Which Childhood Experiences are “Appropriate,” and Says Who?

What happens when the objecting adult is a colleague imposing their own ideas about text appropriateness while shutting down that of others? In this post,  NCTE member Christina Berchini details such an experience and its implications for students who bring adult issues to the classroom.

 

When I consider the “grade/age appropriateness” debate as it implicates text selection in classrooms, I tend to default to images of angry parents. Specifically, angry, frothing parents unleashing their opposition, say, during a meeting with a school principal—or worse yet, during a school board meeting with elected board members.

While I know such types exist, I do not remember encountering much parental opposition during my time as a middle school teacher. Instead, my classroom literature selection was stifled and dictated by fellow teachers. I recall having a conversation with another English Language Arts teacher in my school about my desire to teach A Child Called ‘It’—the true story of a child who suffered unconscionable abuse at the hands of his mother. Whether I’d be able to secure this text for my classroom rested on my colleague’s agreement, and that of several others (we were all required to teach the same texts). My recollection of the discussion is paraphrased as follows:

“You know what that’s [A Child Called ‘It’] about, right?” she asked me, visibly stunned.

“Um…yes. That’s why I want to teach it,” I replied.

“I’m not agreeing to that,” she said. “Our students are entitled to a blissful childhood, and they do not need to be privy to that boy’s story.”

It has been more than ten years since this conversation, and I still vividly recall her use of the word “blissful” to describe our students’ lives. I also remember being required to teach Roald Dahl’s Matilda the following year—a book that, according to most lists I’ve seen, is not typically used beyond fifth-grade curriculum (both she and I taught the seventh and eighth grades).

For my colleague, teaching a text that is far below grade level by nearly every measure was more appropriate than teaching a book that, while containing troubling content, was more intellectually challenging.

As a new teacher, I figured it was politically savvy to drop the subject. But it may have surprised my colleague to learn that by the time I had turned thirteen:

• I learned that one of my peers was shot dead in her Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, not that far from my own;
• An older boy who lived up the street had taken physical advantage of me and the silence he knew I would keep in favor of maintaining my neighborhood friendships;
• A woman who lived across the street from me was shot in the neck—due to her family’s Mafia-related ties, they soon joined the witness protection program, never to be heard from again;
• I witnessed the angry dissolution of my parents’ marriage;
• I witnessed my father’s alcohol addiction, which lead to a string of ruined holidays and equally ruined special occasions and, eventually, in-patient rehab;
• I witnessed my mother making extreme financial and personal sacrifices in order to provide for my sister and me;
• I witnessed my aunt’s black eyes and scraped cheekbones, a product of a violent relationship;
• I learned, accidentally, that this same family member was a prostitute for a time;
• I witnessed other children in my family removed from their home due to issues and situations that seemed far worse than anything I had ever experienced;
• From there, I learned slowly but surely about the substance abuse and drug addiction tormenting my extended family—abuses that would lead to family feuds that even the worst of today’s reality television would likely find stunning.

I remember, as a child, feeling horrifically alone in this. If my peers brought similar experiences to the classroom, no one ever talked about it. On the surface, my young life—and the silences I maintained around my outside-of-school existence—indeed appeared “blissful.”

I also knew a couple of things about what my middle school students were bringing to the classroom: The eighth-grader with the newly broken family unit; the seventh-grader who was made by his father to eat pizza out of the garbage pail; the seventh-grader who was rumored to be experimenting with sex, and sometimes on school grounds; the eighth-grader forced to publicly face her mother’s substance abuse after the family name was posted in the police-blotter; the eighth-grader whose dad’s service to the country forced him to spend more time overseas than at home. The list goes on.

Hard as parents (and teachers) might try to shield their children from life’s difficulties and even its cruelties, some students bring adult issues to our classrooms. I certainly did. My students certainly did. An “appropriate” text, then, might be a text that honors this reality. Children fortunate enough to live the sort of “blissful” lives—the kind of lives my colleague assumed to be the rule, and not the exception—are also served well by texts that illustrate the real trials and tribulations of childhood. I suspect that such texts help to build more empathetic classroom communities; communities with a more complex understanding of the world around them, whether or not they’ve personally experienced such complexities.

Maybe choosing a below-grade-level text about a child with superpowers was my colleague’s careful way of inviting some children to leave their out-of-school lives at the door; an invitation to “forget,” for just a little while, about their own baggage. But the fact remains that a story about my life, had one been written, likely would have been considered “inappropriate” for my peers to consume—despite the fact that I was living it.

