All posts by Millie Davis

avatar

About Millie Davis

Millie Davis is Senior Developer for Affiliates, and Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In addition she works on NCTE’s communications efforts, particularly on social media. Millie's passion is working with literacy teachers across the country and beyond whose passion for their students and their students' learning is their reason for going to work each day.

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.

What Do We Mean When We Say a Text Is Appropriate?

Often, when a text is challenged, the challenger states that the text is “inappropriate” for students of that age/grade. What the challenger usually means by “inappropriate” is that she doesn’t want her student to encounter certain scenes or ideas in the text because she fears the student is not old enough or ready enough for them.

Vicky Greenbaum notes in a February 1997 English Journal article:

“Many adults seem convinced of a type of innocence in youth, making them unready to face the sight of death, sex, or evil (which three forces may, according to such a vision, be inextricably linked).

“This vision of innocence persists despite the prevalence of violence on television, in the movies, and in various other highly visible cultural manifestations, along with reallife traumas such as child abuse. In fact, adolescents tend to know far more than wishful thinking surmises. Adults who cling to this vision of youth have a corresponding vision of what’s appropriate, hoping perhaps that if youth are unexposed to certain elements in the world, they will remain pure, and the world will be a better place. Indeed, for such adults a pristine vision of youth often forms a wall between themselves and any adolescents they happen to know.”

She goes on to say,

“Youth are people already, possessing knowledge and vulnerabilities in ways akin to adults, and their greatest need may be for thoughtful consideration or guidance while making sense of a vast, difficult, not always appropriate world.”

And, we at NCTE agree!

Young adult and children’s author Nancy Garden notes in “The Moral of the Story: Young Adult Authors Speak on Morality, Obligation, and Age Appropriateness,”

“The term “age appropriate” is one of the most misleading and misunderstood terms in English. On its face, it seems reasonable and useful—but the fact is that what is “appropriate” information for one eight-year-old—or eleven-year-old preteen—or sixteen-year-old young adult—varies hugely depending on the individual kid’s maturity, background, education, and experience.”

Vicky Greenbaum adds,

“Current common usage of the term appropriate is derived from the concept of “age-appropriate” behaviors investigated by psychologists, beginning with Jean Piaget…Appropriateness,” while suitable when used to describe behavior, may not accurately describe literature…[and]…recent research refutes the notion that there exist specifically “age-appropriate” concepts or reading material within a curriculum.”

Members of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship agree, and they have been collecting information on pedogogical “appropriateness” in literature—in particular, they’re looking to describe how the texts teachers select to use in their classes are pedagogically appropriate for the curriculum.

If you know of any articles or research on this topic, please send them or their citations along via comments to this blog.

Who Gets to Choose the Curriculum?

Recently, the Florida legislature passed a bill that the governor signed into a law–a law that allows all Florida residents to challenge texts used in classrooms. The new law

“Authorizes a parent or a county resident to object to the use of a specific instructional material and requires the process provide the parent or resident the opportunity to proffer evidence to the district school board that such material does not meet the state criteria or contains prohibited content, or is otherwise inappropriate or unsuitable for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.”

Furthermore, all legitimate citizens’ challenges must be aired in

“at least one open public hearing [which] must be conducted before an unbiased and qualified hearing officer who is not an employee or agent of the school district.”

According to an NPR report the Florida Citizens’ Alliance played a large role in the passage of the legislation. The group has spent time pouring through textbooks and reading materials and asserting their opinions on how those texts aren’t suitable for Florida’s students.

Flaugh a founder of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, noted,

“We found them [the texts] to be full of political indoctrination, religious indoctrination, revisionist history and distorting our founding values and principles, even a significant quantity of pornography.”

“The pornography…was in literature and novels such as Angela’s Ashes, A Clockwork Orange and books by author Toni Morrison, which were in school libraries or on summer reading lists.”

Called “anti-science” by some because they allow science texts and theories to be challenged, discounted, and removed from the curriculum, this Florida law and would-be laws in several other states (Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and South Dakota) threaten curricula developed by professional educators and experts and would replace such curricula with the personal beliefs and preferences of individuals. NCTE has written and signed on letters of protest to all these.

But the question remains, “Who gets to choose the curriculum and what happens to the students’ right to know?”

 

Why Students Should Read This Book

I just finished reading—actually listening to Sherman Alexie read—You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir. Not a YA book like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the memoir is an in-your face reminder of many of the events and themes that pervade Diary, themes and events that challengers of Diary call out and object to.

The National Book Award winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was THE most challenged book in the nation in 2014 and the mention of the novel on a school reading list today still elicits challenges from those who have heard about it but maybe not read it or read it well, as Alexie notes:

Here at NCTE, the Intellectual Freedom Center defends several Diary challenges a year—fortunately fewer than one a month in 2014—and still it’s a book we’re proud to defend.

But the more that we defend books like Diary, the more I think that maybe we educators would better argue with the reasons why our students should read the book rather than rebuttals to the challenge.

