05 May 2009

Bias and Blitz in Kindergarten Books from Oxford Reading Tree

My family's radar is pretty finely tuned to bias, prejudice, history, and literature. I grew up with socially aware, progressive parents. My father was very active in the South during the Civil Rights Movement; my mother searched hard in a time when there was no market for "feminist" literature, to find books that would open my world and deliver messages that girls/women were every bit as competent, innovative, and adventuresome as boys/men. As a professional in the publishing industry, and as the mother of a young boy, I am generally vigilant about the reading materials in our home. We have books that feature different countries, and books in different languages. Since our family is a bi-national one (my husband French, my own roots Greek-American), I try to be particularly sensitive to global culture. This is why, in fact, when we were looking for a school for my son to attend, diversity and tolerance were high on our list of "must-have" criteria.

I am happy to say that he is in what is perhaps the best school anywhere in terms of offering diversity that is more than just an admissions policy or token effort—it is part of the very fiber of the community of students, families, faculty, and staff. We are truly thrilled with the school on just about every point. In such a melting pot school, of course there are some differences and misunderstandings, and everyone knows that the goal is to work through them harmoniously and with an eye for compromise. I know, too, that I will never be immune from the kinds of home-school conflicts that arise everywhere: disagreements about policies or procedures, struggles with homework expectations, and perhaps the occasional disapproval of curriculum materials. Speaking of which . . . Can we talk about the Oxford Reading Tree series of readers?

Oxford Reading Tree is a reading program for primary school children from Oxford University Press. The series is extensive and generally very well constructed. At the heart of the collection used in my son's school are a group of characters: a family of British children and their parents, extended family, and friends. These are the "Biff, Chip, and Kipper stories," that have been much loved for years, internationally. And I can see why; most stories are engaging, some are humorous, and my son has really enjoyed them, too. As a parent, I like the informational cards that come home with the various titles, because they provide suggestions for ways to make the reading fun and also a shared experience by asking questions and working with the words and sounds in the books with your child. Plus, there's no doubt, my son's reading skills have soared over the past eight months. According to the Oxford Reading Tree Web site (which is worth a look, actually, on the Oxford Reading Tree home page), the program takes a "Simple View of Reading" through:

Speaking and Listening
  • The simple view of reading places increasing importance on the role of Speaking and Listening in developing pupils' early reading skills
Word Recognition
  • The simple view of reading recommends systematic high-quality phonics teaching

Oxford Reading Tree stories have been written using a mix of high-frequency and phonic words [ . . . ] The stories also include high interest vocabulary which helps to develop children's language and comprehension.

Language Comprehension
  • Language Comprehension is at the heart of Oxford Reading Tree's Biff, Chip and Kipper stories, as the multi-layered stories follow a group of characters through real, engaging story lines

(NOTE: I have edited the Web page material for reasons of length; my goal here is not to be extensive in reporting on ORT, but to give a brief illustration of the program's structure.)

Now, because the books are English (culturally English, not just in the English language), there are things that come up, most of them rather humorous and based on vocabulary. The differences between American and British English are certainly well known, so there's no surprise there. Growing up with a knowledge that people say things in different ways is incredibly valuable. The idea that English isn't just one static language is one that can translate to all kinds of meaningful lessons about dialect, regional identity, and socioeconomics. So, there's something fun about translating English to English: "What's a lorry?" "A lorry is another word for a truck." And so on.

As I said, I have basically liked our books. I haven't done the math, but we've probably read close to a hundred of them by now (eight months, minus some vacation weeks, at around four to six books per week . . . yup, let's round to a hundred). Out of one hundred, it's pretty good that there are only two so far—both books that came home this week (and that my son has not yet read; there are other titles to select)—that have raised my eyebrows. And why is that? Well . . .

Let's start with The Blue Eye. It's an adventure story in which our protagonists get transported to another place, thanks to a magic key. (The magic key has taken the kids to many settings in time and history, and often these provide interesting stories and a great opportunity to work in exposure to other cultures, which is great when the opportunity is properly seized.) This time, the place is a landscape that looks very Middle Eastern, though no country is specified. Based on the looks of the buildings alone, as there's nothing yet to suggest anything inherently ominous, the children remark that the place looks "scary." A page later, the notion of something scary—okay, just to make my point, let's use a cousin of the word and call it a notion of "terror"—is confirmed when four scruffy-looking men in Arab dress appear on the street. They are wearing turbans, have big noses and fierce expressions, and are drawn with stubbly faces (in contrast, based on illustrations of the regular characters, one would think that men in England are always either clean-shaven or else have full beards). One man is kicking in a door.

The picture on this page of the book, which I've privately dubbed the "Scary Arab Picture" is posted here, above. A couple of pages later, after a woman escapes from these men by jumping to the street from a window (she is revealed later to be a princess in disguise) and drops a mysterious package, our young heroes happen upon an outdoor market. There you see vendors and, in the crowded street, at least one woman in a full black burka. The children remark that the people "don't look friendly."

