Education » ADL Blogs
February 19, 2015 1

Books Matter: The Power of Children’s Literature

Any­one who has ever read to or with a child—parent, fam­ily mem­ber, teacher or friend—knows books leave last­ing impres­sions. Beyond the edu­ca­tional ben­e­fits, books have the power to instill empa­thy, affirm, teach, trans­port and inspire action. Books matter.

Empa­thy
In expos­ing chil­dren to other people’s sto­ries and the moti­va­tions and feel­ings behind those nar­ra­tives, chil­dren begin to con­nect with oth­ers on an emo­tional level, which is the foun­da­tion for bridg­ing dif­fer­ences between worlds. Books have the power to fos­ter empa­thy and under­stand­ing of other peo­ple and cul­tures–their hopes and dreams, their joys and sor­rows, their sto­ries and reflec­tions. Empa­thy is the ground­work for under­stand­ing peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from one­self. Books open those doors for chil­dren to other places and experiences.

Self-Reflection
Par­ents and edu­ca­tors know that one of the most impor­tant things books do for chil­dren is affirm who they are. Com­monly referred to as “mir­ror” books, they con­tain reflec­tions of the children—their cul­ture, fam­ily, race, reli­gion, etc.—and enable them to see them­selves por­trayed with accu­racy, depth and com­plex­ity. As Charles Blow, a writer and op-ed colum­nist for the New York Times shared about books, “They helped me to see myself and love myself when I felt least seen and least loved. They saved me.”  Through books, chil­dren should be able to see them­selves take on endeavors–both ordi­nary and extra­or­di­nary.  Pos­i­tive iden­tity devel­op­ment is cru­cial dur­ing child­hood and when chil­dren don’t see them­selves in books and else­where, they feel deval­ued and less optimistic.

Unfor­tu­nately, there is often a lack of diver­sity in children’s books.  Although chil­dren of color make up about 40% of the pop­u­la­tion, recent sta­tis­tics show that the num­ber of children’s books fea­tur­ing peo­ple of color has been hov­er­ing around 10% for the past sev­eral years. Other types of diversity—including abil­ity, socioe­co­nomic sta­tus and LGBT peo­ple and families—are also lack­ing. There has been an acknowl­edg­ment of this prob­lem and an out­cry in the edu­ca­tion and lit­er­a­ture worlds to address it. A recent New York Times arti­cle asked, “Where are the peo­ple of color in children’s books?”  The con­cept of “We Need Diverse Books” quickly evolved from a hash­tag to an orga­ni­za­tion, and in 2015, the John New­bury Medal win­ning children’s books all fea­tured an aspect of diver­sity. There is grow­ing aware­ness but change is slow.

Teach and Trans­port
“Win­dow” books have the power to teach chil­dren about aspects of life for which they are unfa­mil­iar. They can shed light on peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent in a myr­iad of ways– reli­gion, fam­ily struc­ture, abil­ity, race or coun­try of ori­gin.  In small and big ways, books can illu­mi­nate dif­fer­ences between peo­ple and reveal how bias is some­times caused by mis­un­der­stand­ing. Poignant words and illus­tra­tions trans­port chil­dren into new realms and expe­ri­ences. Through books, they may learn about some­one who is deaf or autis­tic. They can gain famil­iar­ity with the expe­ri­ences of immi­grants from other coun­tries or those who have fam­ily con­stel­la­tions dif­fer­ent from their own. They may learn about dif­fer­ent cul­tures and their hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions.  Help­ing chil­dren gain com­fort with dif­fer­ences has last­ing benefits.

Action
When chil­dren are faced with bias and bul­ly­ing, it can be dif­fi­cult for them to know what to do. Books can help and they often res­onate with chil­dren in ways noth­ing else does. As young peo­ple look for strate­gies to deal with teas­ing and bul­ly­ing, they can also dis­cover books that help them learn how to be an ally. Sto­ries about peo­ple who stand up to prej­u­dice and injus­tice can inspire chil­dren to see them­selves in oth­ers who have fought for jus­tice, espe­cially child and youth activists.

