Education is an important part of Children’s Literature. How books are read and how they are taught influence a child’s understanding of themselves and the world. I will be looking at two Grade 5 reading lists from different decades, and commenting on two books that were chosen to teach the same subject. The books selected by schools says a lot about how adults view children, and what adults believe children are capable of understanding.
My Grade 5 Reading List-2003-04
Mum’s Grade 5 Reading List- 1979-80
In Grade 5 I read Number the Stars to study the Holocaust. The book is not written by a child, but focalized through the eyes of a child. This is a problem, as “The belief in the ability to ‘know’ the ‘real child’ requires a conviction that levels of empathy, sympathy, identification, perception, or communication exist between persons… Assumptions are made about adult’s ability to ‘see’ children.” (Lesnik-Oberstien, 166) The author could not create a realistic book about a child in the Holocaust because she was not a child in the Holocaust. She could try to construct one to the best of her ability, but she risks falling (and fell) into the trap of believing that children are sheltered and naive. The book briefly references the Holocaust, but does not elaborate on those references. The information about the Holocaust comes from what information the character’s parents are willing to share with her. Her own observations are only shared with her friend, furthering the belief that a child is not aware of adult tension. According to the rationale of the present school system, since Annemarie is ten, and students in grade five are also ten, that should allow for a connection with Annemarie. Annemarie has only a vague idea of what is happening. It is up to the reader to fill in the blanks. If this is the first encounter that a child has of the Holocaust, the information given is insufficient. The subject of the Holocaust is glossed over in favour of more “exciting parts”. All that is known about what would happen to her friend is that she would be “relocated”. It is an age-appropriate introduction to the Holocaust.
With The Diary of Anne Frank, there is no author who creates a child and attempts to write in their voice. Anne is a real and normal girl with real and normal feelings. By introducing this book in grade five, girls are prepared for changes before they happen. They learn about the Holocaust and about themselves: The emotional and physical changes happening are not scary. They happen to everyone. Through Number the Stars, the expectations of children are lowered: Children do not have the ability to understand that people can do bad things. By looking at ways to “protect” children, schools forget that children sometimes need knowledge more than protection. They need to know about horrifying times to realize that the world can be horrifying.
Children’s stories are often about children, and so, the characters in children’s books, just like their readers spend time in school. If the book does not take place in school, the theme of education can still be very strong.
In The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Alice spends a lot of her time reciting her lessons (incorrectly) for the other creatures in Wonderland. She has a variety of “teachers”. The Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, The Duchess, and most of the other characters all take it upon themselves to try to educate Alice. She gives the Caterpillar authority by calling him “Sir” almost immediately, and he uses it to his advantage; asking her questions about who she is and asking her to recite a poem. When she wants to leave, he tells her to stay, and “Keep her temper.” (Carroll, 34). She obeys him. He only has authority because Alice has given it to him. The caterpillar would not have been able to do anything if she had refused his request. She gives authority to him because she does not realize that she is in charge of Wonderland. I believe that the Caterpillar is a mirror of adults and teachers: adults would not have the authority they have if children did not passively offer it to them.
You are Old Father William by Lewis Carroll, – a parody of Robert Southey’s “The Old Man’s Comforts and how he gained them.” (Both poems written out here.)
Carroll satirizes Victorian ideas of education. One method he challenges is the use of recitation to teach. The poems in the book are parodies of poems that Victorian children recited for their lessons. (Here is a list) By having Alice recite the poems wrong, Carroll shows that, for all the recitation that a student does, if they don’t understand what they are reciting (and just reciting it on command) school is useless. Children weren’t learning anything or retaining knowledge, they were just repeating what their teachers told them to.