For this reason, it seems that the issue of “text appropriateness” is far more about adult denial, desperation, and delusions than it is about the needs and lives of young people. And in our desperate quest to deny reality, we fail to honor our students’ desires to feel normal and be validated—needs that emerge because of, and perhaps also in spite of what they bring to the classroom.

Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and a member of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship. Find her @Christina_Berch.

Leveraging Librarians

This post is written by member Oona Abrams, editor of English Leadership Quarterly

 When I was seventeen years old, my (not so) secret wish was to be cast as Marian the Librarian in New Trier High School’s 1992 production of The Music Man. Really, what was there not to love about Marian Paroo? She was the stunning beneficiary of all the books in River City’s library, single, self-sufficient, uncompromising, and unapologetic about her high standards—in short, my heroine.

Par for the course in my high school theater career, I was cast as Marian’s mother. Meh. Mrs. Paroo wasn’t a fan of Marian’s high standards. She wanted her daughter to “manage her expectations” when it came to both books and romance. But Marian was stubborn. She could see through all the pretense of her persistent gentleman caller, Harold Hill. And in the end, by keeping both her standards high and her heart open, she helped Harold discover the most authentic and successful version of himself. While I never got to play the role of Marian the Librarian, I will always share her passion for books and high standards.

This past April, I chaperoned a field trip to the New York Public Library. The CHS Book Club went on a tour with one of the docents there, and it struck me how enraptured the students were. They were stunned by the volumes of periodicals, by the amount of information that is physically stored in one place. And, like most book lovers, they adored the gift shop. It was tough to get them back on the bus, but the enticement of visiting two NYC bookstores did the trick. Of course the architecture and design of NYPL are awe inspiring, but in addition to those details, our students were in awe of the quiet places held sacred there. It reminded me of some of those scenes in the River City library when Harold Hill is scolded for raising his voice, and it certainly stood in contrast to our school library, where students rush in droves during their study hall periods to collaborate—often loudly.

In addition to following rock-star librarians like John Schumacher, Elissa Malespina, and Joyce Valenza on social media, I’m fortunate to have two librarian friends with whom I have regular contact. Mike Curran, who is my school’s LMS, and Susie Highley, a science teacher turned LMS from Indiana. I talk with Susie almost every day on Voxer. She is my first resource for everything from the latest tech tips to a book recommendation for myself, a student, or a family member. I see Mike almost every day as well—he is a steward of learning and a navigator of change in our LMC. As I write this, our library is being redesigned. At the beginning of every marking period, I send Mike a list of titles I’d love to see the school library carry, and he always manages to get them. And they don’t go up on a shelf—he has them displayed in the front hallways and at the entrance of the library. Every time I begin a new unit (memoir, argument, narrative nonfiction), Mike has a cart of books at the ready for my students to peruse. He brings it down to my classroom, allows students to check them out from there, and keeps a running list of titles on our library database for my future reference. This past spring, Mike spread the word about the 2017 NerdCampNJ among his community of librarians, which resulted in a strong cohort coming to share their expertise with literacy leaders. And then, of course, there are my town librarians. I often joke that I’m as popular with them when I walk in the door as Norm is on Cheers (“Oonz!”)

Librarians play several roles, but the most important one is modeling the inquiry and curiosity that we most want to see in our students and in ourselves. And here is the part where I feel like a bit of a fraud, because there are many years in my career when I simply did not take my students to the library at all, when there was either “not the time” to do it or I settled for a source that came up in a Google search instead of encouraging students to take a deeper dive into databases; when a newborn at home and too many papers to grade meant that I did not take the high road like Marian and instead took the path of least resistance, like Mrs. Paroo; when the librarian in the high school I worked in was just not someone as warm and invitational as Mike or Susie and as such was not someone with whom I wanted to “play nice.” Have you been in this spot too? I sure hope I’m not alone in my confession here.

Throughout the August issue of ELQ, you’ll see that the authors of the articles, like Marian the Librarian, have kept their standards high and their hearts open. They have passion for helping educators and learners on their journeys, and they are “future-ready.” I hope you enjoy the issue as much as I have as I’ve worked on it. As a new school year approaches (or, in some states, begins!), may we all be inspired to collaborate in the ways we see modeled in these authors’ stories.

