Category Archives: Literature

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.

The Paradox of Tolerance

This post is written by member Shea Kerkhoff.

When I opened Twitter on the evening of Saturday, August 12, my feed was full of educators’ responses of outrage at what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the aftermath. I quickly closed my app. The rest of that night, I ignored Twitter, Facebook, even direct personal messages about the event. I didn’t turn on the TV. I couldn’t . . . or, more accurately, wouldn’t. I didn’t want to feel the deep sense of loss and sadness that was sweeping over me. I realized that I was acting out of white privilege, but I continued to shut out the news and my feelings. I could ignore these sad feelings, because for me the feelings would diminish as soon as the headlines found a new interest. For my friends of color, racism isn’t a 24-hour news cycle, but a daily reminder of the hate in our world.

It’s time to stop ignoring what’s going on. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to help my students make a better world.

I’ve heard too many of my students use the same rhetoric as that coming out of the White House: “Both sides are to blame” or “it’s my job to de-escalate the situation, to keep the peace.” But an educator’s job is not that of peacekeeper. It is that of peacemaker. Peace is not made through a lack of violence, but through social justice, when the righteous are declared and the evil condemned.

Tolerance is a moral stance, not a neutral stance, calling for acceptance of difference but not of evil. Let us not fall prey to the paradox of tolerance; let us teach intolerance of intolerance.

Let us not teach critical literacy and poststructuralism to the point where students trust no one and nothing. Let us teach them to question what they see in order to seek truth. Their history textbooks may read that Rome had peace for 200 years, but a country wracked with oppression, even slavery, is not at peace. Let us teach our students that blanket condemnation of violence does not lead to peace. Peace is living in equality and harmony with others.

In light of recent tragic events in Charlottesville, it’s time to double down on our commitment to education for social justice. To give you the tools to follow through on your commitment to social justice this school year, here is a link to an English Education special journal issue guest edited by April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler, and Lamar Johnson dealing with racial violence: From Racial Violence to Racial Justice: Praxis and Implications for English (Teacher) Education.

Shea Kerkhoff received her PhD in literacy from North Carolina State University. She now teaches adolescent literacy and young adult literature at Purdue University and is assistant editor of English Education.

Mrs. Stuart Goes to Washington: The Last Word

Before I begin my tour of the museums here in DC, I want to take a minute to extend my utmost gratitude to a few people. First, the NCTE team in the DC office, Jenna Fournel and Lu Ann McNabb, for being gracious and welcoming. I will miss our little office camaraderie. Second, my family. I was only able to have this incredible experience only because of the support of my amazing mother-in-law, who came down to DC to watch the kids for three weeks, and my sweet parents, who flew out for grandparent duty for the remainder of the time. Finally, my darling husband, who has been alone at home with a screaming cat for over a month. My deepest thanks to you all.

It’s tough to explain to a twelve-year-old the sheer power of words. Ironically, words don’t do themselves justice. As I made my way around the sights in DC, I found myself constantly in awe of the words all around me and the way in which they have shaped, and continue to shape, our country. Below is a collection of my thoughts, lesson ideas, and reflections on five museums, in the order in which I viewed them.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

As a teacher of the Diary of a Young Girl, the Holocaust is a topic I discuss with eighth graders every year. The main exhibit experience begins with a large group of people packed into a steel elevator, that makes you instantly uncomfortable. When you exit, you are met with videos taken during concentration camp liberation, and a giant photograph of burnt corpses. The silence in the museum is overwhelming. Two areas in particular spoke to me. The first was the section on propaganda. This year I would like to have students analyze the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels to answer a common question: Why were people angry at Jewish people? How did Goebbels use words to confuse and deceive? The second section I found interesting was about the League of German Girls. During our unit study, we cover Hitler Youth, but I didn’t know about its female counterpart. Finally, I have tried researching contemporary genocides in the past, but I would like to revisit that this year. The USHMM website has a rich library of educator resources, including a couple of interesting professional learning opportunities.

National Museum of American History

I uncovered a few neat ideas here. Most important is Wonderplace, a super awesome play space complete with a climbing structure, and kitchen with fake fruit, and the Spark!Lab where kids can be inventors and make stuff.  Kiddos were happy for hours. The exhibit Many Voices, One Nation made me think, How do the words of many people, across time, unite to form a country? I could have my students look at the works of the authors we study, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Wright, Daniel Keyes, and whoever else gets tossed in there this year-to see how each of their unique voices became a part of the narrative of America.