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne has experiences with two teachers. Mr. Phillips publicly humiliates her, not for her work; but for “displaying such a temper and such a vindictive spirit” (Montgomery, 112), after she gets mad at Gilbert. The purpose of school is unclear. It is meant for those who want to learn, but at the same time, it is meant to show children that adults are the ones with power. Anne has no voice. Mr. Phillips feels that he has to control her. He forgets that his job is to teach the class, not deal with a child’s behaviour. He has “spasmodic fits of reform,” (Montgomery, 113). and is feared by the pupils. He prefers to keep control in the classroom, rather than teach. Miss. Stacy is (supposedly) different. She “was a bright, sympathetic young woman with the happy gift of winning and holding the affections of her pupils and bringing out the best that was in them mentally and morally.” (Montgomery, 190). She puts the students lessons first, gaining the favour of the students, but also losing the adults’ favour. Marilla complains about the boys’ climbing trees and her surprise at Miss. Stacy allowing it. Anne defends Miss. Stacy, explaining “But we wanted a crow’s nest for nature study, that was our field afternoon…And Miss. Stacy explains everything so beautifully. We have to write compositions on our field afternoons.” (Montgomery, 191). Miss. Stacy is admired by Anne, and teaches in a way that is exciting and memorable. The focus is on learning, but she also has times when she feels she needs authority over her class. “Miss. Stacy caught me reading ‘Ben Hur’ in school…when I should have been studying…I was simply wild to know how it turned out…so I spread the history open on my desk lid and then tucked ‘Ben Hur’ between the desk and my knee. It just looked as if I were studying… while all the while I was revelling in ‘Ben Hur’. I was so interested in it that I never noticed Miss. Stacy coming down the aisle until all at once I just looked up and there she was looking down at me, so reproachful… I can’t tell you how ashamed I felt… Miss. Stacy took ‘Ben Hur’ away, but she never said a word then. She kept me in at recess and talked to me. She said I had done very wrong in two respects. First, I was wasting the time I ought to have put on my studies; and secondly I was deceiving my teacher in trying to make it appear I was reading a history when it was a storybook instead. I had never realized…that what I was doing was deceitful…I cried bitterly and asked Miss. Stacy to forgive me … I’d never do such a thing again…She forgave me freely.” (Montgomery, 240-241). Anne respects Miss. Stacy so much that she feels bad for deceiving her, despite not knowing it was wrong. Miss. Stacy has authority over her classroom, not by using fear, but by making the class feel ashamed if they do something wrong. “I never read any book now unless… Miss. Stacy… thinks it is a proper book for a girl thirteen and three-quarters to read. Miss. Stacy made me promise that. She found me reading a book one day called, ‘The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall.’… it was so creepy… But Miss. Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it. I didn’t mind promising not to read any more like it, but it was agonizing to give back that book… But my love for Miss. Stacy stood the test and I did.” (Montgomery, 241). The teacher feels that it is her duty to censor the books that Anne reads, calling them inappropriate for her age. Anne reads books which may be too mature for her, but they don’t harm her in any way. They allow her to be imaginative when she needs to be. It is vital to be able to have access to all books, and not restrict them. By telling Anne it was not proper for a thirteen year old to read such books, Miss. Stacy makes Anne think before she reads. Anne is forced to second-guess not only the books she reads, but her own morality. This is very much enforcing the binary thinking of adulthood and childhood. It also enforces the idea of all stories shaping us, and teaching lessons- which may or may not be good. Anne laments at the loss of the book, but admits that “It’s really wonderful…what you can do when you’re truly anxious to please a certain person.” (Montgomery, 242). Anne cares about what Miss. Stacy thinks of her, and is willing to do whatever Miss. Stacy says to please her.
I think that while Montgomery was creating the two teachers, she was trying to change the role of teachers and how they are viewed; Mr. Phillips is an authoritarian who keeps order in his classroom through the use of fear, and Miss. Stacy is supposed to represent a better, kinder teacher. However, I believe that Miss. Stacy is no better than Mr. Phillips. She does not use fear to control her students, but she has other methods which are just as damaging to a child: she plays on a child’s feeling of shame and guilt. Both of the teachers play on a child’s feelings to keep control. Miss. Stacy does teach, but she still demands authority in a very damaging way; Mr. Phillips is so concerned with a child’s behaviour that he doesn’t care if anybody learns anything with him as the teacher. They use fear, or guilt and shame to keep control. No teacher is better than the other. They both enforce the cult of the child by failing to recognize that a child’s feelings are real and can be hurt.