OK, so what's going on? It's subtle. Nothing offensive is written down; there's no explicit equation presented (Arab = Scary; Islamic Dress = Unfriendly). And to be honest, perhaps many of us actually have these knee-jerk impressions ourselves in this post-9/11 world. In a world where "we" have been trained for eight years now (by our governments in particular) to fear "them." I was in New York when the WTC towers came down; I can understand the reaction. But whether you fear the Arab/Islamic nations, or whether you think a burka is hostile to women is not the point.

The point is this: in any school, anywhere, do we really need to suggest a dynamic of wholesome, good Anglo-Saxon children versus scary, unfriendly, bad people in turbans or burkas? I don't think so.

Maybe this is too subtle for kindergarten children to pick up on. What if it isn't? There are subtle messages—and many not-at-all-subtle ones—out there to be consumed, internalized every single day. They add up. (For a related story on the impact of visual representation in literacy efforts, see this post on my other blog, which tells of something my mother noticed in my own elementary school.) In the grand scheme, is this one book so horrible? You could argue not, and maybe you could even convince me (though I doubt it). You could say I'm hyper-sensitive and making mountains out of Mohamed. Still, if it's there to be perceived, I say, why have any undercurrent of prejudice at all? It seems most out of step with what our world needs, with a spirit of tolerance and honoring differences (superficial or fundamental) across cultures, countries, religions.

To be fair, before I move on to the second book, I'll say that at the end of this one, there are also some good people in turbans. The adventure story is exciting, and comes out well in the end. But I assume there is no limit on creativity at Oxford, and there are always multiple ways to present a theme, an adventure . . . So I find it hard to believe that an equally effective story might not be crafted without the cultural assumptions that the child protagonists of the Oxford Reading Tree series make right off the bat.

The second book has its own set of problems. It is called, I think (the book is no longer at home), What Was It Like? and it's a revisiting of London during the blitz of WWII. Now, I understand as well as anyone that war is a fact in the world, and that sooner or later, my son will be exposed to it (I hope fervently that this remains an academic experience for him, not one of necessary practice!). Already, of course, he's heard the word, knows it means "fighting," and knows that it's bad and people die. Is this overly simplistic? Of course it is, but hey, this is kindergarten, folks. I keep him away from graphic front-page newspaper stories, and we don't have a TV to desensitize him to violence. (Lest you feel sorry for him, I'll tell you that we rent plenty of DVDs that we watch on the computer, and he nonetheless learns about television programming and gets his doses here and there, so he is hardly deprived of cultural references to SpongeBob Square Pants or the Backyardigans or whatever.) I am by no means a Luddite, and I want him to be a child not just in the messy world he inherits but of it—owning it, understanding it (and its history) so that maybe he can help make it better in his own way someday. But in order to do this, must he learn how to read by reading about children wearing gas masks in a bomb blitz (see photo, below), or children who are upset because they've been separated from their parents in an evacuation? Just how does Oxford envision this particular story fitting into a curriculum for five- and six-year-olds?

In their defense, I'll admit, the story clearly places the war in a historical context and does not position it as a present-day threat. Still, children can be terrific worriers: they see monsters in a darkened hallway; mine tells me sometimes that he worries about me getting home safely if the weather is bad. Seems to me, the adjustment to serious schoolwork alone is sufficient stress for them at this age (in fact, homework in kindergarten is scandal enough for some parents). Do they need to worry about bombing or air quality or how to find Mom in a raid? That's my job—and Homeland Security's—not my son's.

Again, to be fair, I'll say again: the Oxford Reading Tree series has been largely delightful. These are two books in a series of hundreds. I hardly expect or wish for my son's school to abandon a reading program that works well overall, just for the sake of two books that cross questionable lines. Still, despite my abhorrence of censorship, it'd be nice to see these titles suppressed. If this were an age-appropriate literature class, I would not raise objections to content. The thing is: it's not literature at this point, not really. It's a tool, like flash cards are tools, to get the kids excited about and competent in reading.

Looping back to cultural differences, I have considered that maybe it's just my American self that is shocked by these books. Maybe people from other countries would think nothing of it. Certainly, if you live in an area of the world where war is part of your daily life, a book featuring gas masks for kids might be seen as responsible more than outrageous. I'll concede that we are privileged here; that it is a "luxury" to choose whether or not to expose our children to these ugly realities, or at what age. But really, isn't this a luxury worth fighting for? If it makes us spoiled or soft for a few more years of our youth . . . well, where war is concerned, isn't that a good thing? With so little time for innocence, shouldn't we look for ways to preserve it just a bit longer?

[CLOSING NOTE: I am very interested in gathering a range of reactions to this post. If you've made the investment of time to read this through to the end, I thank you. I also ask for just another moment, if you would care to post a comment . . . it would be much appreciated.]