Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder

Write inclusively… or else.

 

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Photo by Carl Newton on Unsplash

Little House on the Prairie, Ch. 11—Indians in the House

By Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.

‘Mary! Look!’ she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.”

Note: I’m including this essay on this blog because, as a language arts teacher, I think it’s imperative to be up-to-date on current news in literature. In addition, providing reading materials for students that can be read for their historical accounts is also important. I think the ALSC decision discussed in this post may ultimately be harmful to students.

I remember reading this excerpt as a young girl when prairie mania reigned in one small slice of American pop culture. The craze for all things “prairie” owed its popularity to a series of nine volumes collectively called the Little House books. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series’ popularity was aided by the launch of a TV drama, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon. I owned the entire Little House set and a pricey collectible wall calendar. I even visited Mansfield, Mo. with my family to tour Wilder’s final home where she wrote her books.

Spellbound through that breathless chapter where the Indians later entered the Ingalls cabin for tobacco and cornbread prepared by the girls’ mother, I considered how vulnerable the Ingalls were as they settled into the frontier of the Osage Indians who lived nearby. Based on my own background and Wilder’s perspective as told through the eyes of Laura, I never considered the vulnerability of the Osage and their culture. I just wanted to keep reading and turning the pages, so I could finish the book and dash off to the bookstore to buy the next.

The sage was enthralling and heart-breaking: white settlers making a home on the American frontier, occasional clashes with the Native Americans, Laura’s coming-of-age, tenuous friendships with the Olson family, Mary’s blindness.

Diverse? Not at all. Inclusive? Nope. It was 1975. As such, Wilder’s Little House series was considered a darn good story and was deemed worthy of recognition.

Until last week.

That’s when the American Library Association (ALA) and its branch, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), decided to change the name of its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Inaugurated in 1954 and awarded to Wilder herself for her book series, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” according to this ALA newsletter.

Sounds reasonable. Few would disagree that Wilder’s books indeed made “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” over the years, albeit not universally among readers.

Here’s how ALSC President Nina Lindsay explained the name change in a letter to her board of directors: “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced…”

She continued, “Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion—something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award. While many of Wilder’s books received Newbery honors, (and one may easily find other books within our award canon that don’t live up completely to our current values), we recognize that the name of an award itself holds significant power… The ALSC Executive Committee noted that the name of the award is a currently potentially significant barrier to achieving our goals, and is within our power to change.”

It’s a change many authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers advocate. Debbie Reese, founder of the comprehensive website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) and a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, believes the images contained in Wilder’s books of “Native people, cultures, and history work to misinform young readers.” One example of misinformation is the dehumanization that appears in Chapter 11. Here’s one instance:  Wilder writes the Osage Indians’ eyes were “glittering like snake’s eyes.”

To counter these messages that misinform young children, the AICL website recommends works “by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians.”

After all, Wilder’s books do contain racist depictions and stereotypes (in Chapter 11 of Little House on the Prairie and in other books in the series) of Native Americans and Africans. In addition, Reese cites Wilder’s recurring descriptions of the land as “empty” and her arguable notions that Indians were primitive beings without civilized, autonomous societies.

Therefore, to celebrate contemporary authors with an award named for an author whose perspective is found objectionable, seemed incongruous for some members of ALSC, which exists to engage “communities to build healthy, successful futures for all children.”

And let’s not forget this: the ALSC is not censoring Wilder’s work. Anyone can still purchase her books or find them at their local library. The ALSC merely removed Wilder’s name from its prestigious award.

It should also be noted that the decision does not appear to have been made hastily and members did not unanimously favor the change. An ALSC task force conducted a survey of members and ALA ethnic affiliates. The results: 305 favored the name change; 156 did not. Still, according to the ALSC task force’s recommendation, “We believe that this decision serves the best interest of our Association, its members, and all of those they serve, not only now, in 2018, but in the long term.

