Wednesday, July 01, 2020

It's Time to Get Rid of Some "Classics" in Elementary Classrooms

Recently I read this article in School Library Journal--Weeding Out Racism's Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children's Classics by Padma Venkatraman. There is a lot to think about in this article and a lot of actions to take once we do that thinking.

If you follow #DisruptTexts, they've also really pushed my thinking about the books I have in my classroom, the books I read aloud, the books I recommend to students. We are so lucky to have Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena German, Dr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres pushing our thinking and sharing their expertise. Their mission (stated on their website) it is:

"Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices."

Much of the work around rethinking the canon is connected to secondary classrooms. When we think of the "canon" we think of high school English classes. But there is definitely a canon in elementary schools. There are classic books that we have deemed "must have/must read" titles for our students. There are books that are grade level reads across a school or district. There are books that as individual teachers, we have committed to reading every year in our own classrooms. We hold onto them because we say, "Every child needs to read this book because I loved it." or "Every child needs to read this book because every class I've read it to has loved it."

Much of our commitment to these classics is about nostalgia. I love The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. My mother read both to me when I was in elementary school and I have great personal memories of them. I imagine during my first years of teaching I probably read them aloud to my 4th graders because I believed it was important to share books I loved so my students too could love reading. But when I revisit these books now, I realize the racist (and other) issues in both and would never read them aloud to students now. Dr. Laura Jiménez was the person who helped me understand the role of nostalgia in teacher book choice. In the article, The Overwhelming White, Straight, and Able Face of Children's Literature (Michigan Reading Journal, Fall 2018) she says, "Literacy gatekeepers want to share their experiences with important literature with their students." She then adds, "One major issue literary gatekeepers have is the assumption that a book that was good for them is good for all readers."

I have been thinking about my own personal nostalgia since listening to what Dr. Jiménez says about nostalgia. I have also been thinking of teacher nostalgia. I realize there are several books that were staple read-alouds during my early years in the classroom. I remember reading these books aloud to children and remembering them as anchors for joy around reading. I also remember these books as being popular with students in the years I did not read them aloud.  The Indian in the Cupboard and Touching Spirit Bear are two that stand out to me. At the time, I would have considered these fabulous choices for read aloud and independent reading. They were well reviewed by professional journals, well loved by students and really invited lots of incredible conversations. It didn't take me long to see the racism in The Indian in the Cupboard but in all honesty, it took me a while to give up Touching Spirit Bear. This misrepresentation in this book was less visible to me, but just as harmful. I am thankful for Dr. Debbie Reese's blog for helping me see the things I missed.

There are so many books that we hold onto as teachers and we have to stop. I have learned to recognize and ignore my own nostalgia when choosing books to share in the classroom.  I have learned that I can't let nostalgia get in the way of my professional responsibility. The nostalgia I have for certain books--either from my childhood or as a teacher -- cannot be the excuse I use to justify keeping these books in my classroom. 

Dr. Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder are just two authors that elementary teachers tend to hold onto. I recently read this NPR article about the reasons classics have such staying power. One point was, "And when planning lessons from year to year, it's easier for teachers to prioritize books they're already familiar with. But when these books include offensive stereotypes, teachers have to decide whether to continue teaching them and how."

It's time we all take a hard look at our classroom libraries and really look at the books we have, the books we hand to children, the books we use in mini lessons, and the books we choose to read aloud.   We have to ask ourselves questions like --Am I keeping this because I loved it as a child? Am I reading a book aloud because I always start the year with this one? We have to be honest with ourselves about the reasons we keep them.

And then we have to let some of our old favorites go. 

We don't have to let go of the happy memories we personally have of these books, But we must look past our own nostalgia to disrupt the elementary "canon" in our schools and classrooms. 

I am going to end with one more quote from Dr. Laura Jiménez, "You can hold onto the stories that build you at the very same time you are reaching for stories that will help the next generation of readers see themselves and others in this complex world."


  1. Such an important post. As a little girl, I loved, loved, loved THE LITTLE HOUSE BOOKS. My grandmother gave them to me, signed by her, one at a time, each birthday and Christmas, starting when I was about eight. I still have that set on the bookshelf in my living room, and I probably always will, because they remind me of my relationship with her. At the same time, I don't use them with kids. I think I might have tried using them the first year or so, but they didn't engage kids as read alouds. And now, knowing and understanding more, I never would. Thanks for these important words, Franki!

  2. This is a narrow viewpoint. Should we be exploring the new voices of contemporary literature? Yes. But classics are not such simply such because they've been read by many generations. Because they nostalgic. They are classics when they contain themes and ideas that are endurable. Can the child reading it today relate to the same struggles? Does it encourage them to ask questions and find solutions? If you're reading the classics to modern kids and you see offensive stereotypes, you stop and have an honest conversation about it! Teach them how to recognize it! Sometimes the absurd context of another time makes it easier to see, and it gives us training for the more subtle injustices we see today. The character in the book is experiencing the same conflicts as the reader, and sadly, critics of the classics give up on them before they learn their lesson. Finish the book, and think about whether the ideas that arise have the power to start important conversations, and why those ideas are universally relevant. That is a classic. Then, with grace and an open mind, extend that same high standard to contemporary literature, because there are classics being written right now, and we get to fall in love with them first.

    1. "They are classics when they contain themes and ideas that are endurable. Can the child reading it today relate to the same struggles? Does it encourage them to ask questions and find solutions?"

      Are there no other options for books that contain these same themes and ideas? That show a similar struggle? And that also amplify author voices which have been silenced and oppressed in our country since it began? We MUST choose to support authors and illustrators of color. And we MUST show their voice matters and has a place in our classrooms. Holding on to classics as our texts is a disservice to our students.

    2. "because there are classics being written right now, and we get to fall in love with them first.". I love that, and I'm totally using it in a future academic paper... as soon as I learn how to cite blog comments.

  3. I am a new librarian for my school district and feel the stress of this. I'm not for censorship and I agree with Anita that those books with stereotypes can be good for talking points. But you have to have the conversations to make that a viable option. You also have to talk to your students when they checkout books to let them know what to watch for what they might encounter then have follow up conversations. I don't plan on weeding these books but having thoughtful discussions about them.

  4. Anita - well said! I think this is a viewpoint that needs to be included in this discussion. While I agree with the author’s points as to why she doesn’t teach/read them with her students any longer, I feel the bigger picture that needs to to be discussed is HOW we teach students to read for exactly what you mentioned. The HIW is just as important as the WHY we read a variety of texts.

  5. The problem with saying we can just teach about the stereotypes of these texts is that you show what you value by the texts you choose. Imagine the trauma you impose on students who are part of the group the book is portraying negatively. Representation is still not adequate in children’s literature so when these are the examples you use, it doesn’t matter the disclaimer you give, those ideas are now in their minds. Not being willing to give up harmful books because you love them is centering yourself over others’ trauma.

  6. Franki,

    Thank you for your reflections and the resources regarding this topic. Many of the links in this post aren't working for me...I'd like to read the pieces you're referring to if you could remedy the link issues.

    Thank you,and Mary Lee, for all the thoughtful reflections and insights you share. These are important discussions to have, and continue to re-visit.


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