Whether it’s a nine­teenth cen­tury suf­fragette, a Holo­caust resister or a Nobel prize win­ning Pak­istani girl fight­ing for girls’ edu­ca­tion, through books we can teach chil­dren about the world out­side them­selves, the his­tory of injus­tice and how they can make a difference.

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January 22, 2015 0

Bittersweet Freedom

“After Auschwitz, the human con­di­tion is not the same, noth­ing will be the same.“
– Elie Wiesel

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Credit: Yad Vashem

Jan­u­ary 27th marks the 70th anniver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz Birke­nau Con­cen­tra­tion Camp by the Russ­ian army at the end of World War II.  For those who were able to sur­vive the hor­rors of Auschwitz, finally hear­ing the words “We’re free! We’re free!” echo­ing across the camp bar­racks must have seemed almost too good to be true. We often hear sto­ries of the ini­tial encounter between camp sur­vivors and the lib­er­at­ing army, recounted by one child sur­vivor, “They gave us hugs, cook­ies, and choco­late. Being so alone, a hug meant more than any­body could imag­ine because that replaced the human worth that we were starv­ing for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness.”

Peo­ple rarely con­sider what hap­pened to the anti-Semitism that was at the root of the Holo­caust once the war ended. There is some­times an assump­tion that anti-Semitism ended with the war or that it was greatly dimin­ished. In fact, this is never the case when geno­cide occurs. The hatred and prej­u­dice still exist, but their man­i­fes­ta­tion is not always bla­tantly obvi­ous.  In the case of the Holo­caust, the world felt a col­lec­tive sense of shame in fac­ing the images of sur­vivors, which was a strong inhibit­ing force against the bla­tant expres­sion of anti-Semitism. Today, decades later and with new gen­er­a­tions ris­ing, the ero­sion of that sense of shame has become a key fac­tor in the surge of anti-Semitism. That’s why edu­ca­tion is more impor­tant now than ever.

After lib­er­a­tion, the sur­vivors of Auschwitz were free to walk out of the camp, and were essen­tially on their own to make their way back to their com­mu­ni­ties and learn if their for­mer homes and val­ued pos­ses­sions were still there.  Many of the young women who sur­vived the camp trav­elled together in small groups, some­times for long dis­tances. Sleep­ing in barns, sheds or out­side in the woods, they were fre­quent vic­tims of vio­lent sex­ual assaults from maraud­ing sol­diers, attacks from which some did not sur­vive. They were tar­geted for two rea­sons – because they were women and because they were Jewish.

The lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz is clearly a crit­i­cally impor­tant event in the his­tory of the Holo­caust and one that should hold an impor­tant place in our col­lec­tive mem­o­ries.  But we also need to be mind­ful that anti-Semitism did not mag­i­cally dis­ap­pear with the lib­er­a­tion of the camps or the sign­ing of the peace treaties.  Today, anti-Semitism has reached to all-time highs across Europe and our mem­o­ries need to be tem­pered with a renewed vig­i­lance to con­tinue to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of prej­u­dice, from sub­tle stereo­types and Holo­caust “jokes” to vio­lent hate crimes against peo­ple per­pe­trated because of who they are.  Only then, will the man­date of “Never Again” become a reality.

How do we bring the lessons of the Holo­caust to stu­dents today in ways that are rel­e­vant to their lives?  The Anti-Defamation League pro­vides pro­grams and resources that help edu­ca­tors and stu­dents study the his­tory of the Holo­caust and apply its lessons to con­tem­po­rary issues of respon­si­ble cit­i­zen­ship, moral deci­sion mak­ing, prej­u­dice, hate, and geno­cide.  Teach­ers can inte­grate mul­ti­me­dia cur­ric­ula into their class­rooms through Echoes and Reflec­tions.

