Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Critical literacy: Examining controversial and banned children's literature.

I was reading about controversial children's literature in an article or a book (I read so much that I cannot always remember), and being the ever rebellious teacher that I am decided that I needed to bring these books into my classroom. Including something controversial in my lessons is no big deal on my end, as I am always willing to push boundaries. I have used trade books in class previously, and the response was positive, so I decided to engage my students in a critical literacy/inquiry lesson involving the analysis of controversial and/or banned children's trade books.

The Books

The following books were chosen from different lists I found online while researching this topic. Every selection was available at my local public library:

  • Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola (witchcraft)
  • In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (nudity, phallic representation)
  • The Stupids Have a Ball by Harry Allard and James Marshall (intelligence)
  • White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman (segregation, violence)
  •  Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (riots, violence, differences)
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos de otro lado by Gloria Anzaldua (illegal immigration)
  • The Amazing Bone by William Steig (witchcraft, robbery, violence, kidnapping)
  • and Tango makes three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (gay couples, gay parenting)
  • I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (transgender issues)
  • In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco (lesbian couples, lesbian parenting, discrimination)
  • Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (fat-shaming)
Planning for the lesson

I read each of these books before bringing them into my classroom. After reading, I knew I would have students who were uncomfortable with some of the topics, but I did not want to censor the readings in my classroom. The book topics are all real-life issues, and I felt that my students must learn to critically analyze information regardless of personal beliefs as part of becoming informed citizens. I wanted them to think about why some of these books would be complained about to the point of being banned in addition to how they felt about the topics personally. 

Mentor Text

I began the lesson with my students using Strega Nona as our mentor text. I explained that the story was considered controversial. [Side note: It took me two class periods to realize that my students did not understand the meaning of controversial. This will be addressed first in future presentations of this lesson.]

We listened to a Tomie dePaola audio recording of the story, during which I directed my students to actively listen for and determine what might be controversial about the story. Many thought that priests and nuns in a children's book might offend people. Others thought Big Anthony was being treated like a slave. Only a few were able to determine that there are people in our society who find witchcraft to be offensive.

[Side note: We also discussed what the Caldecott Award is and why a book that wins awards can still be controversial.]


I sorted my classes into diverse groups. I know my students pretty well and am comfortable saying I know what most of them believe about a lot of topics. I created groups that reflected a wide range of thinking in order to create some discussion among the students.

Book Selection
Initially, I planned on assigning specific books to my groups based on what I thought they would be comfortable with. I quickly changed my mind. I wanted the kids to be slightly unsettled and uncomfortable in order to get them thinking about the topic being presented. To randomize the process, I had one member of each group blindly draw a book from a basket. I kept the spine-side down to prevent any peeking.

Critical Literacy Questions

After reading the selected text, each group conducted a critical analysis. I provided my students with a list of questions (see below) I found online and left them to it. I told them I would answer and assist as needed, but I wanted to see what they could come up with on their own.

The biggest issues turned out to be with the power and interest questions. In one-on-one conversations, my students completely understood the questions and were able to present responses. They had never considered these to be power issues, however. This was quite eye opening to many.


Textual Purposes

  • What is this text about? How do we know?

  • Who would be most likely to read this text and why?

  • Why are we reading this text?

  • What does the author of this text want us to know?

Textual Structures and Features

  • What do the images suggest?

  • What do the words suggest?

Power and Interest

  • In whose interest is this text?

  • Who benefits from this text?

  • What knowledge does the reader need to bring to this text in order to understand it?

  • Which positions, voices, and interests are at play in this text?

  • How does the text depict age, gender, cultural groups?

Gaps and Silences

  • What views of the world is the text presenting?

Interrogating the Author

  • What kind of person, and with what interests and values, authored the text?

  • What view of the world and values does the author assume the reader holds? How do we know?

Multiple Meanings

  • What different interpretations of the text are possible? Who would support this text? Who would argue against this text?

Adapted from:


Graffiti Walls

The culminating piece to our analysis was to create graffiti walls. This is a connection response activity from Kathy Short:

This was a little too much freedom for my students. With most creative assignments, I hear, "Do we have to color? Does it have to be neat?" With this assignment, I said, "Be as messy as you want. You do not have to color. It does not have to be neat. You can make a great big mess." I even ripped pieces of butcher paper in odd shapes to help exemplify that the work could be messy. My kids could not handle it. They asked if they could cut the paper. They asked if they could color. They asked for more time. I got some of the neatest and most creative work ever. The silly part of me wanted to tell the kids I was taking off points for not being messy, but I was afraid of scaring my kids for life.


