My first attempt at teaching The Red Badge of Courage: it is what it is

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My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again

Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.

According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.

Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.

I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.

It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…

This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.

Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.

“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.

Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times.  Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.

And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.

After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print:  the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.

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Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so.  Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!)  Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:

1. Narrative Journal Prompts:

I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.

2. The Red Badge of  Courage (Reed Novel Study Guides)

This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.

3. Taking Fire TV Series

This Discovery Channel series, which I discovered in doing some online research, has probably done the most in causing my students to appreciate The Red Badge of Courage.  Here’s the description from Amazon Instant Video listing:

Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.

Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.

As we watch  Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.

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I asked students to make a case for watching Taking Fire alongside reading The Red Badge of Courage.  This is one of the responses. Two more follow below:

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Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of  Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)

I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.

And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.

4. The audiobook on Youtube.

Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more.  Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.

5. Civil War Soldier Diaries

I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:

6. LitCharts

I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.

When you teach a novel for the first time

It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.

To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of  Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas?  I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.

 

 

When anxious, depressed students stare into space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening

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Photo: J.C. Gellidon on Unsplash

Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.

As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.

It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.

During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.

It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.

As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?

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Frederick Douglass’ master believed learning would spoil the best slave in the world. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype. | Photo: public domain

When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.

One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.

I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.

“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.

After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.

As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.

I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.

In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.

And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.

In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.

Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:

Master Mind

I am a slave to my own mind.

I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,

While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,

All day, I try to please my master,

Only to be starved of my happiness.

My fear shatters all remnants of hope,

By striking me for laughter…

 

Another excerpt:

For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.

I will escape the darkness in my head,

And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…

I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.

 

And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.

This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?

Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.

This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.


Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.

Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.

 

Save time. Always be planning.

I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.

 

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I finished this bulletin board today. I started planning it before school released in May. 

At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11.  The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.

 

The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.

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 Here’s a full straight-on shot of the bulletin board. I wrote the students’ summary words on pink sticky notes and placed them randomly among the photos and pictures.

We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.

Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.

As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.

Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!

In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent.  I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.

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I photocopied our textbook’s cover and decided the black-and-white copies made more sense for this bulletin board than if I had printed them in color.

I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.

I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).

I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!

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I stapled some of the pictures and posters so they extended beyond the edges. I like how the twinkle lights, which are actually behind the NYC poster, make it glow!

So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.

I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.

I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”

It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

New book for my classroom!

Flying Lessons & Other Stories | Edited by Ellen Oh

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New book! Yay!

Last week I ordered Flying Lessons & Other Stories from Amazon for my classroom library. I had learned about the book by visiting the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog a couple of weeks ago as I was researching and reading for two posts I wrote, Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder and A Source for Native American Lit.

Flying Lessons was included in a list on the AICL blog of Best Books for 2017 by native writers or illustrators. It was the only book listed under the heading “For Middle Grades.” The specific Best Book status was for the short story entitled “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” The author, Tim Tingle, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Like other authors mentioned on the blog, Tingle’s story is honored for its accurate portrayal of native people, their traditions, cultures, and beliefs.

Flying Lessons & Other Stories contains ten short stories and poetry by ten diverse writers, including Kwame Alexander, Grace Lin, Walter Dean Myers, and Jaqueline Woodson, among others.

Ellen Oh,  co-founder and president of We Need Diverse Books, edited the collection of stories. This organization, according to its website, exists to advocate “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”  In the words of Walter Dean Myers, as quoted in a section of the book entitled “Why We Need Diverse Books,” young people need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they rea.d

So far, I’ve read only a few selections from the book: Tingle’s story, Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha,” Jacqueline Woodson’s “Main Street,” and the collection’s namesake, “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani. I feel that the book will be good for reading aloud during class, and also a source of mentor texts that contain effective examples of realistic dialogue, descriptive settings, and captivating opening lines. I’ll be reading more stories from the book over the next week.

I struggle to find engaging short stories for middle school students. Since I usually start the school year off with memoir writing, I feel that this book will provide relevant, contemporary storylines and characters that my students can identify with.

One regret: I do wish the book had a more interesting cover. Because of its text-only design, I already know I’ll have to really talk up the book to get my students to check it out. Books with photographs or colorful pictures or illustrations always get more attention.