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January 14, 2015 1

Beyond the Dream, Teaching King in Context

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Day is Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 19, and many edu­ca­tors will take the oppor­tu­nity to teach about King and his enor­mous con­tri­bu­tions to our soci­ety. As edu­ca­tors, how we approach the teach­ing of this hol­i­day makes an impact on how stu­dents under­stand the larger con­text of the Civil Rights Move­ment and whether they make a con­nec­tion between the past strug­gles to the cur­rent day and their own lives. Here are some thoughts about teach­ing the topic in a mean­ing­ful way:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559

Cour­tesy of the Library of Con­gress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Col­lec­tion, LC-USZ62-126559

Focus on what Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. rep­re­sents.  King is an icon, a larger than life fig­ure and a tremen­dous ora­tor. These char­ac­ter­is­tics can lead stu­dents to believe that he sin­gle­hand­edly accom­plished the goals of the Civil Rights Move­ment or that they could never be like King.  It’s impor­tant to put King’s work into the con­text of the larger move­ment of peo­ple that he rep­re­sented.  Stu­dents need to know about King’s life, that he was a leader of all types of “ordi­nary” peo­ple, and it was them – peo­ple of all ages, all walks of life, all dif­fer­ent races and reli­gions – that made the Civil Rights Move­ment possible.

It is impor­tant to under­stand and teach that the Civil Rights Move­ment was a strate­gic, on-going  move­ment with spe­cific objec­tives.  Author Bryan Steven­son talks about the idea that peo­ple today often think of the civil rights move­ment as a 3 day event; “Day One, Rosa Parks gave up her seat on a bus; Day Two, Dr. King led a march on Wash­ing­ton; and Day Three, we signed all these laws.”  This sim­plis­tic view of the Civil Rights Move­ment leaves out all of the impor­tant ele­ments of strat­egy, strug­gle and the actual “move­ment” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sim­i­larly, it is impor­tant to be spe­cific when talk­ing about King and the Civil Rights Move­ment. Dr. King’s legacy can­not be under­stood with­out talk­ing about big­otry, race and racism.  That may seem obvi­ous, but often edu­ca­tors are hes­i­tant to talk about race.  With thought­ful prepa­ra­tion, how­ever, these issues can be raised in a devel­op­men­tally appro­pri­ate way.  It’s also really use­ful to be spe­cific about the aims of the Civil Rights Move­ment– not just a vague notion of “equal­ity” but a social jus­tice move­ment that was seek­ing to end seg­re­ga­tion, secure vot­ing rights, advo­cate for worker’s rights, and address eco­nomic disparities.

In this way, we have teach­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties that con­nect the past to cur­rent events.  Stu­dents can see both the suc­cess of the Civil Rights Move­ment while also con­nect­ing to what forms of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion and unequal treat­ment exist today.  For exam­ple, exam­in­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act allows for an oppor­tu­nity to ana­lyze the 2013 Supreme Court deci­sion which gut­ted the heart of that law or explore tac­tics like Voter ID laws which sup­press the abil­ity to vote.  Sim­i­larly, focus­ing on the impor­tance of youth involve­ment and lead­er­ship in all aspects of the Civil Rights Move­ment allows for an oppor­tu­nity to learn about cur­rent activism led by youth.  

We know that no edu­ca­tor has the lux­ury or time to focus on all aspects of King’s life and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment. Choos­ing one spe­cific aspect of King’s life or the Civil Rights Move­ment can give stu­dents more oppor­tu­nity to under­stand and explore, whether focus­ing on Selma or The Children’s Cru­sade or the San­i­ta­tion Work­ers’ Strike in Memphis.

These are just a few exam­ples of the many dif­fer­ent entry points for learn­ing about Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment.  For many, the “go to” entry point is to focus on King’s most famous and most quoted “I Have a Dream” speech, specif­i­cally the end with its lyri­cal, mov­ing rep­e­ti­tion. Because this speech has vivid imagery and phrases that make it easy to teach, it can also be over­sim­pli­fied. We need to go beyond “the Dream” for stu­dents to truly make mean­ing of King’s legacy.  King’s dream was deeply rooted not just in “the Amer­i­can Dream,” but also in that time’s con­text of dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and big­otry.  How­ever we choose to honor King’s legacy this year, stu­dents’ learn­ing should also be rooted in those con­cepts of injustice.

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