I don’t know if the boundaries made are a very good thing. By requiring students to see teachers as authority figures there is a lot of pressure put on them. They are so worried about being wrong, or saying something inappropriate, that the focus in school isn’t so much on the things that are taught; but on how to interact with teachers. Just like students have to give teachers a position of authority, teachers have to live up to it. School should be for learning, and being free to explore, not for telling a child when they’re right or wrong.
Even today, there is still a belief that teachers are always right, which is why I find this clip particularly funny.
In this clip, the substitute teacher knows less about school than the students do. He’s not a real teacher, and has to think quickly to fool the principal. He sings a song to pretend he’s teaching math. At the end, the girl corrects his answer; and wanting to be seen as the stereotypical teacher, he tries to tell her that she’s wrong. She tells him the answer again, and you can see the thought process going on in his head as he tries to find out the answer for himself. When he finds that he was wrong, he says “I was testing you.” It is clear that he did not know the answer, but he did not want to be seen on a lower level intellectually than the students, so he tries to make it seem as if he knew he was wrong and “testing” her. She was also confused, as she did not expect him to be wrong. She assumed that he knew what he was teaching.
In school, the main purpose is to learn. With an authority figure present, as seen in the case of the Caterpillar and Mr. Phillips, there is an automatic fear of being wrong. The purpose of learning is undermined because of the presence of an authority figure. People learn all the time: they learn from the books they read, the shows they watch, the things they are exposed to, they learn from their friends. They may be random facts; but it’s still learning. What is learned when not at school can be retained just as much (if not more) because there is no anxiety over how to behave, or how to interact with others.
IMAGES (In order of appearance, every other list is in alphabetical order.)
- Carroll, Lewis Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006
- Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 1994.
- Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. [Toronto]: Seal, 1996.
- Anderson, Tara. “A Wrinkle In Time finally.” Review. Web log post. The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say “Shhh” N.p., 3 Dec. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. [http://busyteacher.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/a-wrinkle-in-time-finally/].
- DeRooy, Lenny. “Poem Origins: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Poem Origins: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. [http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/alice7a.html].
- Kelly. “Upper School Library of Caravel Academy.” Review. Web log post. Upper School Library of Caravel Academy. Ed. Laura Hare. N.p., 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 July 2012. [http://caravelacademy.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/number-the-stars-by-lois-lowry/].
- Poites. “”More than Anything It Was the Blue Dolphins That Took Me Back Home”-Karena from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.” Web log post. Lola’s Curmudgeonly Musings on Life, Love and Other Trifles. WordPress, 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. [http://poietes.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/more-than-anything-it-was-the-blue-dolphins-that-took-me-back-home-karana-from-island-of-the-blue-dolphins-by-scott-odell/].
- “Review: The Diary of a Young Girl.” Review. Web log post. The Nerdy Reader. N.p., 28 September 2012 Web. 25 Oct. 2012. [http://thenerdyreader.com/2012/09/28/review-the-diary-of-a-young-girl/].
- Rumens, Carol. “Poem of the Week: Lewis Carroll’s Robert Southey.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Mar. 2012. Web. 9 Jul. 2012. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/03/poem-week-lewis-carroll-robert-southey/]
- Unknown. “The Cay by Theodore Taylor.” Review. Web log post. Loyal Books Blog. N.p., 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. [http://loyalbooks.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/the-cay-by-theodore-taylor/].
- Unknown “Review: Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker” Review. Web log Post Leaves and Pages, WordPress. December 16 2012. Web. March 31 2013 [http://leavesandpages.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/review-underground-to-canada-by-barbara-smucker/]