 Student Examples


This is one of my favorite lessons of the year. From an AVID perspective, all elements of WICOR were included - writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading. From a proud teacher perspective, I heard some amazing conversations taking place in my classroom, and those conversations included understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, regardless of personal beliefs.  There was some disagreement about who should be reading the books and at what age, but my seventh and eighth grade students were incredibly mature in all aspects of the lesson.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Critical literacy: examining stereotypes and deeper meanings of song lyrics

It is important to me to have a culturally relevant classroom in which students learn to critically examine the world around them. A few weeks ago, my students engaged in an critical literacy/inquiry lesson* in which we analyzed song lyrics for stereotypes and underlying messages that we often overlook when singing the lyrics in front of our parents (well, not me).

I started this lesson by sharing the song "Cater to you" by Destiny's Child. We listened to the song first, then discussed the lyrics. For the sake of argument, I took a strong feminist perspective, arguing against everything the ladies sing about, claiming it represented stereotypical view of woman. I feigned strong disgust (maybe I was a bit disgusted) toward lyrics such as my life would be purposeless without you, let me help you take off your shoes, and I'll keep myself up

But my kids are proved just how intelligent they are. They changed the perspective on me, explaining how it was acceptable for a woman to do nice things for her man when she wants to. And I had a few boys tout that this is the way it should be. All in good fun. 

After this, my students were allowed to choose individual songs to analyze for stereotypes. The assignment was to create a poster which included the song title, the artist, sample lyrics that exemplified stereotypes, and a brief explanation of how the song reinforces stereotypes (we quickly learned that country music is a gold mine for this activity).

Now, not every poster was done perfectly, but my students rose to the occasion. I could not be prouder to share their work with you (and they are also proud to have it displayed on this site). Here are a few examples to get you started:

During our passing periods at school, we play music. Last week, our programmer had "I can't feel myself when I'm with you...and I love it..." blasting from our overhead system. I stood in the hallway giggling, and when class started, I asked my students who knew what that song is really about, connecting it back to this lesson. They knew. They are critically conscious young individuals. Do you know?

*This lesson combines two activities from AVID's Culturally Relevant Teaching and consists of very little original thinking on my part.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My exploration of banned and controversial books: The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Although I found it easy to defend In the Night Kitchen from those who see it as a threat to young children, I cannot find good reasons to defend The Amazing Bone by William Steig - and this one has won awards: " a 1976 New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of the Year and Outstanding Book of the Year, a 1977 Caldecott Honor Book, and a 1977 Boston Globe - Horn Book Awards Honor Book for Picture Books" (Barnes & Noble website).

This book is filled with a number of things that bothered me:

  1. Peal, the antagonist, finds a bone. I can get past that, but based on the rest of the book, it is a bit disturbing that this young pig shows no concern for a bone she finds in the woods. Where did it come from? Dead body? Maybe I am putting too much focus on this, as last week, a junior high student found a pile of bones from a dead body while walking to school. 
  2. Pearl gets robbed by masked bandits carrying both knives and guns. In on illustration, a gun is actually placed to Pearl's temple. That is disturbing for a young children's book. 
  3. Pearl is kidnapped by a fox who plans to take her home, cook her, and eat her. Again, this is nothing new in stories (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel), but combined with the other elements of the story, this feels like far too much.

    I honestly do not know what to make of this story as a whole. I am 100% against banning books, but I would be cautious about this one with very young children. I will share this with my middle schoolers are part of a critical literacy lesson, but I cannot see reading it to a young child. Without the pictures, the story is still pretty harsh; with the images, I think it becomes gratuitous.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My exploration of banned and controversial books: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

While I was conducting some online research about children's books that address social issues, I ran across a few lists of banned children's books. That's was an immediate invitation for me to start reading each and every single one of them, and I was surprised to discover that I have already read a few that show up on many lists, including In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. 

My first reaction: Maurice Sendak has a banned book? The Little Bear author? My now 22-year-old son and I used to read those books and watch the television series on Nickelodeon. Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak? Oh, that one has controversy around it too.

I did not recall anything controversial about In the Night Kitchen, so I ran straight to my public library to check it out (and there are many copies available, not banned). According to many websites, I had missed the nudity of 3-year old Mickey (buttocks and genitals, the sexual innuendo of a free-flowing milk, and the phallic appearance of a large milk bottle. Well if that isn't an advertisement to go back and read it again, I don't know what is! 

So here is an example of Mickey's nudity:

This is a children's book, for goodness sake, and little kids like to be naked. If you have a little one who is not nude or half-nude right now, you have probably forced that child into clothes. I remember my son stripping down in our foyer every day immediately after arriving home from daycare. Every. Day. He also used to take his little naked body and watch himself dance in front of a full length mirror. It was funny. This is funny. Kids get to giggle because there is a naked boy in a book, and parents get to giggle because we recognize the inside joke. And as Americans, we really need to get over this prudish fear of nudity (my most humble opinion).

