In the Classroom: Dealing with Difficult Language

As a longtime 4th grade teacher there are times when racist language appears in our classroom work. Each time I try to educate my students, but in a way that doesn’t seem hectoring, no easy task. For I think it is a fine line we teachers walk — while most of the kids may well take in all that we say, others may be quietly dismissive and go away with the opposite thought.  And I try to keep in mind that what might be horrifying to me because of the history and knowledge I bring to a word, may not be for my young students. I try to consider that even those words that shock me the most may not do the same to my students.  That said, there are certain words I cannot say and I avoid books and work that include them. But sometimes they appear unexpectedly and then there are others, somewhat arguably less charged that also occasionally appear. And I think carefully about those kids and how best to make them aware in a way that helps them throughout their lives.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the conversation over at Betsy Bird’s post about older books that include racist elements and even more so this post by Matt Tavares about his decision to take out a highly racist word in a new edition of his book, Henry Aaron’s Dream.  Because of my classroom experiences I think Matt’s decision is the right one,  discomforting though it is. Here’s my comment on his blog post:

I’m a longtime classroom teacher (31 years at my present school, most of them with 4th graders) and think this is the right decision even as uncomfortable as I am going that way. So kudos to you and Candlewick for making this hard choice.

For me, it isn’t only about the book not getting into its audience hands, but that kids in their own world do take language and own it for themselves and sometimes that can be in extremely hurtful ways. We may not like thinking this, but it can and does happen. The audience for this book is a young one and not yet at the developmental place where they are able to unpack the history around that word (as I would hope those teaching Huckleberry Finn to much older young people would do). And so putting it in may not have them understanding your book as well as you would want.

You might be interested, if you don’t already know it, of the book Desmond and the Very Mean Word — also, it so happens a Candlewick title. I’ve read that to my class and they focus on the result of the word and are fine not knowing what it was.

I really think that we need to be honest about the realities of young children — think hard about what they take in and don’t. Keep in mind where they are developmentally. Additionally, every child’s situation is different — some may know a lot and some may not know so much.

I’ve been faulted for sanitizing the harsher aspects of the Amistad story in my book, but I stand by my choices. Like Matt, I want the story to be known, especially for younger children. Here’s my thinking (in the source notes) about that:

There is no record of Margru’s firsthand description of her voyage from Africa to Cuba. Based on the many other accounts available I can only guess at its dreadfulness and feel it would be presumptuous of me to write about it in detail.  My father, a Holocaust survivor, was not able to talk about certain things and so I imagined that Margru could not either.  I also did not want to frighten the relatively young child audience I have in mind for this book and so tried to communicate the horror without the specifics.

If we want younger readers to know harsh stuff we need to think hard about them, to consider just where they are on their life journeys, what they know and don’t, and what they bring or don’t bring to their encounters with books. Matt, it was a hard decision, but I think you are absolutely right.

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Africa is My Home: Come to the Children’s Africana Book Awards this November in DC

The Children’s Africana Book Awards will be celebrated with a festival at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art on Saturday, November 8, 2014.  You can find out more about it as well as register (it is free) here.

The lovely people at Africa Access (who administer the award) created the following for those specifically interested in Sierra Leone and, thus, my book.  I’m pretty excited!

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Did you know children were on the Amistad? 
Magulu
(Sarah Margru Kinson)

About 1830, a girl named Magulu was born in     what is now Sierra Leone.

 

At age 9 she was taken captive aboard the

Amistad with fifty-two other Africans.

Read about her in Africa is My Home, A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger.