Kathryn Campbell, the Intellectual Freedom Chair for the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English,  recently wrote on their behalf to ask the the New London-Spicer School District to keep Diary in its curriculum. After giving all the regular reasons to teach the book—the awards won, recommendations, value for students of a certain age, and curricula developed around the book—Kathryn speaks from her heart as a parent and teacher, calling forth the core of what educators do:

“…As a mother, I can say that my own daughter was introduced to Alexie’s novel by her 8th grade teacher, then later read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as a sophomore, and Sherman Alexie’s Flight in a junior/senior elective. Having the foundation of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in middle school was central to her developing understanding of Native American culture, reservation life, and poverty. On a personal level, I appreciated the opportunities we had for conversations in our family about how Junior is candid and offensive in ways that provoke thinking and empathy; about how he uses humor to cope with grief; and about how the book made my child think through issues she would never experience. To this day, now as an adult, she talks about this novel as a cornerstone of her education, and her middle school copy still resides on her bookshelf…

“Reading Alexie’s book, with the guidance of thoughtful and qualified English teachers, provides students with one more tool that helps in the tremendous journey of growing up. It introduces them to behaviors, speech patterns, ways of seeing the world, ethics, and principles — some of which align with their values and culture, some of which are vastly different — and invites them to reflect on self-knowledge and unpack difference.

“That’s the kind of real world, critical thinking we want offered to all our students. Please defend the inclusion of Alexie’s novel in the 8th grade curriculum and empower your teachers to continue to use this incredible text in the classroom.”

What’s Your Lexile Score?

 

Levelized reading programs have been around since dirt but considering what we know today about reading—how we read, why we read, how we can keep on reading throughout our lives—surely we know better than to even suggest that our students restrict their reading only to books recommended at certain levels or lexile scores.

But it seems we may not. Many “acceptable” reading curricula resemble an orderly progression of texts organized by steps and numbers when neither make sense.

Peter Greene writes about how nonsensical this can be:

“There’s a lot to argue about when it comes to reading levels. These are generally based on mechanics, in keeping with the whole philosophy of reading and writing as a set of context-free “skills”– it assumes that how well you read something has nothing at all to do with the content of what you’re reading. Lexile scores, the type of analysis favored by the Core fans, works basically from vocabulary and sentence length. That has the advantage of being analysis that a machine can do. It has the disadvantage of providing ridiculous results. Ernest Hemmingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises is at about the same lexile score as the classic Curious George Gets a Medal— third grade-ish. Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V may have PG-13 language and situations, but it also has a fourth grade-ish lexile score. And none of those works rank as high as Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

“So there’s a great deal to dislike about the whole business of assessing reading levels…”

The American Association of School Librarians is among those who dislike Labeling Books with Reading Levels :

“…Student browsing behaviors can be profoundly altered with the addition of external reading level labels. With reading level labels often closely tied to reward points, student browsing becomes mainly a search for books that must be read and tests completed for individual or classroom point goals and/or grades. School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching methods, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restrictions. A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

“Labeling and shelving a book with an assigned grade level on its spine allows other students to observe the reading level of peers, thus threatening the confidentiality of students’ reading levels. Only a student, the child’s parents or guardian, the teacher, and the school librarian as appropriate should have knowledge of a student’s reading capability.”

Despite this position, a recent School Library Journal article notes:

“… The topic of labels and restricted sections in libraries came up in SLJ’s Controversial Books Survey last year. The results showed that compared to a 2008 survey, school libraries are more likely now to place content labels on books or to have restricted sections for books containing mature content. The practice of using content labels had increased the most at the elementary level, from 18 to 33 percent. Twenty-seven percent of respondents at the middle school level said they currently used labels, compared to 10 percent in 2008, and in high school, the number has increased from six to 11 percent.”

NCTE stands strong against the labeling, leveling, lexiling, etc.—of books in its Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books .

Spelling things out, NCTE member Teri Lesesne emphasizes in her recent blog, “There Is No Neutral,” why book leveling, labeling, red-flagging, and lexiling are not good ways to grow readers and why we educators shouldn’t stand for them :

“If we want kids to become lifelong readers, levels and lexiles and tests and other programmed approaches need to go the way of the early primers … Lexiles and levels and tests narrow choices for readers. I think of them in the same way I do censorship of other means. They tell kids, “Sorry, you can’t read that. It is not on your level.” I wonder what would happen if I were to do that in a library or bookstore to an adult. I suspect it would not be pretty. Choice matters. Choice is crucial. There is no, “well, you can select from this shelf,” when it comes to choice. And we, as educators, need not be neutral in this. We need to take a stand. Know the research. Fight against the censorship that results when we allow a program to narrow the choices for readers.”

What are you reading right now? How did you choose that text? What’s your reading level? What’s the level of the text you’re reading right now? Do you know its lexile score? Does it matter?

What about your students?