I’ve learned a lot from three years of teaching Loudness in the Library. Here are some of my oft-recurring thoughts.
- Conversations about present-day inequities and injustices are all complicated, but some subjects are more difficult to talk about than others.
Our conversations about sexism flow beautifully. Kids look at images of covers, and observations about gender and sexism pour out of them, sometimes so fast I can’t record all of the wonderful things they say.
By contrast, conversations about race consistently feature silence, at least initially. Kids struggle to find language to express their ideas. They preface their thoughts with “I really hope I won’t offend anyone.” They start to say something, then shake their heads and say “nevermind.” This doesn’t happen with 6th-graders as often as it does in adult conversations about race–but there is more silence than occurs in race-related conversations I’ve had with 1st-graders.
Eventually, a brave soul–usually a kid of color–gets it going. And once it gets going, it’s great. But there are often one, two, or three kids who say nothing, deciding that it is safer to stay quiet.
As a white teacher, I find that leading race-related conversations is both more invigorating and more draining than leading conversations on any other topic. Three years in, I still find myself tossing and turning the night before these lessons–partly from eager anticipation, partly from nervous anxiety. I worry that I will burden kids of color with the task of educating white children, or that I myself will unwittingly commit microaggressions against children of color. I worry that rather than engendering a sense of responsibility in white kids, leaving them energized and active, I will merely make them feel shame and guilt, which are paralyzing.
The fact that race-related conversations are so very fraught is a huge part of the problem. We must be able to communicate in order to solve problems that exist at interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels. If kids in 6th grade already have the inclination to stay silent in conversations on race, how much stronger will that inclination be in adults? And if we can’t talk about race and racism, how will things ever get better?
Having said all that, I’ve also concluded that…
- …6th grade is a great age for kids to have race-related conversations.
Of course, parents and teachers should start talking about race with toddlers, but I have a special fondness for holding these conversations with 11- and 12-year-olds. 6th-graders can think abstractly and love to grapple with big ideas (such as problems that exist on societal levels), but they haven’t developed as many of the cautionary filters that prevent adults from having honest and productive conversations. I’ve been amazed at how quickly and smoothly these kids identify their own prejudices, name them, and resolve to do better. In that respect, they are role models for me.
- Every school should have a qualified Diversity Director who takes her (enormous) job seriously.
As I’ve stated above, conversations about prejudices, injustices, and inequities that exist today are hard to navigate. Teachers need training, practice, and professional guidance in these areas. I am so lucky, and so grateful, to work with Anshu Wahi, Bank Street’s Director of Diversity and Community, on this and other projects.
That’s all for this year, folks! Thanks for reading, and be sure to tune in again next summer. I, for one, cannot WAIT to do Loudness with this year’s incoming 6th-graders, and to see where the kids take it, how they grow, what they learn, and how they teach me.
-Allie Jane Bruce
For my older posts about our first year of Loudness, start here.
Rewriting History: American Indians, Europeans, and an Oak Tree (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 3)
I did a double-take when I cracked open As An Oak Tree Grows*, a 2014 book that inaccurately reflects the history of European and Native American interactions. In the story, which traces the life of an oak tree (planted as an acorn by a young Native boy), the Native character simply disappears as the Europeans move in. Bank Street students, who participate in extensive curricula on unlearning Native stereotypes, immediately recognized this as problematic, because it erases the conflicts and violence that arose when Native people fought to defend their homes and land from colonial invasion. As one student noted,
“Because it’s a children’s book, they wanted to make it ‘nicer.’ ”
Working together, teachers and kids identified three primary areas of concern with As An Oak Tree Grows:
- The pictures show a lot of empty land, as if it was uninhabited; one wigwam appears in the first two pages, alongside a vast wilderness.
Where is the Native child’s community? The pictures send the message that the land was largely empty and there for the taking. Students said:
“If you don’t give kids the right images, they get the wrong ideas.”
“If kids don’t see other stories, they might think this is the truth.”
“These books shape a child’s mind.”
“The illustrations should show more of the truth.”
- Then, there’s this text:
Kids were puzzled because they knew that the larger story of Native/European interaction is one in which Europeans forcibly removed and/or killed huge portions of Native populations.
“‘The boy grew up and moved away’? That didn’t happen.”
