When Land and Culture Are Not Enough

Ramifications of colonialism persist in the world today. Education, health, and socioeconomic status are just a few of the areas in which Indigenous communities are adversely impacted by historical and current patterns of discrimination. In The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline weaves a story of strength and family into a terrifying future.

In this dystopian North America, only the Indigenous people still have the ability to dream. Everyone else has lost this ability and with it the ability to function in their waking lives. As an Elder says in this book, “A man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge.” The colonizers of North America were unceasing in taking what did not belong to them and the history of the Indigenous people of North America includes being evicted from their homelands and sent to residential schools where every effort was made to obliterate Indigenous culture. In The Marrow Thieves, taking the dream-storing bone marrow of Indigenous people was a further step to destroy their culture.

Frenchie, the protagonist, is on the run from Recruiters who capture Indigenous people to perform these operations which lead to loss of limbs or lives. He has already lost his biological family, but he forms a new family with the people he meets in the woods. Their commitment to each other is just as strong as that of blood relations. While this story is imagining a future that will hopefully never materialize, there are still important lessons to be gleaned from this text and this would be a powerful book for high school students to read when studying colonialism.

Somehow, in spite of the best efforts of colonizers, many Indigenous communities have maintained cultural traditions, languages, and beliefs so that these may be shared with successive generations. Frenchie’s voice in this book and the stories he tells will enrich the perspectives of all who read them and offer students inspiration to protect the people who live these stories.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

Diversity 10- I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Justice 12- I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story.

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Endless Journey

Few issues are as emotionally charged as the recent detention of migrant children who have been separated from their families by the United States government. Opinions vary greatly on what to do about undocumented immigration in the United States and around the world. People question who should be allowed in and who should be returned to their home countries. As with any important issue there are many factors influencing every decision and tremendous consequences can result. However, there is one truth that we can all accept: the risk to life, livelihood, and liberty is enormous for every individual or family who makes the decision to leave their home country to find refuge elsewhere.

Eoin Colfer, the author of the Artemis Fowl series, has collaborated with Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano to create Illegal, a story of one family’s journey from Ghana to Europe. The main character in this book is Ebo. He is twelve years old and sets out by himself to follow his older brother and sister to Europe. He sells antiseptic wipes in the capital city of Niger, travels the desert in a truck filled with dozens of migrants like him, sleeps in a storm drain in Tripoli, and floats in the ocean on an inflatable raft he can only hope is headed for Europe.

While dialogue tells most of Ebo’s story, the use of many text boxes throughout the book provides even more descriptive detail about his experiences. When Ebo boards  a boat, the text boxes relate his first thoughts, “Everything smells of oil. Oil and people.” The images in the book tell a story as well. Hope and hopelessness are equally well depicted throughout.

Students in our classrooms know and wonder about undocumented immigration. This book would be a great resource for upper elementary and middle school classrooms that are grappling with these issues. Many books have recently been published about the refugee experience including Refugee by Alan Gratz and Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale. Teaching Tolerance also has dozens of lesson plans specifically related to immigration.

I would recommend talking with your teaching partners about the best ways to discuss the immigrant experience in classrooms. We should be aware that students are dealing with these issues individually and collectively regardless of whether we talk about them at school. Providing a safe space for these conversations where teachers can monitor the narrative could be a saving grace for some of our students.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3- I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Diversity 8- I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Justice 11- I try and get to know people as individuals because I know it is unfair to think all people in a shared identity group are the same.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Compare and contrast two characters, settings, or events.

RL.6- Describe how a speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.

RL.7- Analyze how visual elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of the text.

SL.1- Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions.

Hidden Away

Illness can be incredibly lonely. Often, mental illness is doubly so because it is hidden away inside the sufferer or stigmatized by those it does not affect. We do not have enough mental health care providers in our country and, at least where I live, that is especially true for children. More and more of the emotional support for these children is provided by people in homes and in schools. Teachers do not always receive training in mental health, but it is becoming increasingly important in their daily work.

I believe that one of the best things that teachers can do to help support their students is to talk about emotions and destigmatize feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression in their classrooms. We have to share with our students that they are not alone in feeling this way. We also have to explain that there are differences in how intensely people experience these emotions and how our brains respond to the chemicals that regulate our emotions. Sometimes, people need help to manage the feelings they are dealing with and that is no different than needing glasses, insulin shots, or non-dairy milk. Children need to feel comfortable talking about their emotions so that they do not hide them away.

