Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Trigger Warnings: Intellectual Rights and Responsibilities

Banned Books, Censorship Part 1

K20 Center, Summer Boismier | Published: November 17th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course A.P. Language and Composition, A.P. Literature and Composition, American Literature, British Literature, Composition, Creative Writing, World Literature
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 150 minutes


Through conversation and close reading, students will begin the study of a controversial work of literature by examining the pros and cons of trigger warnings in our society. Students will choose two published opinion pieces (one from both sides of the free-speech debate) and deconstruct the arguments in each with a graphic organizer. Students will then collaborate with peers to construct a roving paragraph using a claim-evidence-commentary structure and use peer feedback to evaluate their written products. While this lesson is currently aligned only to 9th grade standards, it would be appropriate to teach in grades 9 through 12, adjusting standards as needed.

Essential Question(s)

How might trigger warnings affect free speech? How should schools balance an obligation to facilitate responsible dialogue on tough topics with an obligation to shield students who might feel uncomfortable?



Students agree or disagree with a quote about the value of trigger warnings via the Sticky Bars strategy.


Students choose two opinion pieces (one from both sides of the free-speech debate) from the New York Times's Room for Debate "When Free Speech Disappears From Campus" to read and analyze.


Students complete a T-chart analyzing the thesis, evidence, and potential counter-arguments posed by each of the two selected opinion pieces.


Students collaboratively construct one-paragraph arguments (including counter-arguments and rebuttals) for or against trigger warnings using an activity called roving paragraphs.


Students share completed paragraphs and provide feedback for their peers. Finally, students address the essential questions in an exit ticket.


  • Student devices with internet access

  • Writing materials (blue/black ink pens, highlighters, markers)

  • Sticky notes

  • Lined paper for roving paragraphs (optional)

  • Analyzing Opinion handout (attached)

  • Roving Paragraphs Sentence Rubric handout (attached)


Place labels on the classroom walls (preferably at the front of the room) to designate spaces for a future activity. Label one space AGREE and one space DISAGREE. Upon entering the room, ensure each student has a sticky note to complete the Engage activity.

Project the quote from Kyla Bender-Baird (slide 4), a grad student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, on a SmartBoard or similar device. This quote is a note Bender-Baird includes about trigger warnings on her course syllabus. Instruct students to read the quote silently to themselves as you read it aloud.

Allow students 2-3 minutes to consider the quote. During this time, you might want to clarify any ambiguous terms, such as paradigm, for students.

Ask students to participate in a Sticky Bars activity about the quote. On the front of a sticky note, have students write their names and either the word AGREE or DISAGREE, depending on how they feel about the Bender-Baird quote. On the back of the same sticky note, instruct students to list at least three reasons why they agree or disagree with the quote. If students struggle with their reasons, you can always brainstorm as a class or provide examples from which students can choose.

Have students place completed sticky notes in their answer's designated space, either AGREE or DISAGREE. This creates a real-time bar graph of student responses. Student reasoning on the backs of sticky notes also allows you to gauge opinions at the outset of the lesson. For the best visual, ensure students place their answers in columns or rows, creating neat, bar graph-style lines.

Lead students in a brief, whole-class discussion using information shown by the sticky bars. If time permits, you can even have students grab a sticky note from the opposing side to read and consider or share opinions with an Elbow Partner.


Students will now look at two opinion pieces from The New York Times on the topic of free speech as it relates to the college campus. Distribute copies of the Analyzing Opinion handout.

Have students participate in a variation of the Think-Pair-Share activity using the first page of their opinion handout. Ask students to individually review the article titles for side 1 and side 2. Challenge students to generate a topic (e.g., free speech, sensitive material, trigger warnings) for all six articles and determine the position (pro/con) of each side.