Monday, September 04, 2006

Whatcha Readin’? Whatcha Doing?

Besides vast amounts in my History text, a biography of Ronald Reagan, and an interesting education text, I also have a belly full of children’s literature to read this semester:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (just finished)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (just finished)
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Beauty by Robin McKinley and
Kids at Work by Lewis Hine (non fiction)

I have never read any of these previously, although I should have come across Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden before now. Charlotte’s Web was okay. Just okay. I am not enthralled with it. People (come to think of it, it’s been mostly women. How curious.) seem to be so in love with this book. It’s being turned into a live action children’s movie released this fall. But as animal books go, I think there are so many others of higher quality. Where the Red Fern Grows and The Tale of Despereaux are two that come to mind.

Other students inform me that this instructor chooses Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden every semester. The other books change but not these two. Maybe I should have kept my classroom criticism of Charlotte’s Web to myself the other day? Jack doesn’t do that too well, especially when it comes to literature. I've finished The Secret Garden and am very irritated by the overt racism and multiple sterotypes found inside. I do not find it to be a sensible book for the 21st Century classroom. I'll discuss this in a later post. For now, let's get back to my Children's Lit class.

This class consists mostly of future teachers, the majority of us being focused on elementary. The teacher knows this, as this is the only class she has been teaching for three years. Just by looking at the required books, the reading list for the class, can you make any predictions or form any questions? I know I have one serious question in the back of my mind. How will this class, this reading list, affect elementary students in years to come? Is there a bias? I’m wondering.

I’ll give you a hint where I’m going. I cannot speak for her other classes, but just based on this class I raise a question, and it’s just a question, about gender bias. Are we teaching literature for children or are we teaching literature for girls? Research is starting to show that girls are testing higher than boys. This didn’t used to be true. We used to prepare girls to become inferior, home-bound, baby factories. No more and I’m glad for that. I'm for girl power.

I have no research to back it up, but I might hypothesize, in general, that girls in upper elementary read novels (chapter books) for enjoyment more than boys. Therefore, as a teacher, I might try to tap into that lack of male entertainment reading and find a way to engage those boys in reading. What kinds of books might they be interested in? The Secret Garden? Charlotte's Web? Beauty (which is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast)? Generally speaking I would say probably not. At this age, gender differences are what define the social structure. X item is a girl or boy oriented item. We can argue, and rightfully so, that this is not good, but it is true. So I might question a college instructor’s choice of books in a children’s literature class geared for the elementary teacher, if those choices have a gender bias.

It will be an interesting experiment to read these books and discover for myself if there is, indeed, a gender bias in my opinion. Even if there is, that is not to say that the future teachers in this classroom will only choose books that are gender-biased or gender-specific or gender-bent. But that is not to say that they might not unintentionally, as well. Seems to me the best thing to do would be to have a discussion on the subject, if it’s appropriate.

Just for sake of clarity, I do not define a boy as boy or girl based soley on the main character. I base my rating on questions such as: "Would a girl (or a boy) find this book interesting or engaging?" I consider Charlotte's Web more of a girl book. It is a book about how we feel and about language. I consider it a book geared toward girls and I think many boys might find it lacking. Notice, I didn't say all boys. That's just my opinion.

As a future teacher, I would argue for books that have do not have a gender bias, or that have less of a gender bias. I would advocate for books that both girls and boys are attracted too – books that have strong characters from both genders – books that most children can relate to. I will prefer books that do not have racism and stereotypes. Or if the books do, that there is some resolve of those stereotypes or racism at the end, such as in Mark Twain's classic tale, Huckleberry Finn. So far, I’ve read Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden and I am sorely disappointed. Just as a point, they are both girl books. Not that a book is bad because it is a girl book or boy book. Our world needs both girl books and boy books. But our collee childrne's literature class, teaching future teachers, should not teach rely so heavily on girl books.

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