As I work more with the book in my classroom, I’ll relay to you how my students receive it. In fact, having a few of them write a short review will be beneficial for them and you.


It’s fun to add new books over the summer when I actually have more time to read. Thanks for checking out this post. Follow my blog for more book reviews as I discover new reads!

 

Field trip idea: The Outsiders House Museum Opens Soon in Tulsa

Plus: 10 reasons teachers love this book

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It’s hard to find a photo that can be reproduced without violating copyright rules. This older version of the book will have to do for now! Photo: TheeErin on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/theeerin/3319626950

I have a black-and-white poster of The Outsiders in my classroom. One year, I decided to photocopy my picture, cut off my head, and snuggle it in between Darry and Steve. And then I laminated it, so it’s never comin’ off!  My students don’t always notice it right away, but when they do, they crack up to see me with the Greasers.

Obviously, you can tell I love The Outsiders. So imagine my excitement when I found out just yesterday that a new museum, located at the bungalow-style house where author S. E. Hinton’s Curtis brothers lived in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, will open in late summer or early fall!

The Outsiders House Museum is located at 731 N. St. Louis Ave. and will be open by appointment 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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The Outsiders house  has been restored since this photo was taken. Photo: TheDoctorWho [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Owned by House of Pain hip-hop artist, Danny  O’Connor, construction crews have spent several months restoring and preparing the house for its new life.  Inside, visitors will tour the house, see book and movie memorabilia, and browse a retail shop for serious fans, of which there are thousands… including every single student at my middle school.

Seriously, what is it about students and The Outsiders? I asked teachers this question: Do you still teach The Outsiders and why?  Here are some of those teachers’ comments, including several that shared content areas they address with the novel.

  1. “Yes, because it is a classic and because we have the opportunity to discuss tolerance, stereotypes, and other points of view.”
  2. “Because I can teach all the elements of fiction, character development and nearly all figurative language with this read that every student can relate to their own lives and how they treat others no matter what side of town they are from.”
  3. “Yes, because my students LOVE it. I was thinking of giving it a rest, but the majority told me it was their favorite book this year, and when a book touches kids like that, I have to keep it in the repertoire.”
  4. “Absolutely! We really focus on symbolism of eye colors, colors of hair, and numbers. Characterization done by a biased point-of-view. And stereotypes.”
  5. “The last few pages are well-written, especially when Pony has his epiphany that he can be the voice for the voiceless. That idea is powerful, and this coming year I want to do a project connected to that idea.”
  6. “I found that kids of all cultures could relate to it. The last time I taught it, I was at an all-girls school, and I liked the fact that it was (written by) a female author. We also did a writing project in which my students rewrote a scene from the book as if all the main characters were girls.”
  7. “I moved to a new school in a new state and hadn’t taught The Outsiders since 1995. I was absolutely AMAZED how it spoke to my 7th graders in 2018. They were engaged from page one and did a wonderful job discussing the themes in the novel: empathy, peer pressure, socio-economic pressure, the concept of family. Most exciting to me, I believe for about ten or so students, this was THE book, the one that caused them to see themselves as readers. My heart melted to watch this happen.”
  8. “It has become iconic. The references to the novel appear all over in pop culture. Stay Golden is what we want for all.”
  9. “Yes. My 7th graders love it! Students who have shown no interest in reading will finish the book before the class. They become invested in the characters and show true empathy.”
  10. “I have been teaching this to my 8th graders for nine years. EVERY year we start out with eye-rolls and “This book is sooooo old!” And EVERY year we finish reading the last chapter out loud together and—without prompting—they ALL say that last line TOGETHER. I swear I tear up EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.”

So even though the book was first published 51 years ago and the movie came out 35 years ago (can you believe it?!), The Outsiders is still a winner. If you don’t teach The Outsiders, think about doing so for next year. There’s a wealth of lessons and unit plans available for you to adapt to your teaching style and curriculum. If you already teach The Outsiders… well—all together now—Stay Gold.


Click like and leave a comment to share your experience with The Outsiders. And it’s okay to have a different opinion, since some teachers just don’t care for it.  Share your ideas either way!

 

 

 

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?