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Which Childhood Experiences are “Appropriate,” and Says Who?

What happens when the objecting adult is a colleague imposing their own ideas about text appropriateness while shutting down that of others? In this post,  NCTE member Christina Berchini details such an experience and its implications for students who bring adult issues to the classroom.

 

When I consider the “grade/age appropriateness” debate as it implicates text selection in classrooms, I tend to default to images of angry parents. Specifically, angry, frothing parents unleashing their opposition, say, during a meeting with a school principal—or worse yet, during a school board meeting with elected board members.

While I know such types exist, I do not remember encountering much parental opposition during my time as a middle school teacher. Instead, my classroom literature selection was stifled and dictated by fellow teachers. I recall having a conversation with another English Language Arts teacher in my school about my desire to teach A Child Called ‘It’—the true story of a child who suffered unconscionable abuse at the hands of his mother. Whether I’d be able to secure this text for my classroom rested on my colleague’s agreement, and that of several others (we were all required to teach the same texts). My recollection of the discussion is paraphrased as follows:

“You know what that’s [A Child Called ‘It’] about, right?” she asked me, visibly stunned.

“Um…yes. That’s why I want to teach it,” I replied.

“I’m not agreeing to that,” she said. “Our students are entitled to a blissful childhood, and they do not need to be privy to that boy’s story.”

It has been more than ten years since this conversation, and I still vividly recall her use of the word “blissful” to describe our students’ lives. I also remember being required to teach Roald Dahl’s Matilda the following year—a book that, according to most lists I’ve seen, is not typically used beyond fifth-grade curriculum (both she and I taught the seventh and eighth grades).

For my colleague, teaching a text that is far below grade level by nearly every measure was more appropriate than teaching a book that, while containing troubling content, was more intellectually challenging.

As a new teacher, I figured it was politically savvy to drop the subject. But it may have surprised my colleague to learn that by the time I had turned thirteen:

• I learned that one of my peers was shot dead in her Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, not that far from my own;
• An older boy who lived up the street had taken physical advantage of me and the silence he knew I would keep in favor of maintaining my neighborhood friendships;
• A woman who lived across the street from me was shot in the neck—due to her family’s Mafia-related ties, they soon joined the witness protection program, never to be heard from again;
• I witnessed the angry dissolution of my parents’ marriage;
• I witnessed my father’s alcohol addiction, which lead to a string of ruined holidays and equally ruined special occasions and, eventually, in-patient rehab;
• I witnessed my mother making extreme financial and personal sacrifices in order to provide for my sister and me;
• I witnessed my aunt’s black eyes and scraped cheekbones, a product of a violent relationship;
• I learned, accidentally, that this same family member was a prostitute for a time;
• I witnessed other children in my family removed from their home due to issues and situations that seemed far worse than anything I had ever experienced;
• From there, I learned slowly but surely about the substance abuse and drug addiction tormenting my extended family—abuses that would lead to family feuds that even the worst of today’s reality television would likely find stunning.

I remember, as a child, feeling horrifically alone in this. If my peers brought similar experiences to the classroom, no one ever talked about it. On the surface, my young life—and the silences I maintained around my outside-of-school existence—indeed appeared “blissful.”

I also knew a couple of things about what my middle school students were bringing to the classroom: The eighth-grader with the newly broken family unit; the seventh-grader who was made by his father to eat pizza out of the garbage pail; the seventh-grader who was rumored to be experimenting with sex, and sometimes on school grounds; the eighth-grader forced to publicly face her mother’s substance abuse after the family name was posted in the police-blotter; the eighth-grader whose dad’s service to the country forced him to spend more time overseas than at home. The list goes on.

Hard as parents (and teachers) might try to shield their children from life’s difficulties and even its cruelties, some students bring adult issues to our classrooms. I certainly did. My students certainly did. An “appropriate” text, then, might be a text that honors this reality. Children fortunate enough to live the sort of “blissful” lives—the kind of lives my colleague assumed to be the rule, and not the exception—are also served well by texts that illustrate the real trials and tribulations of childhood. I suspect that such texts help to build more empathetic classroom communities; communities with a more complex understanding of the world around them, whether or not they’ve personally experienced such complexities.

Maybe choosing a below-grade-level text about a child with superpowers was my colleague’s careful way of inviting some children to leave their out-of-school lives at the door; an invitation to “forget,” for just a little while, about their own baggage. But the fact remains that a story about my life, had one been written, likely would have been considered “inappropriate” for my peers to consume—despite the fact that I was living it.

For this reason, it seems that the issue of “text appropriateness” is far more about adult denial, desperation, and delusions than it is about the needs and lives of young people. And in our desperate quest to deny reality, we fail to honor our students’ desires to feel normal and be validated—needs that emerge because of, and perhaps also in spite of what they bring to the classroom.

Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and a member of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship. Find her @Christina_Berch.