Sunday, April 12, 2009

What We Find In School Books

Somehow in the maze of writing a blog I have been unable to show an attachment to another blog that I revere--Journal of Educational Controversy Blog, written, supervised, mothered, pampered, consoled and researched by Dr. Lorraine Kasprisin, Professor of Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.  I have talked with Lorraine on many occasions and know her to be one of the intellectual fonts in the field of Educational Philosophy.  A Deweyain expert she thinks through problems facing education with logic, passion and intelligence. I say all this not to embarrass her (which I certainly will do) but to focus a bit of the educational spotlight on someone who deserves it.

As usual her blog ( is a day ahead of me and miles down the road in thinking.  Please go see the research about American Indians in Children's Literature.  It raises questions which is what Dr. Kasprisin is trying to do.

As I just mentioned I had planned to write about children's literature from the Basil Readers to library books for the classroom and how they can mold children.  As usual, she beat me to it.

You have to understand that teachers do not teach from the moment school starts to the end of the day, no matter what grade or subject he/she is teaching.  The kids couldn't take the stress, neither could the teacher.  At times you need to take a break.  But at the grade school level, you just can't walk away from your class.  You are still on duty.  

So I would sometimes walk around the class with a question, let's say, "what do you want to do when you grow up?"  Now remember, I'm asking this question in the early sixties.  Computers haven't been invented for the masses, cable television hadn't been explored as yet, and most information was obtained by print media.  As I walked around the room asking the question I would get such answers from the boys as "a pilot" (the school was near Boeings), "a military officer," a business owner like my dad," or "a doctor so I can help people get well."  The answers were not surprising.  Pretty standard in their day.  Perhaps today as well.  

But the girls gave me different answers.  "I want to be a housewife," "a nurse," a librarian," or a receptionist."  A few said they were going to work at Boeings--I suspect their moms did as well.  I was concerned that the girls were not thinking as to the possible potentials as they might.  I remember one girl being totally puzzled when she answered my question that she wanted to be a flight attendant when she grew up and I asked why not be the pilot.  She really couldn't comprehend the question.  Girls didn't do that.

So I decided that the next book that I would read to the class would have a girl as the hero.  Right!  One of my ancestors was Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman doctor in the United States long, long ago.  Maybe something like that would do the trick.  So down to the school library I went.  I could find no book at that time that had a girl as the hero, the savior of the story.  Not one book!  I asked the school librarian to find me a book with the girl being the main subject.  She said she didn't have any.  Why not?  They don't publish them.  I was fit to be tied.  

Here's the kicker to this part of the story.  I asked the librarian if she had any Nancy Drew mysteries?  No, not one.  They were not allowed in school libraries because they were not good literature.  But when I asked about the Hardy Boys, she had most of them on the shelves.  She couldn't give me an answer as to what was different between the two series.....  

I remember being very upset, doing some shouting at home to no one in particular and my dog going under the couch.  That Saturday I went into Seattle to the Seattle Public Library and was amazed that there were so few books with girls as the heros.  Oh, yes, there were plenty of adult books with women leading the way, but I wanted what is called in the trade, a young adult book with a girl as the lead subject.  I found a few old ones but nothing in the modern vernacular.  I do remember several librarians trying to help me.  One lady mentioned a book, however it was checked out but I could get on the waiting was titled, "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle.  Not only was the older girl in the book the hero, she saves her brother and her mother was a Ph.D in science as well.   That was what I was looking for.  It was published in 1962. I got a copy from somewhere and read it to my class.

Dear Reader, I am getting a bit emotional once again so bare with me if you will.  I remember reading to the class this story each day after lunch and recess.  The kids hung on every word.  The boys didn't seem to mind that the girl was the hero--they just enjoyed the story.  But the girls were at full attention.  They loved the story.  When I finished it, the girls wanted me to read it again. 

 It was then I began to look at my teaching materials to see if I were presenting the information in a non bias manner.  I wasn't.  My basil readers were still showing pictures of dads going off to work, children going off to school and mom staying behind wearing a dress, high heels and an apron.  This was in the early 1960s.  The arithmetic book had story problems that almost always had a man doing something that the student was suppose to figure out the answer.  Never a woman working with numbers or presenting a problem.    

I do remember finally finding a book about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor and reading it to the class.  I know she must have been part of my ancestors--she was stubborn to a fault.  I got multiple learning from reading that book to the kids.  The girls began to think of a greater horizon for themselves and both boys and girls began to think about their ancestors.  I know that several of my kids talked to their grandparents about their past families which delighted everyone.  And a number of my girls started being stubborn...not being pushed around anymore as one said to me.  I think I screwed that up by hugging her.

Had I written this blog a week or so earlier I would have ended by saying that things are much better now.  They are a good number of books in the school libraries with girls as the lead subject/hero.  Judy Bloom has a number that will even curl your hair and the girls love them.  And I am happy to report that the "Shoes" series of books by Noel Streatfeild has made it way across the ocean from England which have become very popular for the pre-teen.

But a problem still exists.  How many books do we have that feature an Hispanic child as the hero in the story?  There is always the classic "And Now Miguel."  What about Asian boys and girls?  And as Dr. Kasprisin points out in her blog, where are the teaching materials that incorporate the Native Americans.  

Today's teachers are far better trained and educated in looking at the bias in teaching materials.  I was very poor at this in my time.  I am glad that teachers are always looking to see if the teaching material and the learning experience are the right thing for each student.

If a teacher pushed you to think beyond what you had planned, be sure to say a private "thank you" in your mind.

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