My guess is that Sendak recognized that kids enjoy being naked and created a character to which they could relate - particularly little boys. I am fighting a never ending battle of getting boys to read in middle school. Maybe if they had all read this book, they would still be reading now. Maybe if I share it with my seventh and eighth grade students, they might pick up another book.

Here are examples of the milk controversies:

Oh, people...if you are seeing something in that picture that is not there, that is completely on you. That's your mind. And that is disturbing! Like Where the Wild Things Are, this is the story of a little boy's adventures via his dreams. Into the kitchen. Where people make cake. And maybe he really likes cake. I know I do. 

If you have an issue with the nudity, do not read the book. That does not mean, however, that you are able to speak for others who wish to encourage creativity and imagination and curiosity and adventure in our children. And that, as always, is my most humble opinion. 

P.S. If you truly want to be rebellious, you can purchase the coloring book version for your kids. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Check this box: Issues with identity
A few weeks ago, two students came to me and asked, "Are we Hispanic as a race or Hispanic as an ethnicity?" My first thought was both, but then because these are two highly intelligent individuals, I was not sure. 

"What is this about?" I asked. 

In another class, the girls were filling out information for high school, and like most forms, they did not see a category for themselves. The teacher told them to check White, yet they were not comfortable selecting White; they do not identify as such.

So rather than provide misinformation, we ventured to my first place for research: Google


I have admit that this result added more to our confusion. Our eighth-grade history classes have been teaching lessons on not labeling others, and here the girls were being forced to select labels for themselves in another class, and labels with which they generally do not apply to themselves. 

The Hispanic population of my campus ranks number two. They are not included as part of the White population in our demographic studies. Yet in this case, they were. How many other students who identify as Hispanic and not as White are being subjected to labels with which they do not identify? Having grown up in an environment in which we were all white by skin color but identified by our ethnicity, I understood their dilemma: It was not until I moved to Texas and began teaching that I was seen as the "white lady" rather than the "Italian girl."

I am currently reading Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie for my graduate diversity class. In Chapter 5 "Look at Your Hands," Michie discusses how his Hispanic students also struggled with identity. The students who were new to American and spoke no English were referred to as being "too Mexican." Students of Mexican heritage who spoke English would avoid those who only spoke Spanish. Many showed little knowledge of or interest in knowing about Mexico.

 "The kids confusion about their ethnic identities seemed to stem, at least in part, from a clash of cultures they experienced between life at home and life at school" (80). Michie notes how, at least in 1999, when the first edition of his book was published, pop culture, history books, and school environments did not reflect the history of the students he was teaching. Almost twenty years later, I believe that has changed (or maybe it is because I live in Texas closer to Mexico than Michie's environment of Chicago). We still have issues with textbooks (this year we had a textbook rejected due to racist idealogy against Mexican-Americans), and I cannot say my campus reflects the ethnicity of any student population on my campus. It is not uncommon, however, for my Hispanic students to be listening to Tejano music on their phones when given the opportunity or for salsa dancing to take place at a school event. And in my AVID class, we talk a great deal about cultural awareness and identity. 

None of this reflection even address my Vietnamese or African or Middle Eastern students, and my campus has numerous students from each background. Many of my students moved to America at a young age or are the first generation born in America. All of these students are middle schoolers who are in the process of discovering and developing their identities, resolving issues of being Hispanic/Vietnamese/African/Middle Eastern and American, and at the same time, we are asking them to check boxes with limited choices that may not fit their personal definitions of self.

On the pleasure side of my reading, I recently ran across a passage in What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau that has provided me with some guidance on how to address the topic of check boxes with my students: 

Especially in today's political climate, I certainly have no answers to my own questions about how to answer why a Hispanic student must check a box that says White, but I can guide deeper conversation about exploring who we all are on the inside, who we think we are and who we see within. And that, in my always most humble of opinions, is the most important side of all.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My role as a student in blended learning

In addition to everything else I do, I decided to add yet another challenge: an online blended learning course. One of the first assignments was to read a chapter that explains blended learning. For being 43, I think my educational path has included more technology that most. 

When my daughter was born in 2001, I decided to get my masters degree. The University of Texas at Arlington was offering a degree plan that could be fully completed online. With a newborn, this was an ideal situation (except, in reflection, the horrific internet speeds of the time). My entire Masters of Education in Teaching (M.Ed.T) was earned based upon online discussions, assessments, and assignments. I had no face-to-face interaction with anyone, although I was having online interaction with a classmate in Japan. At the time, I thought this was one of the most amazing ways to learn, but now that I have engaged in blended learning, I have a different viewpoint.