Executive Order 9066 got me thinking about how words can used to strip people of their liberties.

I also saw Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, which resulted in the removal of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes. Another question to pose to students: How have people used words to deprive others of their freedoms? (Check out the Smithsonian’s History Explorer for educator resources. You can search by grade level, time period and/or subject you teach.)

Folger Shakespeare Library
Life imitating art. The exhibit had cute interactive elements.

I’ve been a fan of these guys since I met them at NCTE’s Annual Convention in 2014. I’ve used their incredible resources for teaching Shakespeare, and they also offer professional learning opportunities,  including a month-long stay here in DC to study Shakespeare in depth. Of course I had to visit! The current exhibit showcased paintings of Shakespeare, the man himself and the scenes from the plays. The library is home to the largest collection of Shakespeare works, as well as other rare Renaissance works. Since I took the tour, I got to peek in the reading room. Swoon. During the tour, our guide mentioned that Shakespeare was not wholly original and that he took many of his stories from other authors. How can words be refashioned into something new and exciting?  On an unrelated note, while at Folger I enjoyed learning about Project Dustbunny, dirt from the gutters of books analyzed for past readers’ DNA – wild.

First Folio! First Folio!
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The abolitionist paper, The North Star, was founded by Frederick Douglass. My kids will love seeing the actual paper.

This museum is the newest, opening in September 2016. I noticed a few different ways in which words were important, especially for someone who teaches Richard Wright’s, Black Boy. First, Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal were on display. Both struck me, and I thought, How do people find strength and comfort in words during times of pain and turmoil? I look forward to examining this question with my students; it’s a topic that pairs nicely with Anne Frank finding solace in books.

Finding comfort in words can be a common thread throughout history.

Alongside the reading of Black Boy, my students and I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A question for my students will be, How can we use words to fight for change? This question will be especially useful as we follow Wright on his journey of discovering how authors used words to fight against racism.


The California paper posted outside the day I visited.

The Newseum “promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.” Tons of great ideas here! Around the outside of the museum are front pages from each of the fifty states and around the world. What a great activity for teaching media literacy. I want to pull the day’s headlines from three papers and have students analyze the differences. How can we use the same words to paint a different picture? There was also a neat exhibit on each of the five freedoms. This might be interesting to explore as my students learn about the Bill of Rights in social studies. How are the words of the past relevant today? I want to explore the modern issues relating to each of the five freedoms.

This exhibit poses the question, what freedoms do students have at school?

There was also really cool display about the rights of students, which I know mine will enjoy talking about, especially the parts on dress code. A question I will ask is, How can you use words to fight for what you believe in?

And now I, NCTE’s 2017 Kent B. Williamson Policy Fellow, am signing off. I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed the journey. Please contact me, I’d love to connect and chat. Peace.

Learning: The Fine Art of Drowning

This post is written by member Tom O’Connor. 

Education was not my forte. Given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.

While in Teachers’ College at the University of Ottawa, I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them who would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, Leonard Cohen had nothing to do with it. I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.

The teacher who came to mind was Kevin Gildea, my university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton College, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney, and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Bakunin could influence how I read. The CanLit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and soul crushing. Whoa.

Of course, there was no course for this at Teachers College. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable, and out of their depth.

I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put the puzzle together. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.

My job as a teacher, it would seem, is to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.

The question is, am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?

Yes, it’s true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, Marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that’s what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multidimensional characters into a small, limited, concrete definition of a hero. You know the one I mean—a good person who does the right thing.

Then I introduced them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for a character like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Watchmen’s Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students—those “innocent” young minds—loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could reach in an English class. When I discussed the choice of essays with the students later in the semester, they used words like scary, but afterward, one student said, “I am really proud of myself.” Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.

Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper on a less complex topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70 percent and gone home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud.”

What about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay in the shallow water? Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average, marks. If you are like I was in high school, you will be fine. But if you are like I was in university, you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and learn to navigate the waves of challenge.

The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear, they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need them.

Tom O’Connor plunges into the battery-smoke while waging war on the five-paragraph essay. He is also the Assistant Department Head of English at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. 

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.