Sunday, February 11, 2018

Can we talk about consent for a minute?

Three things happened this morning...
1. My friend Aliza Werner sent me a link in Voxer asking if I was following this developing conversation sparked by Anne Ursu's article about sexual harrassment in the children's publishing industry.

2. I responded to her and then added another message: "Also, can we go back to XO, Ox for a minute... And why I had issues with it... And how others see it as funny... And it's written by a man..."

3. I was browsing the latest posts to the #classroombookaday hashtag on twitter and saw a teacher shared a "Valentine's/love themed read-alouds" text set of picture books, which included XO, Ox which had been voted as the favorite by her students.

In the journey I've been on pushing myself to become more critical of what I read and share with kids, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the implicit messages we send to kids through the books we share with them. In our schools, classrooms, and libraries, with the messages in the books we share, we are planting seeds for the unconscious biases of the future generation. That's a heavy load to bear, and I know I still have work to do, but I try to listen to those who share concerns without pulling a "but I liked that book" defensiveness. We have to be critical of the messages in the books we share with kids, especially in the picture books we share with our youngest kids who are still developing their moral compass.

So let's go back to XO, Ox: A Love Story for a minute. (Even as I type it, I still can't believe the subtitle of this book is "A Love Story") When I first read it, I felt torn. I could see it as a funny story, but was also very worried that it promoted stalking a little too much. However, as much as I could see the intended humor in it, the bigger part of me was thinking about how we are trying to teach the importance of consent to our youth. I was worried about what message it sends if we find it funny that a girl directly tells a boy to stop writing to her and fawning over her, yet he continues to do so. The more I thought about it, the more damaging I think it is to share this book with young children without a discussion about the context around the concerns about consent. She said no. Stop. She shouldn't have to say it again. Also, the fact that it explicitly says this is a "love story" in the title is concerning. This is certainly not the superficial (Ox doesn't even know her, only her looks, and pursues her even after being rebuked), abusive (only after he tells Gazelle what's wrong with her does she start to like him) type of love I'd want to promote to children or teens. The more I think about the story, the more bothered I am by it.
Do I think it was created with all of this in mind? I would hope not, but ultimately, I'm not sure if matters so much what the author's intent is, if it can be read as a negative and promote negatives to our students, it's a concern. I don't think any author sets out to write something that will be perceived negatively, but once it's out of the author's hands, it becomes the reader's book based on their own interpretation. It's part of the whole issue we're having in our society where men don't see this type of behavior as harassment, and don't take seriously the issue of consent (because of many factors, and this may be simplifying a bit).

But let's take it back to where we started: sexual harassment and consent. This is a book that glorifies the harassment of this girl and sends a message that it should be funny. She repeatedly says no (edited: see notes on author's response below), yet he ignores that and continues until he becomes angry about it and turns from praise to denigrating her. How many stories are we hearing in the news right now about just this type of sexual harassment?

I had a first grade teacher ask me about this book last summer in the #classroombookaday Facebook group and whether the way the teacher approaches is makes a difference. My response:
You may be thinking, but it's just a cute story for young kids, but I would argue that we shouldn't be sending this message to young kids, because they become older kids. How can we expect our older kids to fully grasp the basis and importance of consent when we are sharing this type of book with them when they are younger.

Another teacher in this discussion, Cara Wegrzyn, had this to say after sharing it with her 5th grade class:
So, where does that leave us? Well, for me it's about thinking more critically about the books we share with kids. Would I have shared this book with my middle school kids? Maybe, but only within the context of using it as a jumping off point to have the conversation about consent and harassment. I truly believe this story sends a damaging message to our youth if shared as a standalone, and these discussions need to be happening in our classrooms because if they're not, where are they happening? Are they ever happening? How can we help the next generation to see the bigger picture around the dangers of harassment and need for consent if we don't start now? We have to become more critical readers of the books we will share with our kids. And we have to think about when it's developmentally appropriate to share books that will prompt these types of discussions with our students. We can't share these books without context that require context to fully grasp the issues. Their future depends on it.

