I wanted to practice satire and the Virginia Department of Education provided a writing prompt….
To: State of Virginia
I suspect that some schools in Virginia are still making The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn available to students in school libraries. This book was banned soon after publication in 1885, and I think continued scrutiny is justified.
I fear that the depiction of racism in this book might make some children uncomfortable. I remember being disturbed when my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Break, read this book to us in class. The book uses racial slurs and depicts cruel actions of white slave owners. It also shows Jim, Huck’s partner in crime, as a man of good character even though he is an escaped slave. Our children should not have to deal with conflicting ideas of this nature.
Since, as an adult, I still remember my teacher reading this book to our class, you can see that I experienced an emotional response to the text, and it still disturbs me today. An added concern is that Mark Twain is known to express opinions not in keeping with traditional societal ideals and norms.
I think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be investigated to see if it’s appropriate for our fragile young learners.
I participated in two library materials challenges during my twenty-plus years as a school principal. Both involved the use of sub-standard English in the dialogue. Our schools had a written process in place for challenging books or materials. A committee of educators and parents reviewed the books in question and made recommendations. Since the dialogue in these books was consistent with the characters speaking, both were recommended for the library. Parent input was significant in making these decisions.
We found books that might not be age-appropriate on several occasions and referred them to our middle school or high school. Educators exercised professional judgment in purchasing books for the library and classrooms with limited funds. Educators included books that challenged readers to think as appropriate for the ages and development of the students.
The state of Virginia seems poised to override the local control of educational materials for their children by instituting a hotline system for reporting any books or materials of concern. The Virginia Dept. of Ed. has a website and phone number just like the Arkansas Dept. of Ed., but the news release accompanying their new hotline indicated its purpose. A complaint goes to the state level without involving the local school and board members.
Virginia’s hotline motivated me to write the short satirical letter above. I probably shouldn’t send it since they’re likely take me seriously.
Jim Warnock, Retired Educator
Several posts floating around on social media propose what kids need these days. They typically lament the fact that society allows a lack of self-discipline and respect, then say we should give kids boundaries, expectations, rules, limits, rewards, and consequences. And, that with these things in place, kids will rise to challenges and exceed our expectations every time.
I generally agree with this but feel the need for clarification because these posts might leave readers thinking of this as a kid problem. I think it’s an adult problem.
Under the topic of “Society,” I would add that kids need many examples of adults doing good work and serving their communities in all fields. Young people need the chance to do tasks appropriate for their age that contribute to their home, school, and community. Also, under “society,” they need to see adults treating others with kindness, especially teachers and community leaders.
I had one burned-out teacher when I was a kid. I didn’t enjoy being in her class, but the experience made me a better educator later on. I never knew of my mother’s negative conversations with that teacher until I was an adult because she didn’t want me to become belligerent and disrespectful toward the teacher. My mother was wise.
Now for “Boundaries.” Boundaries are good, especially if they’re reasonable and appropriate to the child’s age. If boundaries constantly shift because of parents’ emotions, kids are confused. If adults repeatedly violate boundaries appropriate for adults without consequences or apologies, that’s confusing too.
“Expectations” – Yes to expectations, along with the coaching and the gradual building of skills to reach them. I had music teachers, one coach, and one English teacher who were standouts in high expectations. If we underperformed, these teachers felt partly responsible and coached us some more until we got there.
We don’t always exceed expectations. Sometimes we lose the game or play a musical passage incorrectly. Part of striving toward high expectations is learning that we fail sometimes then get up and try again.
“Rules and Limits” Yes, along with rationale for the rules and limits. Rules need to be simple and few in number for kids (or this adult for that matter). Some rules have to be “don’t do this” type rules. The more “do this” rules, the better. Procedures can be more helpful than rules. How do I borrow the car? How do I apologize? How do I speak to others? How do I put something on our family calendar? How do I save my money to buy something? How do I get in touch with my parent during school or work? When do I do my homework, play, and practice?
“Rewards and Consequences” The best rewards cost nothing and are immediate and memorable. Telling a kid that his answer to a question was clear and showed some careful thinking will be remembered. Telling a kid her answer earned an “A” is alright but won’t be remembered.
Consequences should be as natural as possible. Contrived penalties for an infraction build resentment, and the penalties tend to be more dependent on the adult’s mood than the actual violation. My English teacher conferenced with me about something I wrote quickly and without much thought. At the end of the short visit, she told me to rewrite it and that the final grade would be on my final product. That was a reasonable and natural consequence, and it was a consequence that taught me to do better. Just giving me a “C” or “D” would have been easier but meaningless.
As I’m writing this, I feel convicted for my deficiencies in parenting. It’s a wonder our kids turn out as good as they do! When our first daughter was born, my mother gave me a small frame with eight silver dollars to remind me of a mistake she made in teaching me about money when I was a kid. The caption read, “No one said parents are perfect.” My mother was wise.
Time for a quick sermon. As I’ve stated before, my qualifications to preach include being a former teacher and school principal who worked with thousands of great students, teachers, and families. I’m now at the pinnacle of my career in my Gramps hat as the walker of trails.
Recently, a politician spoke at a public school staff’s opening assembly for second semester. Nothing against politicians, but if we’re looking for someone to inspire educators as they begin a new year, we could probably do better. And, in today’s politically charged division, someone not associated with any particular political party might be a better choice when addressing a diverse group of educators.
Teachers face the continued challenges of a pandemic, staff shortages, increased social-emotional health needs of students, and criticism from the public and politicians for sometimes sharing an honest rendering of our nation’s history.
A politician preaching on the dangers of our national deficit while defending his voting record and asking that teachers help students reach their full potential is not inspiring or relevant to the challenges educators face.
If Mr. Politician had a clue about education, he’d know the teachers he was addressing were committed to helping their students reach their full potential, or they would have already left. Mr. Politician might also realize that using the national deficit to justify voting against infrastructure after voting in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy exudes the aroma of BS for educators skilled in the art of detecting BS.
Mr. Politician might be better off sharing his educational journey and a teacher who inspired him if he had one. Then, asking teachers to talk to him while he listens might be a good way to wrap up the program. Just my opinion.