Oona Marie Abrams has been a high school English teacher since 1996. Editor of English Leadership Quarterly, Abrams has also been selected as an Emerging Leader Fellow by the Council on English Leadership (CEL). She resides in Bergen County, New Jersey with her husband and four sons.

at·ro·phy

This post is written by member Mitch Center. 

ˈatrəfē/

verb

(of body tissue or an organ) waste away, typically due to the degeneration of cells. Without exercise, the muscles will atrophy.

When I was in third grade I fractured my knee skiing. Back then—in the early 80s—a broken bone meant a full-length cast from the tips of my toes to the top of my thigh for six full weeks. Of all my memories from that time, the look and feel of my leg when the cast came off is what I remember most. My already-skinny leg was even thinner, the skin was peeling off as if from a sunburn, and the muscles in the leg were so weak I limped for several days. I couldn’t believe the transformation of my body, and how the disuse of my leg had so completely transformed it into a less-functional version of its former self.

Having worked in and with schools now for over 20 years, I have heard many educators lament the atrophy of the brain that sometimes occurs over the summer, euphemistically called “summer slide” (learn more about summer slide and how to combat its effects here). It’s not that summer can’t be an enriching and fulfilling time for many kids—or that kids don’t need a break from the day-to-day grind of the school year—it’s just that for some, the long vacation becomes a sort-of hibernation. When some kids “wake up” after the summer off, they come back to school a bit fuzzier:  math skills often require weeks and even months of refreshing, hands need to build back their strength for writing and typing, and reading levels sometimes are lower in September than they were in  June. For all these reasons, many schools now assign summer practice packets, and educational enrichment programs have cropped up across the country to keep kids sharp and moving forward.

Though the competition is tough—the days are long for extended play, the ice-cream truck’s jingle serves as a counterpoint to the school’s institutional bells, and exhaustion from heat and activity make it even harder to settle into brain activity—there is a lot we could do to keep kids reading throughout the summer and to slow the atrophy that sometimes sets in then.

  1. Maintain Routines (or start new ones!): In some homes, kids and families keep to a bedtime reading routine during the school year. Not only is this a good way keep kids reading, but it’s a great way to quiet the mind before going to bed. Depending on the age and temperament of your child, you might be able to maintain this through the summer. But July and August days can be long, and exhaustion often gets the best of kids … in which case, make the most of the morning. For my daughter—going on 10—mornings can be the most productive. The summer’s late sunsets, heat, and activity make evenings less productive for us, but in the morning, she is fresh and ready to read after breakfast and before the day begins. This year we will move our evening reading routine to the morning so she can keep up the habit and explore new authors and genres.
  2. Magazines, Comic Books, and Blogs: I remember getting a subscription to Sports Illustrated when I was 14, and discovering the joy of short-form articles and reading about my interests. It’s why I allow my son to subscribe to his favorite skateboard magazine, and why we used to get Children’s National Geographic. Summer is a great time to explore interests and help kids connect reading to their passions.
  3. Local Libraries: Last summer I walked into my local library and saw hundreds of colorful mobiles hanging from the ceiling. The librarian explained that kids were adding decorations to their mobiles every time they finished a book. Most local libraries have incentive programs to keep interest in reading high, and I have yet to meet a librarian who won’t go out of the way to help match the right book to a kid. If you want to go it alone and find an appropriate book for your child or teenager, check out this handy dandy reading list recommended by the American Library Association. And if your library membership has lapsed, go back . . . it’s free!
  4. Read to a Friend: Little ones in school often read in partnerships—a great way to bring reading into the social realm (think of it as a precursor to book clubs). Over the summer, have young readers read with a friend or younger sibling. You know who else loves being read to? Pets! Seriously, young readers love reading to dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and any other animal that could sit still for a moment, and there’s plenty of research showing the benefit! Don’t have a pet? Stuffed animals are a great substitute, and they make terrific listeners!
  5. Road Trip! Many families will hit the road for long weekends and vacations over the summer. If you don’t believe me, meet me on I-95 on the Friday before the July 4th weekend. Bring some reading material, or better yet, have some audio books on hand for everyone to enjoy together. Here and here are great recommendations for family-friendly audio books—you should be able to find something there for everyone to enjoy!
  6. Make the Most of That Tablet: There are only so many rounds of (insert mindless iPad game here) that one could play, and helping kids realize that their tablet is also a virtual library can be a real eye opener. In a lot of ways, digital reading could enhance the experience for kids. It’s easy to carry multiple books at once, providing them with various options, and the features built into Kindle, iBooks or school-based digital literacy apps like LightSail allow the reader to interact and engage with their books on a deeper level, thus increasing comprehension. If your child used LightSail in school this year, help them keep the literacy train on the tracks straight through the summer months—celebrate Lexile growth, review new vocabulary on the Word Wall, and talk about new genres discovered (and badges earned)!
  7. Little Libraries: Around the corner from my house is an old shaved-off tree that’s been put to good use. My ingenuous neighbors decided to turn their sad, decapitated tree into a gift for neighbors big and small. My kids and I have found books at the “tree library,’ and we sometimes share some of our favorites there for others to enjoy. To find a Little Library near you, use this map. And, if you feel so inspired, pay it forward and start a Little Library of your own as a summer project!