Meet the author, Monica Edinger at the
Children’s Africana Book Awards Festival

             Washington, DC
       Saturday, November 8, 2014

Free and Open to the Public   Registration Requested

    Book Sale and Signing
 
http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001WcFZEX6k88lx960iAKPIdCiCdykHoAquYpfwxKn4DnT-F2kS68IQdqS60jL9Ee3P2UkxgCnZ4rXdipIpEiN-Ug-Dg8rsZUXJMYOF4F4ZUoPbKrMOJ5-rWsWisctcaJ6eiazz1RIo1UkEa84gQVwn96LqPS3R8bo4PiHjiqtWdNQ=
Other titles set in Sierra Leone
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http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001WcFZEX6k88lx960iAKPIdCiCdykHoAquYpfwxKn4DnT-F2kS68IQdqS60jL9Ee3P2UkxgCnZ4rXdipIpEiN-Ug-Dg8rsZUXJMYOF4F4ZUoPbKrMOJ5-rWsWisctcaJ6eiazz1RIo1UkEa84gQVwn97dJGrBNUT3TVI20W-_gVQA=

http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001WcFZEX6k88lx960iAKPIdCiCdykHoAquYpfwxKn4DnT-F2kS68IQdqS60jL9Ee3P2UkxgCnZ4rXdipIpEiN-Ug-Dg8rsZUXJMYOF4F4ZUoPbKrMOJ5-rWsWisctcaJ6eiazz1RIo1UkEa84gQVwn937TQ5rZairdLpIKUu4am04=
http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001WcFZEX6k88lx960iAKPIdCiCdykHoAquYpfwxKn4DnT-F2kS68IQdqS60jL9Ee3P2UkxgCnZ4rW4rd0J64oiVqWD-6RPXuJ4lETU_HA_nWoCbT2iv4iisw==

 

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Learning about Africa: Time lapse: Driving through Freetown’s Ebola Lockdown

As heart-wrenching as it is for me, I have been watching this obsessively as the places are so familiar to me.  Just imagine your city or town so deserted for such a reason.

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Gregory Maguire on Writing and Inspiration (especially for Egg & Spoon)

If I can collect a little assemblage of items that put me in a mood of the book, then I find some place in my study where I can put them out. For “Egg and Spoon,” I had some wonderful things. I had a 1940’s era paper mache Baba Yaga’s cottage. It’s only standing on one chicken’s foot; it got broken somewhere along the way. I have a number of matryoshkas I’ve collected over the years. I have a number of painted eggs I’ve painted myself starting 40 years ago; I used to paint one every Easter. Some of them have Russian themes. I have little British foot soldiers. I’ll arrange them on a little altar to the muse. I don’t play with them — I don’t march them around the room and sing little songs — but the fact that they’re there is a clue to myself that the studio is open.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/09/20/new-england-writers-work-gregory-maguire/rqPRM7pgCIvI9ZeE8hRnMP/story.html?event=event25

 

via Karen Kosko

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Learning About Africa: Ishmael Beal Tells it True “Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. “

Ishmael Beah, in “The West ignores the stories of Africans in the middle of the Ebola outbreak” writes bluntly about much I’ve been thinking, but afraid to say.  He begins:

It wasn’t surprising that Western journalists would react with doom-and-gloom when the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. Or that the crisis would not be treated as a problem confronting all humanity — a force majeure — but as one of “those diseases” that afflict “those people” over there in Africa. Most Western media immediately fell into fear-mongering. Rarely did they tell the stories of Africans who survived Ebola, or meaningfully explore what it means to see your child or parent or other family member or friend be stricken with the disease. Where are the stories of the wrenching decisions of families forced to abandon loved ones or the bravery required to simply live as a human in conditions where everyone walks on the edge of suspicion?

And then he writes some hard truths.

Given our interconnected world, it’s no longer possible to excuse such treatment as a lack of access to the facts. So what is the explanation? To borrow the words of Ni­ger­ian novelist Chinua Achebe, “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”

This thinking is so deeply entrenched in the minds of people in the West that it has become a reflex. Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. [b0ld is mine] Each new crisis, it seems, offers a platform for some to exercise their prejudices.

