October 20, 2014

Critical Sense and Sensibility

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In my experience, children quickly come to understand that critical sensibility strengthens them. It allows them to stand their ground, to develop opinions that are consistent with deeply held values, and, when conscience requires it, to act against consensus or the crowd. –Herbert Kohl, p. 18

Texts commonly described as “classics” are prominent among the titles listed as exemplars in complexity for the Common Core State Standards. While the complexity in the text exemplars in Appendix B offers a paradigm for choosing other texts for students, many schools are purchasing the exemplar texts as a “set.” Other schools are generalizing this focus on traditional texts as a prompt to narrow their instructional libraries to those that meet a limited definition of “classic.”

In his essay, “Should We Burn Babar?,” Herbert Kohl scrutinizes the children’s, illustrated classic, Babar, written by Jean de Brunoff. The book was Kohl’s childhood favorite, and he revisits it with a critical lens as he seeks to weigh its charm against its propaganda-like endorsement of colonialization. His analysis is alternatingly obtuse, severe, warm, and satirical, stating,

It’s easy to take children’s literature more seriously than children take it, and it’s sensible, in the midst of critical musings, to remember that sometimes an elephant in a green suit is just an elephant in a green suit. (p. 28)

Kohl works through about twenty pages of criticism, taking a new perspective every few pages and analyzing the text through each new lens. In the end, Kohl explains that, the question of whether to read a questionable classic or not “can be reduced to the question of whether an uncritical reading of the book is so potentially damaging that it should be withheld from children when possible” (p. 27).

We are not suggesting that the texts on the exemplar text list are “questionable;” nor are we suggesting that they are not questionable. We have not read all the texts on the list, nor have we analyzed them in this way. The copyright date of a children’s book, however, tends to be inversely correlated with the density of stereotypes in the text (although there seems no shortage of brand new books with stereotyping!). This inverse relationship is worth considering, as the field of education is trending in the direction of classic texts. We have a few recommendations for making critical choices about any text, classic or contemporary.

1. Find a colleague with whom you can engage in critical conversations about the texts you are considering for classroom use. Even blatant stereotyping is easy to overlook if you are not part of the group being stereotyped, particularly considering that we tend to adopt stereotypes as truth after years of cultural exposure to an array of media endorsing these portrayals. Read “critical musings” about the text under consideration and weigh the severity of the criticisms against the “charm” or instructional utility the text offers.

2. Consider the text against the landscape of text to which you expose students. Think of your classroom library, as well as those texts you will present in read aloud, shared reading, or small group experiences. A few texts with extensive stereotyping can add texture to your instructional library and the related discussion. If such texts represent the majority, however, then you are teaching (not just reinforcing) a skewed world perspective. The general percentage of students’ total text experiences a particular text represents should factor into your decisions about whether to include it.

3. If you decide to use a text with stereotyping, explore with students the implicit biases as a dimension of the text’s complexity. Kohl explains, “…critical reading consists of questioning a text, challenging it, and speculating on ways in which the world it creates can illuminate the one we live in” (p. 26). Such text-based interrogation sounds very Common Core-ish to us! It is up to us to teach children to read critically, however, not just because teaching them to think critically aligns with the Common Core, but because such thinking holds the promise of a better world.

As always, we write this blog committed to supporting thoughtful and balanced literacy instruction. We are not suggesting you burn your classics, nor are we supporting a narrow diet in classic literature. Kohl does suggest, however, that if “there were only a few books a child had access to, it would be foolish to select any that have racial, class, or sexual bias woven into their content and imagery as positive things, no matter how charming or ‘classic’ they are” (p. 34).

We find this whole idea far more complex than it appears on the surface. But isn’t that the very definition of complexity?

Kohl, Herbert (2007). Should we burn Babar?: Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: New Press.

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