So while summer is a great time to run and play in the free outdoors, make sure you and your kids are taking periodic breaks to exercise your brains as well. Find a nice shady tree or a well air-conditioned nook and make the most of the long days ahead.  Before you know it, the new school year will begin anew, and our bodies and brains should be ready to go.

Mitch Center has spent the past 20+ years working in a variety of roles and capacities in the field of education in district, charter and private school settings. He has been a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent and now runs Center Educational Consulting where he supports leaders and schools around the nation. As a parent and educator, Mitch believes deeply that all great schools have one thing in common: outstanding adults who make magic for the kids they serve.

Ways to Celebrate the Eclipse!

On August 21, the Moon will block the Sun, as seen from North America and down through mid-South America. The Sun will be entirely blocked on a path that is about 60 miles wide. This path will go through parts of 14 states. 

When I was in grade school, I remember working with a few other students to build a pinhole camera out of  of cardboard. We stood with the sun at our back, while trying to look at the projected image on a second piece of cardboard. Here are some more modern ways to get students engaged with the eclipse.

Invite students to look at historical and primary sources about eclipses throughout history. Then compare that coverage with the news we see today. What is the same? What has changed? Student can record the similarities and differences as a Venn Diagram or in a Compare & Contrast Map.

All Summer in a Day” is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury that was first published in March 1954. The story is about a class of school children on Venus, which in this story, constantly has rainstorms and the Sun is only visible for one hour every seven years. Invite students to make connections from the short story to this current eclipse. If you would like to engage more with the text, check out this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org.

In this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org, students listen to and discuss poetry that pertains to the study of astronomy and write their own poems to enhance their learning of the subject. As a final project, students use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press to compose original poetry books about astronomy.

What makes a shadow? Do shadows change? These and many other questions provide the framework for students to explore their prior knowledge about shadows as fiction, informational texts, and poetry. In this lesson, language arts skills are linked to the learning of science in a literacy-based approach to the study of shadows.

Will you be able to watch the eclipse? What are you planning to do with your students?

August 2017 #NCTEchat: Starting the Year with Our Village

  1. Join our NCTE Lead Ambassadors and members of #NCTEvillage tomorrow, Sunday, August 20, at 8 p.m. ET for a Twitter conversation around “Starting the Year with Our Village.”

Lead Ambassadors are advocates who represent NCTE in the social space, as well as on the ground in their local regions. They do everything from engage with fellow NCTE members online to gathering stories to hosting offline events in their communities. The 2017-2018 Lead Ambassadors are:

Cameron Carter @CRCarter313
Kristen Luettchau @lastingrosebud
Nicole Mirra @Nicole_Mirra
Lakisha Odlum @MzUrbanEducator
Liz Shults @eshults11
Raven Jones Stanbrough, Ph.D.
@RavenForevamore
Stella Villalba @stellavillalba
Nicole Warchol @MsNWarchol

Here’s what we’ll discuss during the Twitter chat:

Q1: How do you get yourself ready for a new school year?

Q2: You’re not heading back alone. Who’s in your village? Give them a shout-out!

Q3: What’s one piece of advice someone from your village gave you that keeps you inspired?

Q4: What did you read / learn this summer that you can’t wait to share with your village?

Q5: What do you hope to see in the #NCTEvillage community this year?

Q6: What’s one takeaway from tonight’s chat that you’ll bring to your village?

We hope to see you tomorrow night at #NCTEchat!