And

The hysteria is also fueling racism beyond the continent. In Germany, an African woman who recently traveled to Kenya — far from the affected countries — fell ill with a stomach virus at work; the entire building was locked down. In Brussels, an African man had a simple nosebleed at a shopping mall, and the store where it happened was sterilized. In Seoul, a bar put up a sign saying, “We apologize but due to the Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment.” Here in the United States, each time I have been to a doctor’s office since the outbreak, I have noticed an anxious look on the faces of the assistants that dissipates only when I say that I haven’t been to my country recently.

And

For Western media, this is just another one of those stories about the “killer virus” and the “poor Africans” who must once again be saved and spoken for by Westerners. And, always, there is the most important question: Will the virus come to the United States or Europe?

And concludes:

If you are reading this and believe you do not think about us the ways I have described, ask yourself the following questions: When was the last time you saw, and took the time to read, a positive front-page article about an African country? Have you ever met someone from Africa and decided to tell her what you know about her country and her continent, even if you have never been there? Have you ever noticed yourself speaking slowly and using exaggerated gestures while talking to someone from Africa, assuming that he doesn’t understand English well?

 

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Some of My Right Words Celebrating Bryan and Sweet’s The Right Word

This is so cool. Thank you, Erdmans!

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We thought we should mix Monica Edinger‘s great quote with an image

proving her point that:

“All in all, The Right Word is a

spectacular

brilliant

marvelous

superb

magnificent

dazzling

work of art.”

(Thanks for the love, Monica!)

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Thoughts on Newbery: Flaws, Fatal or Not?

Heavy Medal has started up again and some fascinating conversations are well underway.  One aspect of the conversation that has struck me is the idea of flawness (my made-up word). That is, are all books perfect? And if not, how do we grapple with perceived flaws? Can we reach consensus on the degree of their significance?

This came to mind when in her Heavy Medal post on Deborah Wiles’ Revolution, Nina noted that “There is a fatal flaw that I find in REVOLUTION, and that is that Raymond is not as fully realized a character as Sunny, not by a very long shot.” She goes on to thoughtfully articulate why she thinks this and others of us have been discussing this concern in the comments. Now I adore Revolution (you can read my review here) , but had noticed that Wiles had been able to write Sunny through her own personal experience while she couldn’t with Raymond resulting in a more cautious presentation. If I were on the Newbery Committee this is something I’d want to explore long and hard. I’d pester a huge range of people, those with different racial and regional backgrounds and historical experiences, to read the book and tell me what they think. I’d have to stand back from my first love of the book to honestly attempt to figure out if this is a flaw and if it isn’t, why not. And if it is, is it fatal? How would I argue that it was or was not when in my deliberations with the Committee?

Then there is Jonathan’s post on A Snicket of Magic which has generated a fabulous conversation about vernacular, about so-called folksy literature. By attempting to categorize a collection of titles as being this, Jonathan provoked a wonderful series of comments. For some, I know, this sort of voice is tough going. So when you are on the Committee, how do you distinguish a personal distaste from a flaw, much less a fatal one?

Thinking about this fatal flaw business caused me to head to my goodreads Newbery list and add a few more personal favorites, some of which also have flaws…er…blemishes…er..imperfections… (Roget, I need you!)… I’m wondering about. As a result, I’ve now got ten books there, three more than I’d be able to nominate if I were on the Committee.  I’ve added Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover as I thought it fabulous –except for the ending.  And I’ve added Cece Bell’s El Deafo even though I have no clue how to make a case for it as it is a graphic novel.  Similarly, despite not having figured out how interlaced the text is with the art, I’ve added Patricia Hruby Powell’s picture biography, Josephine.  This review of Rachel’s of Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher reminded me of how I loved it (reviewed it for Horn Book) and so it is now on the list. Does it have a fatal flaw? Not so noticeably that I can figure out.  Finally, I added Jack Gantos’ series finale, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. While I don’t think it is flawed, I’m sure there will be some absolutely horrified by Joey’s circumstances as they were with the previous books.

Fatal. Flaws. Fascinating.

 

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