular traumatic experiences. It serves as middle-ground between complete censorship of media and unfiltered media that may be harmful. Content Warnings also allow writers, artists, cinematographers, and the like to create media that they want to make without censorship, so long as they uphold responsibility for their work. That responsibility balances a very fine line where the existence of potentially harmful content is intended to either motivate or incite violence (like hate speech).
I do not believe in censoring, especially censoring youth, that uses poetry as a means of expression, especially if it is the only way that they are able or allowed to express themselves. We can use Content Warnings to curb any negative reactions when reading and writing our own work in creative spaces, and they can also help us to learn when certain language or images are warranted for the work we wish to complete.
However, that is not to say that parental concerns are invalid. I know for a fact that the parents of students I’ve taught were only concerned with the media their child(ren) may have been taking in and how it would affect them or how they would use them. It is unfair for me to dismiss their concerns over what I believe to be best for my students. Parents, of course, have the final say over what their children are allowed to read, but I think that, as educators, we should take it upon ourselves to educate them as much as we educate their children. We should show parents how abundant opportunities for self-expression without the limits of censorship come to benefit their children.