Books, Musings, Student stuff

Difficult Discussions

At one school I taught a storytelling class to the 4/5 grade.  It was a combined grade and so I had to rotate between Cinderella stories and something else, usually fractured fairy tales.  One year I did trickster tales with them and after trying to read the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus stories decided instead to show Song of the South.  Before we watched the film I talked with them about the problems in the movie and said that any time anyone felt uncomfortable, they could just tell me (or leave the word STOP in a note on my desk), and after we talked about what they’d seen.  They understood why people were uncomfortable with the movie but thought that the way we’d approached it helped and that others should do the same.

Apparently others agree, as in this article talking about why SotS shouldn’t be destroyed.  That it should be shown as part of a larger conversation about problems in older films (see: Gone with the Wind), giving context to what we see on the screen.  Or maybe  along with a discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird‘s racism.

I’d like to suggest that problem isn’t just with the film or book (or, in the case of Little House on the Prairie, the tv series and the books). It’s with our distaste for having those difficult discussions about what’s wrong with them, to show other points-of-view and to accept that sometimes a childhood favorite presents problems for others (Reading While White is a great resource).  Banning, or removing, these cultural artifacts doesn’t help, because it creates an air of mystery about it.  Teaching them in addition to other materials that show other points of view or what the reality (vs. the fictionalized version) looked like would go far further, in my opinion.

It’s Banned Books Week and it’s a great time to start these difficult discussions.  I know I am.

1 thought on “Difficult Discussions”

  1. I appreciate your strategy of frontloading your grade 4/5 students about what they would see in Songs of the South. I bet when the students were getting ready to watch SotS, their critical thinking minds were activated because they were watching with purpose. I think it is a brilliant way of starting conversations about difficult and loaded subjects at that age.

    I agree that banning books or films does not help; it may keep people in the dark about histories and experiences that need to be shared. From a classroom teacher’s perspective, ignoring and not talking about real examples of racism (in your example, the stereotype of a cheerful African-American who sings and whistles couldn’t have been that traumatized) perpetuates ignorance.

    In 1920, residential schools were mandatory for indigenous children in BC. I grew up in BC and never knew about the injustices that have and are occurring to the indigenous peoples until I took an intro to sociology course at UBC. My elementary school experience of learning about the indigenous were art-based: Weaving strips of coloured paper to emulate basket weaving and designing Coast Salish-styled art. Canada’s discriminatory government policies and actions are now part of the conversation and part of the curriculum – no longer being swept under the rug (and not only restricted to indigenous injustices). I am thankful that the BC curriculum is undergoing transformation and striving to embed indigenous perspectives in a more meaningful and authentic way. How great it is that there is now quite a collection of very well-written children’s books and novels about first-person narratives of the residential school experience available at school libraries.

    I suppose taking the lesson sideways and going into a bigger topic of racism was beyond what was planned when you endeavoured to cover fairytales retold in different ways, fractured fairytales, or trickster stories! I wonder if another class with older students at your school would be interested in collaborating with you to delve into a topic connected to racism. For example, a number of years ago, I collaborated with a team of teachers that included our teacher librarian, to teach about child slavery. We used the novel Iqbal to springboard our conversations and discussions, and later tackled modern day slavery and the Me to We movement. Powerful!

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