In Small Things by Mel Tregonning, anxiety eats away at a little boy, literally. This wordless book shows in images what it can feel like to suffer from intense anxiety or other mental illnesses. It also ends with an encouraging message to find support from others when dealing with overwhelming emotions. While this story is wordless, it could be an incredible story to share as a whole class. It might be easiest for students to interact with this book if a teacher is able to project the pages onto a screen. Give students the time to talk about what they are seeing and allow them to process the images in their own ways. Also remind them that if they are not comfortable sharing with the group, they can always come talk to a safe adult or a close friend.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for students is to make the hard things visible so they know that these are not deficits or failings. It may not make them easier to deal with, but at least it offers the hope of a better tomorrow.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6- Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people.

Diversity 8- Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.

Action 16- Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.

 

Women Making History

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo were named Publisher’s Weekly Star Watch Superstars on September 12. They raised money through crowdfunding to publish their collections of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (there are two so far) and have created a children’s media start-up in order to distribute these books as well as develop new projects. Every story in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 begins with “once upon a time” and reading these short vignettes is unlike the experience of reading many other biographical texts. The stories of these women are told in a way that enhances their excitement, audacity, and hope.

We sometimes hear that boys will not read stories about girls or vice versa and I believe that there could be nothing further from the truth. In fact, I think this idea perpetuates the gender stereotypes in our society. This book would be wonderful for any youth, identifying as male or female, because the stories within are inspiring and speak to all interests and experiences.

This book could be used as a stepping stone for further biographical study. It could be read aloud to students when they are studying particular topics such as the arts, the environment, or careers. Students could also use it to draw parallels between people or times in this country and around the world.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Diversity 10- I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.

Common Core Standards:

W.7- Develop short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.

A Different Perspective

As a special education teacher, I have worked with a number of students on the autism spectrum. I believe it is very important to remember that they are all unique individuals even if they share a particular diagnosis. However, just like every child, they all have happy days and challenging days. Lauren, the main character in Slug Days by Sara Leach, calls them butterfly days and slug days.

Slug Days is written from Lauren’s perspective and she talks about her struggles with reading social cues and dealing with changes. She has moments when she knows she is going to “flip her lid” and is sensitive to different feelings like gooey dried ice cream and the sticky orange juice spot in her desk. Students who read this book might notice that Lauren needs different things than they do, like things to squeeze when she is upset, but they might also observe that Lauren is like them in a lot of ways, too. She is artistic and enjoys building an insect world with her family. She is a good big sister who is able to empathize with her baby sister even when that is a challenge. And, like all children, she wants to fit in with her classmates.

This book would be a great read aloud in a primary classroom. Classmates could share moments in their own lives that felt like butterfly or slug days. They could also talk about their own individual differences and the things they have in common. This book provides many opportunities to build a classroom community through conversation.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1- I know and like who I am and can talk about my family and myself and name some of my group identities.

Identity 4- I can feel good about myself without being mean or making other people feel bad.

Diversity 6- I like being around people who are like me and different from me, and I can be friendly to everyone.

Diversity 9- I know everyone has feelings, and I want to get along with people who are similar to and different from me.

Common Core Standards:

SL.1- Participate in collaborative conversations around topics.

SL.2 Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud.

SL.4- Tell a story or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details.

A Story Longing to be Told

This is one of those books that I read and then thought, “I was just waiting for you to come along.” The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a heartwarming story of love in many forms. The two main characters in this book are a dressmaker named Frances and a prince named Sebastian. They have lived very different lives but it is easy to see that they were meant to meet. Sebastian is always a well dressed monarch, but as a non-binary person, doesn’t always feel like being Sebastian. Sometimes she is Lady Crystallia. Frances’ exotic style makes her the perfect dressmaker, and more, for Sebastian. The relationship between these two is very sweet as it grows, but equally exquisite are the relationships that Sebastian has with family and friends. This book was simply a joy to read and offers many opportunities for exploration in middle school or high school writing or literature classrooms.

This is a graphic novel and the question of how Wang uses the text and illustrations, separately or together, to advance the narrative is a great place to start classroom exploration. Theme and characterization are also intricately connected in the text and illustrations and breaking these down invites students to slow down and carefully consider each (the king’s transformation in this book is particularly memorable). Students might also be asked to compare and contrast this story to other popular tales with a similar story line. The story also offers opportunities for discussions of gender normative social structures.

Transgender youth are starting to be represented in juvenile fiction and young adult literature (though there is still a lot of room to grow), but this story’s introduction of a non-binary or gender fluid character is one of the first that I have read. I am sure there are many other books with strong representatives of this identity and I would welcome hearing about them.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 7- I have the language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including myself) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.

Diversity 10- I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Analyze how characters develop over the course of the text.

RL.5- Analyze how the author structures this story.

RL.6- Analyze a particular point of view and how it is expressed.

RL.9- Analyze how a modern work draws on themes of classic stories.