But what about history? Is it wise to attempt to remove evidence of the prejudicial attitudes from our past by denigrating the authors who recorded them? Wilder’s works were clearly set in the past and while they contain objectionable content for some, they remain a historical account. According to a statement from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., “Mrs. Wilder believed her books to be historically accurate and reflect American life during the Western Movement. However difficult it may be to agree with social mores within these years, the fact remains that was a different time and what was accepted then would not be today.”

Even so, the quest for diversity and inclusion in historical literature takes precedence. With its action, the ALSC is indirectly controlling authors by condoning the events, characters and the actions of the characters those authors write about, historical or otherwise.

Regardless, the end result of all this is that now Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name comes with a warning label attached. And so does the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is what that label says:

  • Your characters will speak and behave with respect for all.
  • Your plot’s conflict must offend no one now nor in the future, and include the diverse views of all parties.
  • Your character’s thoughts and impressions must not be their own, or the author’s, but of those with the ability to make institutional change within the prevailing culture.

In short, write inclusively or you will be punished.


What are your thoughts? Click like and leave a comment so more people may see this and be able to weigh in. Follow my blog for more articles on education topics, as well as teaching ideas and resources, and news about writing contests specifically for middle schoolers.

How to forget the Holocaust

Remove it from the curriculum

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Concentration camps, including Auschwitz, posted these words: Work sets you free. | Photo: Pixabay

Are we forgetting the Holocaust?

I asked myself this question recently as I perused an English Language Arts curriculum map for grades 6-8 and found that out of dozens of texts the curriculum uses over the three years, only one text addressed or had any connection to World War II:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. However, this book, while an excellent and necessary text, does not focus on the Holocaust; instead, it depicts Japan’s brutal treatment of American POWs during wartime.

The curriculum map I browsed through recently is commonly known to teachers as Engage New York. It is more accurately called EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, an open educational resource that can be accessed at no cost online.  It is a rigorous Common Core curriculum that “supports teachers in making the transition to Common Core instruction,” according to this informational brochure.

I’m afraid the omission of Holocaust literature from this curriculum means we are forgetting one of history’s most horrific sins.

In March, research firm Schoen Consulting revealed the results of a “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, New York, NY. Major findings of the survey revealed:

  • Seven out of ten Americans say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to
  • Nearly 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of Millennials believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust
  • 45 percent of all Americans and 49 percent of Millennials cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto of the 40,000 that existed

In fairness, the Engage New York middle school ELA curriculum does list other grievous events in world history. The curriculum contains a diverse range of texts. For example, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park chronicles the life of Salva Dut, a “lost boy” refugee fleeing the war in South Sudan. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai tells the story of Ha, a ten-year-old girl Vietnamese girl forced to flee the violence of her home country to find refuge in the United States. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts the hardships and dehumanization of the slavery system of the American South.

And yes, perhaps placing emphasis on these other events adds greater relevancy to classroom discussions of oppression. Students can, after all, livestream discussions with  Salva  Dut. Also, some middle schoolers have grandparents and great-grandparents who may have fought in Vietnam. The effects of American slavery are still reverberating in our current racial divisions and controversies. In contrast, very few Holocaust survivors are alive today. I’m sure that in the minds of many kids, the Holocaust is ancient history.

However, studying the Holocaust is necessary. And I’m glad there is at least one Holocaust-oriented text in Engage New York’s ELA & Literacy Curriculum for grades 9-12: Wiesel’s Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair and Memory.”

Without doubt, the inhumane intention, shocking magnitude, and cold machinations of Nazi Germany reveal humanity’s darkest side. We must learn from the Holocaust to prevent its reoccurrence. As Wiesel wrote in his lecture, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history…It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.”

Here’s another major finding from the “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study”: a majority (58 percent) believe something like the Holocaust could happen again. I fear that if students don’t read about the Holocaust, it will be forgotten, and could likely reoccur.


And, in case you’re wondering why an English teacher is teaching history, it’s really a very common approach educators take to teach literacy skills. It’s necessary to provide a context within which language arts skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening— can be taught. Comma worksheets don’t engage students; real-world events do.

