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Friday
Jan222016

Publisher pulls book. Should your school?

I learned about Scholastic’s new children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, when a friend emailed me on Friday to ask, “Uh … have you seen this [expletive]?” Her note was accompanied by the book’s back cover, which depicted an illustration of a smiling enslaved man and child, accompanied by their beaming master—America’s first president, George Washington. Washington had his arm around the enslaved man’s shoulder like they were bros instead of oppressor and oppressed. 

My knee-jerk reaction was a string of expletives as I tried to process this level of disrespect. Can you imagine a modern-day American publisher pushing a book about a cheery Jewish father and daughter on a trivial mission to bake a cake for the birthday of, say, an SS guard at Auschwitz? Can you picture a children’s book depicting a Jewish dad and child at a concentration camp snuggled up and cozy with Hitler?

Never! So why is it somehow OK to show enslaved black folks practically cuddling with their oppressors?

D'Oyley, Demetria Lucas. After Outrage Publisher Pulls Happy Slaves Children's Book The Root, January 17, 2016

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In crafting the narrative for this book, culinary historian and Washington scholar, Ramin Ganeshram, took great care in contextualizing Hercules and Delia as enslaved people, while at the same time accurately depicting Hercules as the notable figure he was.  In her extensive author’s note, Ramin clearly and carefully addresses the cruel injustice of slavery, as well as the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced.  In the book, Ramin notes that George Washington understood that it was evil to own fellow human beings, and that he was very conflicted about his part in the wicked institution known as slavery. Slavery’s injustice is also cited on the book’s front flap, so that any parent or teacher will know that this is an aspect of the story, and that it is to be addressed.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis*. A proud slice of history On Our Minds (Scholastic blog), January 6, 2016

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In Monday's blog post, I wrote that our schools should be producing thinkers, not believers.  The controversy and multiple points of view surrounding the publication and subsequent withdrawal by Scholastic of A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a case-in-point argument for this approach to education and why all educators, not just librarians, should be staunch proponents of intellectual freedom for both children and adults.

No book, no idea, no resource should be unilaterally withdrawn from a public school because it offends a single individual or group. I cannot defend A Birthday Cake but what I will defend is any material's right to due process before it is withdrawn from a school. (See Don't Defend That Book.) And as an educator, I believe materials like this should be the catalyst for "teachable moments," with students being asked to consider important questions about slavery, historical context**, the source of happiness, and the ability for an individual to excel under difficult conditions.

A concern was raised in my district about our teachers' ability to have such conversations. Is the rank-and-file teacher sufficiently culturally proficient to hold meaningful discussions on topics like this? It is a valid concern. Quite honestly, I don't know that my own level of CP is (or perhaps ever will be) high enough to be able to fully consider all the issues and understandings a book like A Birthday Cake raises.

But I ask myself does my personal imperfection - or any teacher's - justify not discussing controversial issues and asking students to consider multiple perspectives related to them? Asking students to think, not to believe.

While it may not rise to the level of seriousness of cultural proficiency, were we to not give educators computers until they were all "technologically" proficient, I suspect we would still be using a lot of typewriters.

OK, readers, have at me...

* "[Pinkney is] Coretta Scott King award winner, founder of "Jump at the Sun" (the first dedicated African-American imprint in children's books) at Hyperion, and probably our most honored and respected editor of color in children's books)" Bruce Coville

** Something these reviews made me think about were the sorts of things that are socially acceptable today that future generations will find abhorrent - buying clothes made in sweat shops; using fossil fuels; eating meat; allowing children to live in poverty; insisting on private health care; permitting a minimum wage salary which cannot support a family, etc.

Monday
Jan182016

Love, balance and critical thinking

The most important word in our language is love.  The second is balance — keeping things in perspective. - John Wooden

As a long-time advocate of balance, I like the graphic above. In my article, Change from the Radical Center of Education Teacher-Librarian, June 2008, I suggested that "radical centrists" in education, adopt to the following principles if one is to truly make change...

