Any book worth reading probably has its share of controversial content. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is no different. This novel deals with gender, race, and sex, never shying away from the vivid details. Any of these issues can raise levels of discomfort in the room, so the trifecta is sure to do just that. When starting out with this book, it is a good idea to be up front with the class. Discuss their level of comfort with the above issues and be clear about you expectations. Set ground rules for the way the class should conduct themselves when dealing with topics that are delicate. Don helmets and elbow pads, but don't avoid these subjects.
The important thing to remember is that this is important material—stuff that teens need a safe place to talk about. Set the tone early, be respectful of varying views, but be diligent in not accepting poor taste or intolerance. "Fish bowls" are a helpful way to show the appropriate way to conduct civil conversation in the classroom. Have a group of students (who you know will provide positive examples of your expectations) conduct a small-group discussion in the middle of the classroom. Have the rest of the class watch and note the "positives" they are seeing and hearing. This way the students will be prepared when it is their turn to have more adult conversations in class.