Thanks for reading! If this post made you think, please click “like.”  Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about the need for Holocaust literature in our schools. Which Holocaust texts have you read or taught in your classes?

Countdown to novel writing

This November. Nanowrimo. Finally.

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Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

November is National Novel Writing Month and this fall, I’m writing a first draft of my first novel in thirty days! I have always wanted to take on Nanowrimo, but the idea of writing a novel has always scared me to death. This year, however, I think I’ll approach this behemoth with a group of my students who have expressed interest in going on this journey with me in Nanowrimo’s Young Writers Program.

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A screenshot of my post to my students on my private class Instagram account about Nanowrimo.

Yesterday, I posted about Nanowrimo’s student program on my private class Instagram account. I asked those students who were interested to let me know in the comments. Several did exactly that!

So this summer, I’ll be collecting resources and doing some research on how to approach the program with students. I do know we’ll be setting a daily word-count goal, which means that we’ll need to meet daily for thirty days (after school most likely) to crank out our novels.

Our point in meeting for thirty days after school is not to create perfect first drafts, but adequate first drafts. Some of the drafts will be shakily plotted and some of them might have less-than-stellar characterization, but that’s okay! The point is to create a first draft that’s ripe for revision. In short, the program is designed to get writers actually writing their novels, not just thinking about writing their novels. Amen to that! How many times have I told myself that “someday” I’m going to write a novel?! Nanowrimo provides the framework to defeat procrastination and just get a novel written.

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If you do a quick Google search of “Nanowrimo young writers program,” you’ll find a guide for educators. You can print out a PDF of a workbook for students. It explains how to build an online class profile with individual records of student progress. Students can create their own accounts that track their own word count progress. At the end of the thirty days, if they’ve met their goals, they win recognition and the capability to print out their novels.

Because the students will end with a first draft, we’ll probably print these out and consider them WIPs (Works in Progress), and then continue to revise them throughout the year. Perhaps by the end of the year, we’ll have a second draft!

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Here’s a printable poster you can download from educators’ resources at the Nanowrimo Young Writers Program.

But that’s a long way off and there’s much planning to be done. It’s good to know, however, in the meantime, that I have the first requirement taken care of: my students are enthusiastic to accomplish this goal with me.


Have you ever tried Nanowrimo? How did it go? Did you try it with your classes? I’m open to any information you have about Nanowrimo. Click “like” and leave a comment about your novel writing experiences!

Read this Gary Provost gem to teach sentence variety

You’ll see light bulbs pop on across your classroom as you read it.

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Photo: Gisella Fotographie on Pixabay

Copy off the paragraph below from writing guru Gary Provost and read it aloud to your students at the beginning of class or as a mini-lesson. Don’t just read it aloud… make sure they follow along on their own copy. It’s more effective that way. You’ll see the light bulbs pop on across your room as you read it. That’s what happens when I read it to my students. I usually read it once in seventh-grade, and then we revisit it once or twice in eighth grade. It’s awesome.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals— sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

To get more writing advice to use in your class, order Provost’s book. 

As you read this aloud to your students, if your kids are like mine, you’ll see their eyes raise from the page and lock with yours in recognition of what Provost is cleverly doing: literally showing them sentence variety and how effective it is.

You may have to explain a few things (What’s a stuck record? What does it mean when something drones? What does monotonous mean?), but I can’t think of a faster, more effective way to explain the positives of sentence variety.

Then collect the paragraphs, and remind your kids to apply sentence variety to the writing project they happen to be working on for the day…. assuming they’re not first-drafting. For my own writing, sentence variety comes into play during revision. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen during a first draft, but not usually.


That’s all for today! Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this useful and leave a comment with your own approach to teaching sentence variety. This works for me, but I’d like to know what works for you.

Also, request my free “reflection assignment PDF” by clicking the “Send freebie!” menu at the top of the page. Make sure to write “reflection PDF” in the comment box so I know what to send.

 

 

Reading about how to teach writing

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

It has its ups and downs

I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!

Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.

I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?

There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.

The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.

How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.

I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.