  1. Adopt an “and” not “or” mindset.
  2. Look for truth and value in all beliefs and practices.
  3. Respect the perspective of the individual. 
  4. Recognize one size does not fit all (kids or teachers).
  5. Attend to attitudes.
  6. Understand that the elephant can only be eaten one bite at a time.
  7. Make sure everyone is moving forward, not just the early adopters.
  8. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  9. Believe measurement is good, but that not everything can be measured.
  10. Know and keep your core values.

As I read the papers, listen to NPR, and even read friends' and relatives' Facebook posts, I can't help but feel the country, if not the world, is ever more polarized and less centered. "If I can't get everything I want, I don't want anything at all!" is the mantra of the decade.

Schools that produce believers rather than thinkers are failures. Schools that produce graduates who are capable of exhibiting, empathy, thinking critically, developing multiple "right" answers, and changing one's beliefs based on evidence are successful.

It doesn't feel like we've done a very good job. Yet.

Saturday
Jan162016

BFTP: Keeping kids in their place

This ugly little list called “Dumbing Down Our Kids”  (or should it be called "Keeping Kids in their Place?") by Charles Sykes is making the rounds again. I detested the thing when I first saw it and it still creeps me out.

Below Sykes’s original is in bold; my response follows.

Rule 1: Life is not fair; get used to it.  Life is absolutely fair. We all get the same odds of absolutely arbitrary good and bad things happening to us.

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.  The world doesn't care about anything. Only people have the capacity for caring and there are plenty of caring people in the world. We should teach people to feel good about a much wider scope of "accomplishments" than that narrowly defined by the business world: creativity, empathy, friendship, and healthfullness.

Rule 3: You will not make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice president with a car phone until you earn both.  I know kids who come out of high school (or a year of technical college) Novell or Cisco certified that make 40K easy. Artistic, athletic, entrepreneurial, and musical talents are rewarded at an even higher rate. Age and experience are not an indicator of earning power. Talent and rare or valued skills sets are.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss who doesn't have tenure.  Very funny. Have you ever seen an employee evaluation done in the private sector? They are a joke. Good bosses aren't tough. They are teachers and coaches and mentors. At least the ones who wish to keep good employees are. (And that's driving the old white, bald, cigar-chomping, I-say-jump bosses nuts!)

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger-flipping; they called it opportunity.  Depends on whether it is at MacDonalds or Chez Bovine. Any work into which a person cannot bring imagination, creativity, and personal-goal setting should be automated. I hate seeing humans doing the work of machines nearly as much as I hate seeing machines trying to do the work of humans (Internet filters, telephone automated responses, etc.)  

Rule 6: If you screw up, it's not your parents' fault so don't whine about your mistakes. Learn from them.  You haven't seen some of the parents my students deal with.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, cleaning your room, and listening to you talk how about how idealistic you are.  I thought they got that way because they lost their idealism by for working for people like you, Mr. Sykes.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades, they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.  Really? Then why do I always read about the number of times people like Harlan Sanders (KFC) failed before making it big? Good schools never give up on kids. We've learned that some people take a little more time to perform at an expected level of competence, but given time, energy and motivation, everybody will eventually get the "right" answers. Schools can't afford to be social sorting devices anymore, since there aren't places for D and F kids in society anymore.  

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off, and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself.  Do that on your own time.   If you are smart and talented enough you can have as much time off as you wish. If you are a self-employed or a contract worker, you can pick and choose your own hours. If you are not finding yourself though work, you are in the wrong job.

Rule 10: Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs. Unless you are a writer, consultant, salesperson, or work from home (or with a cell phone and laptop out of a coffee shop). I would agree that television is not real life. Real life is a whole lot better. Thank goodness.

Rule 11: Living fast and dying young is romantic-only until you see one of your peers at room temperature. But living fast IS romantic. If you aren't a little wild while you are young, you'll have to be a little wild during a middle-age crisis when it's a lot more expensive and you'll look a great deal more foolish. The longest book is not always the most interesting book.

Rule 12: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for them.  Be nice to everyone. Chances are true "nerds" will be working for you. Learn what motivates them and makes them loyal and productive.

Mr. Sykes, lighten up, get a grip and give some 21st century advice. The worker mentality you're promoting is not just wrong, but dangerous for anyone wanting success in a post-industrial world.

Original post December 25, 2010