And it doesn't stop there. It goes all the way to our young adult literature, and beyond.
Though I started this with picture books, I'm going to end it with YA and recommend some books that reinforce the importance of consent for teens, and the aftermath when there isn't any, that I think should be in every high school classroom library because our older teens still need to be thinking about these issues and grappling with how they do, and will, affect their own lives. And we need our girls to know they should stand up, can speak up, and will find support. And we need to send the empowering messages through the books we share, not damaging ones.

Edited 2/11/18 12:45pm: Someone responded to a tweet about this post on twitter and tagged the author, Adam Rex. I'd like to share his comments here as further perspective in this conversation. I had not originally tagged Adam, as I didn't mean for this to be directed at/attacking him, but more adding to the conversation about critical reading. However, I appreciate his respectful, thoughtful responses and feel they add to the conversation, so want them to be available here also.








Monday, February 5, 2018

Is it offensive to say Black? Conversations We Can't Avoid in the Classroom

Today I was doing a First Chapter Teaser of Jason Reynolds' GHOST with one of my 4th grade classes in the library. I asked if they remembered that I had shown them a picture of Jason early in the year when I was going to a bookstore event. Because representation matters, and it was important for them to picture who writes this book, and that he's someone who looks like many of the kids in their class & school look.
One girl (who is White) answered, "No offense. But he is Black and has those things in his hair." We clarified as a group that she meant dreadlocks which got some of the kids talking more about hair. But her comment stuck with me, and I had to go back to it. I couldn't just let it go. She started wth "no offense" and then referred to the author being a Black man. But why did she feel the need to start with "no offense" in the first place? Because she's White? Because she was saying he is Black? To me, this was exactly the kind of comment that needs to be addressed and not just glossed over in the classroom.

In those 30 seconds I was wondering what my Black students might be thinking after that comment, and also flipping through various ways to respond to it in my head and trying to decide which way would be compassionate and inclusive, while still knowing that I might screw it up. I was worried about microaggressions, and trying to figure out if what I was about to say would be one or not for any of my kids. I imagine it's this moment of fear that too often keeps teachers from encouraging these conversations in their classrooms. But I've learned that I can't shy away from them because my kids live these lives in this society and need to learn how to navigate it. And in those few seconds that I was thinking of all of that (sidenote: This might also illustrate why teachers end up with decision fatigue by the end of a school day), I decided to just start with a question.

So I asked the student why she started her statement with no offense. And she shared that since she was saying Jason is Black, she didn't want people to think she was being racist. I had to sit with that for a moment...my instinct was to want to turn to the Black kids in the class and ask if they felt it would be racist for someone to say that. Knowing that would not be the way to handle it, as I know it shouldn't be the responsibility of the PoC in the room to educate the white people, I simply scanned the whole class and asked what others thought: Is it racist to say he is Black? Does she need to start with no offense? One of the boys (who is Black) called out from the side "She's just saying that's what color he is; not judging him for it. So it's not racist." Leave it to the kids to simplify it and lay it out there for us all.

I reminded them of when I shared Hey, Black Child early in the year for our read aloud, and asked whether using the word Black seemed racist. In a book that is celebrating Black children, written and illustrated by two Black men, they said it didn't. We followed up with a brief discussion about using Black vs. African-American and not all Black people being of African ancestry.

I'm not sure if I handled it right, but I hope it made a positive impact on the classroom community. The kids were respectful, honest, and hopefully gained some new perspective. It was one of those classroom moments when kids surprise you, challenge you, make you think, worry you a little, and you hope you handled it well enough to help kids be better humans...without causing lasting damage. It may have made me uncomfortable or nervous at first, but I can't let that prevent me from cultivating these conversations in the classroom. If it doesn't start there, how will we ever expect kids to be able to have these conversations outside schools in an empathetic way?
 
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