Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reflections on CADDIE WOODLAWN: Teaching about Stereotypes using Literature

One evening in 1999, when my daughter, Liz, (then a third-grader) was doing homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She’s exceptionally bright, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was reading. She held up Caddie Woodlawn.

I was well into my research by that time (study of representation of Native Americans in children's books). Given UIUC's “Chief Illiniwek,” Liz learned early on about racism, representation, and stereotyping.

By then, I was already collaborating with Beverly Slapin at Oyate. I told her about Liz’s experience reading Caddie Woodlawn. She invited Liz to dictate her experience for inclusion in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Titled “Liz’s Story” here is a portion of what eight-year-old Liz said:


"And so we were reading it and when we got to the second chapter, it said, I'm not sure exactly what it said, that the Native Americans were sneaking around like dogs, and they picked up Caddie Woodlawn by her hair, and they were acting like dogs sniffing a bone. In another part it said that the Native Americans were massacring, murdering, and scalping the pioneers and made belts out of their hair and skin. They made the pioneers seem like angels and the Native Americans like inhuman monsters. I felt hurt inside, my eyes were watering, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then I thought, there's something I can do about this."



Liz goes on to talk about how, the next day, she went to her teacher and the group to tell them how she felt about the book, and that she wanted them to stop reading it. Due to the teacher's social justice approach to teaching, Liz's group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book.

Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group, and she said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad. In the end, I bought and donated 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House. That is what they read instead. Liz went on to write a short play of one scene in the book, which her group later performed for their classmates.

This episode illustrates some of what good teachers must contend with in America’s under-funded schools.

The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read a story set in or near the midwest. She was using ‘best practice’ in that regard.

She chose that book because there were multiple copies of it available at the school.

She knew it contained derogatory content about American Indians, but, she thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct stereotypical images, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

As Liz’s experience documents, it didn’t work.

Back then, I called my friends and colleagues in children’s literature, asking them for ideas on what to do. One expressed disgust that an old, outdated book was still being used in the classroom. She suggested the teacher use the book, but NOT as a work of literature. Here’s her rationale:

If a book is well-written, readers will be drawn into it, identifying with characters, setting, story, etc. as they read it, cover to cover. It might be difficult, given that growing attachment to the book, to distance themselves enough to be able to critically discuss the negative representations of American Indians. Analyzing such representations is important, and using children’s books to do it is possible, but not if the book is read, first, as literature. Here’s a rough outline of what a teacher might do:

  1. Assign specific chapters to different groups of children.
  2. Ask each group to focus on passages about American Indians in their specific chapter. What words are used to describe them? What tone is conveyed?
  3. Repeat this exercise for the non-Native characters.
  4. Compare and contrast the two sets of data.
  5. Engage the children in conversations about differences in these representations.
  6. Talk about the period when the book was written.
  7. Talk about the period itself, and how people thought about American Indians at that time.

If any of you (readers of this blog) have done something like this, please write to me. I’d like to hear how it works in practice.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I see what you mean about "Caddie Woodlawn", but if you are a new teacher as I am, and new to the Midwest, one may not be aware of the options for Indiana historical novels.

rlader said...

Our Battle of the Books program used [i]Caddie Woodlawn[/i] as a selection this year. There was no discussion of the part that Native Americans played in the story, and no competition questions were asked about Native Americans in [i]Caddie Woodlawn[/i]. The book was well-received by our participants. We are located on the East Coast, and Native American material in our curriculum occurs mostly in the context of Thanksgiving and in Virginia history, particularly the Jamestown settlement.

Up until this year, I had never checked out our copy of [i]Caddie Woodlawn [/i].

jeff said...

Hi Debbie,
Well, I came straight to your blog when my daughter told me that she was assigned _Caddie Woodlawn_ for individual book report. She grew concerned after reading the first two chapters--and just yesterday we were both talking and reading from (she's only 10) Waziyatawin Angela Wilson's excellent article on Laura Ingalls Wilder in _Unlearning the Language of Conquest_. She picked up a lot from that brief conversation. I see what she can do with new critical frameworks--it's amazing.

I'm tempted to read CW one-on-one with her to give her the tools to use during other such encounters. The book report she has to write as homework will reflect this critique when she shares it with the whole class.

I will follow your suggestion and donate copies of Erdrich's novel; I told my daughter that she should read that instead, but she might learn a lot about the way racism is sustained by reading the assigned novel. She's comfortable with raising critiques in class. This is the same child that wrote in a book report that Christopher Columbus invaded, not discovered, America; this is the same child that criticizes, in class assignments, Bush about many of his policies.

I will let the teacher know, without hesitation, that this book shouldn't be given out again because it's unlikely that the necessary critical tools will be used to read it.

I hope readers of this blog will take to heart your/our concerns. The fact that "rlader" said no critiques were raised during Battle of the Books merely shows how inured to anti-Indianism most people are, including my daughter's teacher. It's not a recommendation for the novel.

That darn Newberry medal does so much harm; it keeps alive antiquated books that deserve to go out of print.

Thank you for your good work.

Jeff Berglund

Karen said...

You wrote:

"[The teacher] thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct stereotypical images, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

As Liz’s experience documents, it didn’t work."

But I have to say that it was a wonderful opportunity for Liz to learn that she can challenge the status quo and she can make a difference. I only hope that my 4-year-old will be so brave when he is eight. And, how cool is it that Liz's classmates supported the change of reading material. We can hope that the experience will help these kids grow up to not only refrain from telling others not to be "so sensitive," but will actually be willing to engage in protests/fights that are not, on the face of it, "their" fights.