“They were there first. It is very unlikely that the boy just moved away.”
A teacher asked: “Keeping in mind that this book is meant for young kids, how could we re-write this so that it would tell the truth?”
“They could have said ‘Europeans took his home’ instead of ‘The boy grew up and moved away.’”
“It could say ‘Different people came and forced the boy’s people out.’”
“It could say ‘Sadly, they were forced away.’”
- The next sentence reads:
The picture shows people, identifiably European by their clothing, houses, and skin tone, now occupying the land:
Together, teachers and kids revisited what we know about American history: that Native people in fact taught Europeans how to farm in North America, and that Europeans depended upon Native populations to provide food. If someone didn’t know these facts, they could get an incorrect message from this book. Kids said:
“It shows that people don’t think of Native Americans as farmers.”
“Instead of ‘Farmers now lived here’ it could say ‘Different farmers now lived here.’”
The kids were deeply troubled by these few pages in an otherwise-beautiful book. Our conversation turned to other examples of rewritten history that students recalled from books, movies, and TV. Examples included Peter Pan and the Little House on the Prairie series. One student mused:
“A lot of times kids’ books have the most stereotypical things, when in fact they should be the most honest.”
It was a sober conversation, and many of these 6th-graders left the room angry.
Tune in tomorrow for one last post, in which I reflect on this curriculum from a teacher’s point of view.
Update: Part 4 is up!
-Allie Jane Bruce
*Karas, G. Brian. As An Oak Tree Grows. New York, NY; Penguin, 2014.
Representations (and the Lack Thereof) of Race and Hair (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 2)
By now, many of us are familiar with the statistics kept by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that reveal that the number of books by and about people of color has hovered between 9% and 14% over the past 20 years, despite the fact that children of color now constitute more than 50% of U.S. public school students.
When the Loudness in the Library curriculum emerged three years ago, my fellow teachers and I realized that it is both possible and necessary to have developmentally appropriate conversations with children about the hard truth that whiteness is vastly over-represented in children’s literature. We discovered that book covers can be a remarkably accessible entry point into this conversation.
This year, we discussed many of the same points that we have in previous years: how book covers can “disguise” a character’s race with a symbol, a blurry photograph, or a silhouette. But one pattern–how often tightly curly hair is disguised, obscured, or altered on book covers–particularly resonated with this group of students.
For example, compare these covers (all of which feature Black main characters)…
…with these, which feature East Asian, Middle-Eastern, White, and South Asian characters:
Here’s what 6th-graders had to say:
“You couldn’t see the hair on the African-American people, but you could on the others.”
“Certain types of hair is what you are supposed to have.”
“People could think they have to change their hair to fit in.”
“You could say, ‘My hair isn’t liked. I should straighten it.’”
“If people read the same types of books a lot, they can have a stereotype in their head.”
“People might think, ‘I need to change. I need to be that way.’”
“People might change their hair because of what someone else–not them–thinks.”
“Because of the media certain people are excluded from being considered beautiful. Because of this, people’s self esteem lowers and they are made to feel insignificant.”
“Why are there barely any books featuring minorities in the plot, let alone with minorities being featured on the covers? This sends the message to people that they are not worthy enough to be shown on book covers.”
One student later wrote an essay about a personal insight gained from our discussion:
“I remember when I was four years old, and I went shopping with my mom to buy my first doll. My mother and I went to Target to look around for the doll. She asked me which one I would like. I pointed to the Barbie doll that was caucasian and had blonde hair. My mother thought otherwise. She wanted me to get the one that looked like me. All of the Barbies on the shelf were white. I had to search for one that looked like me. I eventually found one with brown skin and curly brown hair. I still have it. Back then, I just thought that the white Barbie dolls were prettier. I didn’t understand how problematic that really was until just a few years ago…
When I recently took a trip to Barnes and Noble, I was quite disappointed with their book selections. The store displays did not feature diverse or realistic looking characters. If I wanted to find books that had characters that looked like me, I would have to search for them. This means that bookstores and libraries are supporting the media’s definition of beauty, not real people, not people that I can relate to.”
Stay tuned; next, we’re talking about a problematic portrayal of American Indian history.
Missed Part 1 of this series? Don’t panic, here it is!
-Allie Jane Bruce