I am currently enrolled in a masters cohort program through Texas Woman's University.  Two of the four classes I have taken have been blended learning courses, including the one in which I am currently enrolled. For my current class, we meet every two weeks (my summer class met every three to four) for face-to-face learning. During our off weeks, we have online discussions regarding our readings for class, allowing us to engage in much more than we can possibly cover in a three-hour class every two weeks. We also share real-life connections that we run across and respond to the work of one another.

There is a drawback to this class - for me. Considering how quickly my brain works, I have a lot to say. I am a heavy contributor to the discussion boards, and at times, I wish my classmates would add more. But I am realistic. We all have different lives and time available to us. It is not uncommon for me to be up reading and writing by 6 AM, but I certainly do not expect that of others.  

I am also currently participating in an online book study that is not blended learning. Here again, I wish there was more dialogue occurring. The administrator of this course set up expectations about how many posts and responses we need to add to the discussion. To some extent, I think that takes away from natural online dialogue, but I also see a need for it to ensure that those who signed up for this course contribute to it. 

I have had a chance to speak face-to-face to a few district colleagues who are enrolled in the book study course with me. There does seem to be some intimidation for those who are not as comfortable using technology, and for them, I think adding a face-to-face component would be beneficial. But as teachers, librarians, and instructional coaches, I know that trying to find time that works for everyone is not terribly easy. This particular course was designed to be "PD in your PJs." 

Having participated in fully face-to-face, fully online, and blended learning,  I find blended learning to be the most beneficial for my personal growth. I feel the added online component to the face-to-face class keeps me focused on the learning and challenges me to look at other viewpoints more frequently.

I am still trying to determine how to make this work with my own middle school students who see one another on a daily basis. For the next year, I am considering branching discussions across class periods to tie multiple classes and grade levels together. I need the downtime of summer vacation to plan this out.

For those of you out there using or engaging in blended learning, what are your thoughts about the positives and negatives? Have you been involved in anything that has brought about more success than you expected?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Stop stopping the violence: boys and writing

One of my assignments for my current graduate diversity class is to conduct research regarding a topic I am interested in, become an "expert" in a few short weeks, and present what I have learned to my classmates. I have been thinking about this assignment at the same time I am conducting interviews for my AVID classes for next year and coping with the frustration of not being able to recruit and keep boys in this program. When the tornado of my brain whipped both of these into its vacuum, I found myself searching Google for information about literacy and achievement gaps between male and female students.

I ran across the article "Misreading masculinity: Speculations of the great gender gap in writing" by Thomas Newkirk, written in March 2000. Much of my early career teaching seventh grade English was spent teaching writing, and writing is a key component of AVID's WICOR. So I chose this as my first article to read. 

One of many topics discussed in this article is the prevalence of violence in boys' writing. If you had asked me few hours ago, I would have said, "Bad, bad, bad. Boys should not be writing about violent topics in school." But Newkirk has swayed me:

(p. 296)

Reading this sent me directly back to my first year of teaching. I assigned something for writing, although the exact assignment has long escaped my mind. The details of B.'s paper, however, are clear in my mind. He turned in his work on green paper, and I marked it up in red pen. B. had written about coming into the school with a sword and attacking his classmates. His story culminated with my head being chopped off. 

Since B. was already a student with whom I had disciplinary issues (he was a 12-year old boy), I treated the writing as a threat toward me. There was a referral. There was a parent conference. There was a suspension. 

If I could only rewind time! I made the mistake of automatically assuming that B.'s "use of violence in writing [was meant to be] vicious or sadistic" (p. 296).  According to Newkirk, I missed a great deal of the complexity that was included in B.'s writing:
  • A video culture - B. had actually written his passage based on a video game he had been playing. This information was revealed during our parent conference, but my new-teacher ego was offended at the time. The last time I spoke to B. a few years ago, he was trying to become a video game developer.
  • A friendship culture or social world - B. never intended to offend me with his story. He simply cast me as the villain and himself as the protagonist in a story set in our mutual environment. He expressed that he thought I would be complimented to be included in his story.
  • "A curriculum culture - ...In transforming largely visual narratives to written narrative, students negotiate popular culture and academic work" (p. 297). B. was simply taking an idea from his everyday life and adding it to my assignment.
I have come a long way in the past 13 1/2 years, and I continue to grow and learn every day.  I want to build a passion for writing, not kill it (pun intended). The next time I see any of my boys including violence in their writing, something I have discouraged over the years, I will engage in more dialogue. I know that in our current times, not every piece of expression can be treated equally, but I am now far less likely to apply the sentence before the trial.