Lives to be Remembered

Knowing the accomplishments of those we identify with is one of the most powerful factors in seeing our own potential. Equally important is seeing people with identities we do not share achieving greatness. When history is taught in schools, teachers must ensure that a diverse range of identities are represented. Often textbooks are not the greatest sources for diverse historical figures. Strange Fruit by Joel Christian Gill would be a wonderful supplement to a textbook in a middle school or high school history classroom. There are two volumes of Strange Fruit and while I have only been able to read the first, I am confident that both volumes include historical figures and events that many students have not been introduced to in their studies.

The stories told in Strange Fruit also mirror many interests of young learners. Richard Potter was the first stage magician, Bass Reeves caught criminals in the Old West, and Harry “Bucky” Lew was the first person of color to play professional basketball. These are professions and passions that are not always a part of teaching Black History.

Strange Fruit might serve as a resource in a biographical research project or a tool for comparing and contrasting different experiences. The roles of text and illustration also beg to be considered. Mr. Gill’s use of black crows to symbolize Jim Crow laws is particularly powerful. The book’s title might also lead to a discussion of the meaning of “Strange Fruit” and the Billie Holiday song that promoted awareness of despicable hate crimes across our country. Regardless of how this book is used in schools, it definitely has a place in our educational system.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I am curious and want to know more about other people’s histories and lived experiences, and I ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Diversity 10- I can explain how the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, shapes their group identity and culture.

Justice 12- I can recognize and describe unfairness and injustice in many forms including attitudes, speech, behaviors, practices and laws.

Justice 14- I know that all people (including myself) have certain advantages and disadvantages in society based on who they are and where they were born.

Common Core Standards:

RI.3- Connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events.

RI.5- Analyze the structure of a text.

RI.7- Use of different mediums to convey information.

Messages for Our Heroes

One of the major strengths of Adrienne Kisner’s book, Dear Rachel Maddow, is the depth of her main character Brynn. While the book could have focused solely on Brynn’s sexual orientation, it does not. Kisner could have made the focus Brynn’s learning disability, but she didn’t. The focus also could have been the family struggles with which Brynn is dealing. None of these are the sole focus of this 263 page book. Just like none of these define the people who possess similar identities. Brynn is a character with whom many teenagers can relate.

In Dear Rachel Maddow, a high school English assignment in Brynn’s Applied English class to write to a hero becomes an opportunity to share her life in email drafts that will, theoretically, never be seen. First love, new love, loss, and belonging all matter to Brynn and they are all addressed in this book. Brynn also discovers truths about politics that many of us would rather forget.

In many ways, this is a book that should be read for enjoyment alone. Brynn’s voice is raw and funny in all the right ways and I would not recommend picking it apart. However, there are many opportunities for discussion and writing that this book could inspire. Due to the depth of Brynn’s character, Teaching Tolerance’s Justice and Action Standards (listed below) are especially relevant. While letter writing is not specifically addressed in the Core, the prospect of writing to a hero is often an impetus for research and careful editing. Who knows, they might even get a letter back!

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards especially relevant to this book:

Justice 11: I relate to all people as individuals rather than representatives of groups and can identify stereotypes when I see or hear them.

Justice 12: I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Action 17: I take responsibility for standing up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice.

Shared Experience

In Saffron Ice Cream, an autobiographical picture book by Rashin, our students meet a little girl who enjoys swimming and ice cream. These are experiences that many children can relate to right away. We learn as we read that Rashin immigrated to the United States with her family from Iran where she also enjoyed swimming and ice cream. As Rashin describes her adventures at the beach in Iran and the beach in the United States we are invited to experience the similarities and differences in each country. In Iran, boys and girls swim on different sides of a curtain, but they are still just as curious and mischievous as the children in New York.

This is a fantastic book to use for the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards of the Core. The illustrations in this book provide details, like the pear tree in Iran and the subway in New York, that invite readers to return to the book many times to find new things. Students can also compare and contrast Rashin’s experiences in both countries. This book can also lead to discussions about “the lived experiences of others” from the diversity standards created by Teaching Tolerance. Students can discuss their own swimming experiences in relation to Rashin’s.

Let’s Get Started!

Our name is the way that we present ourselves to the world, especially when so much of our communication occurs over email or online. When their name seems long or unique among peers, it can be a challenge for students. Alma and How she Got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal, comes to the rescue. Alma’s name is long, “Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela” to be exact, and she wonders why it was chosen for her. Her father describes each family member who contributed their name to Alma’s. It doesn’t take Alma long to realize that she shares characteristics with all of these people. Her name is a perfect representation of who she is. The illustrations in this book further strengthen the connections between Alma and her strong relatives.

This would be a wonderful book to share with students at the beginning of the school year to inspire them to learn more about the history of their own names (writing standard, “gather information from sources to answer a question”). It also opens up opportunities to address the Social Justice Identity Standard: “Students will express pride, confidence, and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.”