Books as a Window and a Mirror

On November 30, the New York Times published yet another article about the realities of teaching during the pandemic, claiming “This is not sustainable” and warning that “burnout could erode instructional quality, stymie working parents and hinder the reopening of the economy” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/30/us/teachers-remote-learning-burnout.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20201201&instance_id=24598&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=45745&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2]. Sadly, this is no longer news, nor do there seem to be good answers. As an educator, I feel stymied. I can’t fix this for anyone…

What I can do, though, is find another way to make a difference. This year, thanks to Young, Black, & Lit [youngblackandlit.org], I can do something useful. I was already contributing to this “nonprofit organization committed to increasing access to children’s books that center, reflect, and affirm Black children,” so I received their email about running book drives for schools with minority populations.

I believe in their mission. Children need to see themselves represented in the books they read. In his blog, Athol Williams points out that when children see themselves represented in a positive context, it encourages positive perceptions about their place in the world and tells them “what’s important, and what matters. Seeing themselves in that world establishes them as people who matter and establishes their sense of place in society.” It may also inspire them to read more, which is key to literacy. [https://www.nalibali.org/it-is-important-for-children-to-see-themselves-in-books] If books are both a mirror and a window to the world, readers need to feel included in that world.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books, finding only three percent featuring African-Americans,  two percent Asian and Pacific Americans, less than two percent Latinos, and less than one percent  American Indians [https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/08/characters-in-childrens-books-are-almost-always-white-and-its-a-big-problem/]. From The Atlantic: “Half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children’s books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don’t see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.”[https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/childrens-literature-needs-more-diversityeven-if-that-means-more-mediocrity/371639/]

The validation children get from seeing themselves on the page is only one reason to make books with varied characters available. Marianne Grasso offers four values to a multicultural library in schools:

  • Promotes empathy and unity
  • Promotes cross-cultural friendship
  • Helps students look critically at the world
  • Encourages identity formation

All students benefit from this exposure, which “helps to build a school community that is supportive, empathetic and accepting of others” [https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-96/the-importance-of-multicultural-literature/].

B. J .Epstein writes, “As someone who researches children’s literature, I think we’d have fewer conflicts in the world if we all read more diverse literature and lived more diverse lives” [https://www.newsweek.com/childrens-books-diversity-ethnicity-world-view-553654]. Our world is becoming more diverse, and the books children read need to reflect that diversity. Seeing diverse people get along can teach us all about getting along.

So I may not have a magic wand for the tribulations of remote learning and subsequent burnout for teachers, as well as students and parents/guardians… but I can organize a book drive. I identified a nearby school with a 92% BIPOC population, reached out to their administration, and bought the first several books myself. Now I’m posting on Facebook and working PR channels to find other supporters for this very good cause.

Will it fix education, even at a very local level? Of course not. Might it make a difference? I hope so. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Words to live by.

Must We Squash Creativity?

We have a brand new grandson who lives far from us, so we’ve been burning up FaceTime with calls. We know his field of vision is very small still, yet his eyes open more each day, and he seems to be tracking people nearby. His curiosity thrills me.

A week ago the Sunday Chicago Tribune provided a great glimpse into the work of Lynda Barry, a MacArthur genius winner this past fall [https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-lynda-barry-1128-20191127-i5abij6azrh47cuezbghssk3lm-story.html]. An “indie comics creator turned cutting-edge educator,” Barry plans to use the cash award of $625,000 to study brain creativity in young children. Barry believes that “preschoolers hold many secrets to creativity, before education and social expectations have trained their natural artistry out of them.”  She wants to find out why children who integrate writing and drawing end up having to split them in school. I almost wish I could move back to Madison to join her efforts!

But her world view saddens me even as I admire her exploration. Why does school tend to squash creativity and put everything in its own box? Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And our friend and fellow artist, Kevin Lahvic, writes, ““Ask a class of first graders if there are any artists in the room and they will all raise their hands. My hand’s still up.” Clearly Kevin survived the bunkering of subjects in school. Our three older grandchildren survived public schools with their creativity still thriving because their parents made sure they had opportunities to foster it.

I find myself reminiscing about teaching Creative Writing. One of my favorite experiences involved a senior who signed up for the semester-long course primarily to avoid the dreaded research paper required in most senior electives. A couple of weeks in, however, he asked for a conference.

“I don’t belong in this class, Mrs. Ljung,” he insisted. I can still see us sitting there a few rows up in my classroom built into the balcony. “I’m a math and science guy. I plan on being an engineer, and this class just isn’t for me.”

“You’re exactly who it’s for,” I assured him. “This is your chance to do something different, to connect with other talents. You really should stay.”

Stay he did, and when we were working on double voice pieces, dialogue which shows both inner voice [what the speaker is thinking] and outer voice [what the speaker says aloud], he wrote about that conversation, about my pushing him to stay. He captured the gist of outer voices, but it was his depiction of what we really were thinking – and the dichotomy between the two – that captivated the rest of us. That piece juried into “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing, and I watched him as theater students performed his piece. He sat up straighter and straighter, clearly moved by the performance of his creative, non-math, non-science work!

Being creative becomes natural in a creative writing setting. What about other school subjects, though? Do we plan lessons that foster creativity, or have we become so focused on testing and standards, on teaching subjects in isolation from each other, that we lose the opportunity to foster that kind of creativity? I fear that the latter is more likely. I count on my new grandson’s parents to foster his.