Monday, October 29, 2007

A Teacher's Thoughts on "squaw" in 4th Grade Classroom

My post about "squaw" and "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in historical fiction was much-discussed on YALSA (YALSA is an American Library Association listserv for young adult librarians). Most of the objections to my post were along these lines:

  • It is wrong to censor books.
  • That is what people said/thought at that time.
  • Books with this language provide 'teachable moments' that are invaluable.

I wondered why the word 'censor' entered the discussion. I didn't ask that it be taken off the shelf. I posed the ramifications of using books with such language in an elementary school classroom and NOT engaging students in critical discussion of such words and phrases. What I'm advocating is the selective use of books like Sign of the Beaver and Little House on the Prairie and Matchlock Gun. What grade level should they be used? I think they ought to be used in high school classes that teach history, or social justice, or in college classes for teachers and librarians.

Below are the words of a classroom teacher. They were submitted as a comment to my post about "squaw" and "the only good Indian..." The teacher was responding to a previous commenter (her initials are DS) who suggested teachers at every grade level have dialog's with their students, in which they discuss these kinds of words, across race, gender, sexuality, etc.


DS, I see what you are saying, however, I think there is a point where you don't continue to use the word, even in teaching about (improper) use of the word. By analogy, would you choose and then discuss books that called people "Kike", "Yid", "Spic", "Chink", at the 4th grade level (which is more or less the age and grade that Sign of the Beaver is for)? I can see having a discussion and comparison of that as a lesson for older kids, but I think at this level, their thinking is still too concrete for a full discussion and it is best to use other books for literature instruction. I've taught grades 3, 4 & 5 for over 10 years, so I think I have a handle on kids' thought processes. Middle or high school as a comparative study for combined literature and social studies or social psychology possibly. But not as reading instruction for elementary school. I'm not saying to avoid discussion of that sort by any means at the elementary level - saying that in my opinion reading of this book for reading instruction at the elementary level would not be the way to go.


If you're teaching in a 3rd/4th/5th grade classroom, and have used books like these, and have done significant---not cursory---work on these words and phrases and way of thinking, I'd love to hear from you!

Or, if you're in a middle, high school, or college classroom, and have used these books, I'd love to hear from you, too.

Or, if you're a teacher and want to reread Little House and write a response to it in light of my perspectives on it, I'd love to hear from you.


Leslie McNabb said...

I completely agree. Those issues are too large to raise with 9 and 10 year olds. I don't think any elementary school teacher would teach "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Huckleberry Finn", even though they are easy enough to read in 5th or 6th grade. They are taught in high school, when students can actually understand those social issues.

The Homeschool and Etc. Blog said...

Hello! I don't know how I stumbled across your blog (probably clicking links to links to links...) but I am very fascinated with your ideas on teaching about this issue in classrooms.

Currently we're reading the Little House books in our homeschool (children ages 6 and 7). I think in reading these books it should be kept in mind that it's told from the perspective of the SETTLERS and not the people already living out that way. I think that Pa's attitude toward the "Indians" was very balanced in the books, and they're worth a read even in kindergarten or first grade.

One of the *best* things about homeschooling is that it is possible to choose the curriculum that best suits the worldview and the CULTURE of the parents. Far from sheltering our younger students, I think a realistic and fair depiction of both sides of issues like settlement ought to be touched upon. I think the worst thing about public schools is that children this age know Britney Spears lyrics, but can't tell you about racism in colonial times!! We're sheltering children in the opposite way we should be in my opinion.

Certainly we don't get too in-depth during our second grade studies, but we *do* talk about how these "murderous savages" might have gotten a little bit of their anger from the fact that people are moving all over their land, killing their foodsources and resettling them. We've talked a little about slavery as well.

Mrs. C

PS. That's an interesting point you have about dressing like an "Indian" for Halloween but I would submit to you that the whole holiday is more than a little evil in and of itself. Kids dressing like Irishmen or witches and fairies are the least of our problems when they participate in such a celebration.

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie, I should have signed my name to my comment - and perhaps should have identified myself as Indian (or not, actually). As a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach, my point was that teachers can certainly pick much better books for their reading blocks than Sign of the Beaver. Just because you've used it for years doesn't mean you should continue to use it. I hope that my point was understood. As an Indian, I'd rather teachers at the elementary level not use the book at all. I know that many 5th grade classrooms here in NC use The Watsons Go To Birmingham (wonderful book)as an opening to discussions on civil rights and discuss derogatory terms used for African Americans. Perhaps if it is going to be a discussion topic in 5th grade, the way to go would be to have an open discussion on derogatory names for all groups at that time. --- Kara Stewart

Miss... said...

Hi Debbie,

Regarding your question about using certain children's books in high school classrooms, I did a lesson with 10th graders using "Babar," which is also a problematic book. I first became aware of this in college when we read a book in Children's Lit called "Should We Burn Babar?" by Herbert Kohl. Here's the Amazon page:

To summarize the story, Babar's mother is killed by someone in a "colonial" outfit, he runs away to the city and meets an old lady who gives him her purse (teaching that having $ is important) and he shops for clothes. In the double-page spread where he moves from nakedness to being clothed he also goes from walking on 4 legs to walking on 2. The "after" picture of him looking dapper is hauntingly reminiscent of the after pictures of Native American children after arriving in boarding schools, to me at least. Babar learns to be civilized, eat with utensils, bathe and exercise, and is educated. When he returns to the Elephants they make him king? WHY? What does he know about their society? What makes him qualified? He left and returned "civilized" with another culture's values.

I wouldn't read the book to small ones or elementary children, but I did use it years later after debating with myself with teenagers. I read it to my 10th graders without stating my opinion and let them carry the discussion. They caught on to the problems with the text on their own and several students carried the discussion with little input from me until my summary at the end, where I explained my own thoughts and asked them, should we burn Babar?? I should mention that we were reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and we had also discussed Rudyard Kipling's poem White Man's Burden in a another lesson before I did the lesson on Babar. 2 students checked out other Babar titles from the public library to see what else is depicted and brought them in to show me. They were shocked that a children's book could be a sort of propaganda and wanted me to tell them other problematic titles so they could re/read those too.

The highschool classroom is a wonderful place to engage students in the critical analysis of children's literature. The reading skills you are teaching at that point have less to do with recalling specific facts/details and more with author intent, word choice, and personal meaning.