Thank you, Teachability Lounge‘s Mary Graham, for including this blog among your “Top Ten Teacher Blogs.” With all the blogs now out there, I sometimes wonder how many teachers read this one. After all, I’m pretty eclectic. So, I was thrilled with this affirmation.
Category Archives: In the Classroom
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.
On the first day of school, my son and I made a deal. In three days, one of his favorite authors — Jon Scieszka, editor of the “Guys Read” short story collections — was coming to Nashville for a reading and signing downtown. If my son showed me that he could keep track of his early school assignments and bring home everything he needed for each of those first few nights of homework, he could go.
From Mary Laura Philpott’s Homework and Consequences.
I’m sorry, but as a teacher this is NOT a consequence I’d recommend for missed homework. Makes me sick to my stomach that this poor kid — spoiler — didn’t get to see his favorite author.
I have been very appreciative of the occasional attention given to introversion in the classroom for students and teachers of late. It helps me to clarify what I know already — I’m very introverted. I need quiet, recovery time, and all those other things that are so often typical of introversion. And as I consider how I can be a good teacher given this and how I can also support my students, introverted or not, I have been considering something else. This is the pleasure so many get when a teacher performs. Those that happily dance on the stage during an assembly, who willingly wear a costume all day for a cause, who do the Ice Bucket challenge and other things of that sort. So often I see a video of such a teacher along with comment after comment about what an amazing teacher he or she is and I think, “There is just no way I can do this.” The very idea gets me all scrunched up.
It isn’t that I’m uncomfortable with all forms of public presentations. I enjoy public speaking about teaching and learning or Lewis Carroll or Alice or Sierra Leone or Africa is My Home or something else. What I don’t like at all, what makes me terribly uncomfortable, is having it focused on me. That the looking is at me and not about my work or something else. And I wonder — what is this? Is it introversion or something else? Social anxiety? (While I am very lively in social gatherings with people I know, I’m extremely shy in those where I don’t know anyone.) Comfortable as I am knowing this about myself, I still feel horribly guilty when saying no to a request to do one of these public acts. I feel that I must appear really selfish for being so unwilling. Or that I’ve disappointed my students who watch other teachers happily dance and be silly.
So this isn’t about throwing ice on these sorts of public activities. Bravo to those who can do them. But what about those of us who appear perfectly able to do them and say no for the reasons that are not necessarily visible? Teachers and students alike. How do those of us who have this aspect to our personalities navigate a world that so adores Ice Bucket challenges and similar sorts of things?
I just saw something from author/teacher Andrew Smith about how he answered a letter from a kid asking him to explain his book to him. Smith replied that the book stood on its own and that that the kid should trust himself to figure it out for himself. Here’s what I wrote in response (slightly edited for clarity and such).
Thank you, teacher Andrew Smith. And I hope somehow you can keep teaching as there aren’t too many high-visibility authors like you who can also speak from the POV of a currently practicing teacher. I’m one for much younger kids (private school 4th grade) and I think some of what happens at these younger grades can create the sort of older readers such as the one who wrote you.
First of all, I think there can be a tendency to broaden our already over-fixated celebrity culture to authors. Teachers are often eager for kids to know that books are written, that authors go through the same trials that they do when writing. But by doing that they can sometimes make the focus be on the creator more than on the thing created.
Secondly, I think teachers at the younger grades such as mine can be so worried about kids’ “getting it” (comprehending on a basic level) that they can be rigid about the “correct” interpretation and aren’t always as open to varied ones as would be preferable.
Thirdly, not all teachers have had positive experiences themselves in being honored for their own interpretation of a book and so if they don’t truly believe themselves in this approach (having found it challenging for one reason or another themselves when they were students) it is hard for them to trust the wide range of what kids say. No doubt many kids who write these sorts of letters to authors are just lazy, but some may be legitimately terrified of being wrong for good reason.
Then, there are those teachers that encourage kids to write authors. I do get that this is to encourage the kids to be inspired, etc. But it also relates to our current focus on celebrities in general and the ease of online fan culture these days (as evidenced by Michael’s post). In my experience (admittedly with high end learners, by and large) the most intense readers tend to care very little about the author, it is the book that matters to them. Those that are curious about the author tend to be those who are passionate writers themselves.
