Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 14 #sol19

Settling in at the sleek, black table, I opened my laptop.  Across from me sat our school librarian and media specialist, Shannon.  Behind her, large windows revealed a small courtyard, haphazardly adorned with patches of grubby snow, vestiges of a winter storm stubbornly refusing to fade away.  I could hear the roaring blowers of the heater working to fill the space of the vast library.  Gradually, Shannon and I commenced our task.

Sometime toward the end of our work that day, our conversation diverted to an article I recently read at entitled, “Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them.”  Since Shannon and I plan activities for our Read Across America celebration each year, I felt curious about her take on a central question posed in this article:  “…Should we continue to teach classic books that may be problematic, or eschew them in favor of works that more positively represent people of color?”  I also wondered what she thought about viewing Dr. Seuss as a racist?

This question raised in the article caused me to remember and repeat a claim by a book club member only last week who had said, “It’s not really fair to view history through the lens of today’s norms.”  Since she had made that statement, it has been rolling around in my mind like a marble in a jar.  On one hand, I tend to agree that in many situations it would seem inappropriate to judge the actions and words of historical figures by today’s cultural standards and mores, as those people were living within the confines of a culture informed by different standards and mores.

However, I am also able to see that on a topic like racism, the question can become much murkier, especially when it comes to a well-known and beloved author like Dr. Seuss.  And it’s interesting to think about his books being characterized in such a way as they are in the National Public Radio article, as akin to snow that stubbornly hangs around in the courtyard, refusing to go away.

And I also wonder about the possible effects on my own children?  Have I unwittingly instilled any type of misrepresentative, mono-cultural understanding of society upon them by reading Dr. Seuss to them as young children?

Shannon and I didn’t reach any hard and fast conclusions in our discussion, as I am not sure the answers are simple.

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops,

12 thoughts on “Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 14 #sol19”

  1. Struggling with this, too. It seems that each of us has someone (or several someones) in our literary past who we really want to hold onto, feeling sure that this was a good person at heart and therefore should be forgiven any transgressions that reflect their era. I’m having a hard time letting go of the Sneeetches and the Lorax. They just seem like they should be read. It’s really hard to be consistent these days…

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  2. This is such a murky issue when you deal with classic texts and the portrayal of diverse / not so diverse people. Our society has become a kinder gentler more inclusive place in the past 100 years – but we have miles to go before we rest. Looking critically at what children is important; however, it is also important to help children understand the times and culture of the past – a fine line for sure.

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  3. Your title grabbed me and now I am left wondering. I plan to find the article to get a deeper understanding. This is a really important question: On one hand, I tend to agree that in many situations it would seem inappropriate to judge the actions and words of historical figures by today’s cultural standards and mores, as those people were living within the confines of a culture informed by different standards and mores. Thank you for pushing my thinking this morning.

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  4. I think that the important thing is that we teach our children and our students to read and interpret with lenses– lenses of the time when the work was created, the intent, and the impact on people now. Who does it promote? How? Who might be offended or hurt? Why? I still love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think there are HUGE issues about how people are represented. Maybe the awareness is as important as the consumption, but I’m going to add this to the murkiness of my learning about issues involving social justice and equity.

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  5. Thank you for this slice, Lanny!!! As a librarian and media specialist myself, I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. It’s a difficult choice since banning books it’s not part of a librarian’s nature. I just listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We should all be feminists” (the book, not just the TED talk) She said “If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over it becomes normal.” (6:32-6:41 of the 2017 Penguin Random audiobook). In her case she is arguing about what we hear and see as “normal” about genders, which can be also be applied about race. What message are we sending kids about what’s “normal”, what is “correct”, what’s “funny” or not? I wished I have the right answer but I think we should at least try to answer it. One way of doing it, it’s by having conversations. Thanks for bringing in it up!

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  6. The answers to these questions aren’t simple. I’ve not read the NPR article but have seen it floating around. But I can’t help but think about how cultural narratives get engrained at a young age and how privileged white voices in elementary school impact what children read throughout their education. It’s a problem when my SOC tell me they’ve never been assigned texts by POC and white students confirm this. Maybe the answer isn’t to kick Dr. Seus and his insufferable cat to the curb but to sit them in the park bench so other voices can occupy the playground for a while.

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  7. Currently in my AP English class we are writing about Disney movies from critical lenses (i.e. Marxist, New Historicism, Fenimist…), and your thoughts on Dr. Seuss are similar to some of the discoveries my students were making. For example, it was blowing their mind that the classic Disney princesses that they grew up loving are actually terrible role models for women and are flat, two dimensional characters, especially in comparison with modern princesses like Moana. We did talk a lot about how at the time the movies came out, women were generally expected to find a husband and have kids, so the princesses are more of a representation of the times the movies came out not necessarily today’s view of women. Similar to you, it’s hard to directly say that Cinderella is anti-feminist, because we still love her! We also were left feeling conflicted.

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  8. Certainly raising a worthy conundrum, Lanny. I try to be fully conscious of not directly influencing the cultural mindset of my 8th-graders, but indirectly, I’m sure that I do – through the literature and texts we read, through discussions, and through the stories I share, as relevant to the content of the class. Decades from now, will these then-adults question the issues and topics raised through what I had them read and discuss, through a future lens?

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  9. Hmmm. I too am going to have have to find that article. I think of Seuss as the opposite- always encouraging us to look out for others (Horton!), not judge people by outward appearances (Snetches) and not to only think of ourselves (Yertle, Horton and Thidwick). Thanks for posting about this. It has given me something to ponder.

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  10. Thanks for bringing this article into my life, Larry. Though I can’t help but shudder at the question it asks: “should we continue to teach classic books that may be problematic, or eschew them in favor of works that more positively represent people of color?” As an ELA teacher, I 1000% believe that if we teach these problematic texts, we MUST interrogate them as problematic, or not teach them at all. In the article, someone mentions using “classic literature” as a way to teach about craft in writing. I would challenge that statement: there are abundant examples of excellent authors craft by writers of color. Why not use those texts, who lift historically marginalized voices, to the forefront? It seems a no-brainer to me. While I love The Lorax and Oh, The Places You’ll Go among with the rest of the world, I think our duty to our students (whether they’re white or POC is beside the point) is to bring them texts from many points of view, not solely a historically empowered one. As a white person, my ancestors’ actions created and perpetuated today’s inequalities; if I want to dismantle them for a more just society, we first have to identify and discuss those injustices- starting with looking critically at history and the texts we read is just the start. Keep Seuss or not; just be ready to acknowledge his missteps, and invite other voices into the room.

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