Finally, I just have to voice a personal grip — the generalizing about teachers and students that I often see. We teachers are not all the same nor are our students. A bad experience with one shouldn’t tar all. (PS In addition to being a teacher, I’m a blogger and reviewer and last year became a published author myself of a book for kids so I’ve been on many sides of this situation.)
I have never been much for homework. Nothing I’ve read indicates it does anything to improve student learning for the 4th graders I teach. I do require that my students read a minimum of 30 minutes a night, but I try to keep their accountability for that as simple as possible so that the reading doesn’t become a chore. We also give them a small amount of math to reinforce what they did in school, a bit of word study, and that is pretty much it. What I hope they do away from school is whatever they wish — read more, Legos, soccer, fantasy play (which, I’ve noticed, every year seems to be more vestigial for this age group), video games (they aren’t all bad:), drawing, or just hanging out.
When I do give homework I’m pretty fanatic about the kids doing it on their own. That is, no adults should be involved. I’m not a fan of arty projects where some parents get so involved that the projects look professional while others look exactly like what you would expect a non-dexterous kid’s to look like. And some parents, in my experience, find it impossible not to get involved in a piece of writing. Some kids end up leaning on them for this while others hate it. The bottom line for me is that any work done at home should be the kid’s 100%. Where the parent CAN help in is encouraging them to do it, find a good/quiet place for it, and otherwise help develop their child’s independence and good study habits.
I was provoked to write this after reading Judith Newman’s New York Times piece, “But I Want to Do Your Homework: Helping Kids With Homework.” While what she writes isn’t new, she does it in a wry self-deprecating way. With helicoptering parents finding it hard as hell to stay back, I think there can’t be too many articles like these supporting them in doing so.
My 4th graders culminate a year of immigration studies with a close look at the story of the Mayflower passengers, aka the Pilgrims. I began teaching the unit years ago and have enjoyed finding new material for the children every year. We have a great time reading primary sources like Mourt’s Relation and end with a visit to the wonderful recreation of both the ship and settlement, Plimoth Plantation. So I was curious when one of my students brought in Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims for me to see. After all, I had heard that the author was a finalist for the Children’s Book Week Author of the Year Award due to the book’s high status on the best seller list (and this week was dubbed the winner). And so I wondered — was the book any good?
Sadly, I have to concur with both the Kirkus review and editor Vicky Smith’s closer look at it (and its sequel); the book is not good. The history offered is a fictional form of the Pilgrim story, the one most of us of a certain age grew up with and not unexpected given the author’s known conservative stance. But it is the writing itself that really makes it such a dreadful book; it is incredibly poor, cringe-inducing in spots. Unfortunately, it isn’t helped by the digital illustrations which are cartoony in the worst way. There are a few older-looking images scattered throughout with citations at the end; unfortunately, these are muddled without proper identification. The whole package simply looks and reads as something very unprofessional. The bottom line is that it would not be something I’d want to add to my curriculum, that is for sure.
And so, for those who may want to know of some alternatives here are some of the books I use in my teaching of this topic:
Connie and Peter Roop’s Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. This is my favorite book to use with my class. The Roops have carefully combined the two main primary sources about the Pilgrims (Bradford’s journal and Mourt) to create an accessible and highly engaging book that is almost a primary source as they use only the original language. Add to that outstanding, carefully researched illustrations, and excellent back matter and you have a winning book. Please bring it back in print!
Kate Water’s Sarah Morton’s Day, Samuel Eaton’s Day, Tapenum’s Day, and others about the settlement are useful for my students who create imaginary characters who may have traveled on the Mayflower and write their stories. These books help them imagine their characters’ lives.
Lucille Recht Penner’s Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners nicely weaves in elements of both social and political history and ends with some yummy-looking recipes!
Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World which is a reworking of his adult title. This is really for older children than my 4th graders and is not flawless (there have been criticisms of the Native American aspects), but definitely is heads and tails above Limbaugh’s book for those looking for something for young people on this time in American history. If I were teaching older children and using this I’d be sure to have them read and discuss the criticism and the author’s response to them.
Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims. Light, but nicely presented for a young audience.
Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story focuses on the history behind our national holiday.
Cheryl Harness’s The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish and the Amazing-but-True Story of Plymouth Colony is a very nicely presented version of the Pilgrim story through the vantage point of the settlement’s militia leader.
Catherine O’Neil Grace’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving is a National Geographic title that provides a more nuanced view of this history than does Limbaugh.