teaching

Unpacking The Bad Seed by Jory John

How have I approached unpacking some popular children’s books with my daughter? Check this post out for why this is important and some general critical thinking strategies.

Now, let’s get started with The Bad Seed by Jory John.

In this book, a darker-colored, more masculine presenting seed is criticized for being bad. Most of the good seeds in the book are lighter seeds. In the end, the bad seed starts trying to be good, but sometimes it’s still bad.

When Roya came home with this book, I explained to her why that book bothered me.

  1. First, the seed can be interpreted as a character like a person. If seeds are described as good or bad, that could send a message that a person is either categorically good or bad. (Children shouldn’t be described as bad or good, although their actions or behavior can.)
  2. Next, we talked about how what one person sees as “good,” another person might see as “bad.” I went really simplistic and used TV for my example. Roya would think watching TV all day is good, but I would think having a child watch TV all day is bad. Then we discussed why we would see the same situation differently. Ideally, analyzing good and bad relies on a willingness to learn about other individuals’ experiences, values, and lenses, and an openness to changing your mind. As Roya has started getting older, I’ve begun to connect all of this to historical and contemporary concepts of power and oppression in age-appropriate, brief ways. (This book made me immediately think of the school-to-prison pipeline and #BLM.)
  3. I expanded on my points to share that all seeds make bad decisions at times, not just some seeds. I came up with a few stories about things that the lighter seeds in the book could have done that also were bad choices. Most people make some choices that are bad, and some that are good, right?
  4. Then I talked about how some people can be scared by other individuals’ differences and view those individuals and their choices as bad.

While I was writing this post, Roya asked what I was doing.

Me: Writing about why I’m not a fan of The Bad Seed.

R: But, I love that book!

Me: I know. A lot of kids do. So, think about what the Bad Seed looks like.

R: It’s a dark seed. You’d rather the seed be a peanut or something.

Me: Yes! Now, why would I think having the seed be dark would be a problem?

R: Hmm…It’s like Carmela’s Full of Wishes. They’re books about Black kids that might make people not like Black kids.

Me: Yes, exactly! The Bad Seed might make people think that Black and brown kids are bad, when everyone makes bad decisions sometimes. And Carmela’s Full of Wishes might make people think that all Spanish-speaking families have the same life and jobs as Carmela’s family. If we read things, we might think they are true or true for everyone who looks like the characters in the books. And that could cause people to be treated differently or unfairly, which isn’t good.

I then talked about how this can lead to people making assumptions about BIPOC families and how sometimes BIPOC children, especially boys, are treated differently at schools. Want to read more about why this is important? Google the crib-to-prison or school-to-prison pipeline. Or, explore disciplinary rates by race, gender and ethnicity in your school district. (See number 11 in my post on Doing Diversity Well at Predominantly-White Schools for how to do this.)

I end this conversation with acknowledging that there are always books and shows we enjoy more than others, and that’s okay. But, it’s worth discussing what’s problematic about them, regardless of whether we like them.

What are your family’s thoughts on this book? How have you approached it? Have suggestions for future books for me to blog about? Comment below.

Unpacking Children’s Books

Last month, my feeds were filled with mentions of antiracist books, social justice movies, statements in solidarity, and diverse book and toy purchases for younger loved ones. Are any of these things inherently bad? Of course not! But, it gave me cause to pause. Tre Johnson’s Washington Post article, “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs,” is a thought-provoking read. I find myself asking, “What’s next?” How do those of us who identify and pass as white listen, learn and contribute in a way that doesn’t center whiteness or frame diversity as “diversity for white people”?

In thinking about children’s books in particular, there are significant concerns about how Black writers are treated and paid by the publishing industry and the lack of diverse representation in the field as a whole. 86% of children’s books have white main characters. This is the case despite the fact that children’s books with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) main characters sell, as reported by Dashka Slater for Mother Jones.

I hope that children’s books are unpacked with children. How do parents learn what and how to unpack concepts of race, gender identity, ableism, and class? We need to do our own work first. Read anti-racist resources. Complete an implicit bias test. Research to learn more. I’m thankful for those friends and students who were willing to teach me, but I had to do my own work, too. As a cisgender-heterosexual-white female, I’ve needed to unlearn biases and messages that I’ve received throughout my life.

A book or movie is more than just that. When we read or watch things, they become part of our moral imagination. We began to envision a world like we read or see. What we read or watch can reinforce or challenge our thoughts about ourselves and the world. (For example, there was a student who wrote their capstone on how the casting of a black male as US president in the television show, 24, helped prepare viewers for a black male president before the 2008 election.)

There’s also a downside to our moral imagination at times. How do we read stories by a variety of voices about a myriad of experiences and not assume that one person’s experience is representative of all experiences? How many stories that don’t play into problematic tropes and stereotypes get published? Again, I see this as unlearning biases and discussing what and why tropes are problematic. There’s also a need to recognize that one voice or character is just that — the voice for that one real or fictional individual — and not representative of all experiences of individuals who look or identify similarly.

How can we apply critical thinking skills to how we consume information? I approach children’s texts similarly to how I approach texts that I read or teach. Both what is and what is not included in a writing are important. And, parents and caregivers can also unpack the text as it does or does not apply and relate to their own lenses, values and experiences. If you notice in the questions below, it’s imperative to ask not just who and what, but the why.

Next, I think about how I can unpack all of this in an age-appropriate way with my seven-year-old daughter. I typically let her read books on her own, do a fast skim of what she’s reading at some point, and then discuss the text with her at a separate time.

I’ll find a time when we have five-ten minutes to talk that’s not too late and ask her to share her thoughts about the book. I’ll ask a few follow-up questions to discuss the why behind the characters’ decisions or feelings. Then I’ll share my thoughts about the book. If the text warrants multiple conversations or is a longer chapter book, we’ll talk more about it at later points.

Obviously, you know your child best. But, what books and entertainment you expose your child to and how you frame them are worth considering. If you’re reading a fairy tale, can you take a few minutes after to talk about how cisgender women don’t need saving or provide a few examples of people who found their happily ever after without being in a relationship? If you’re a white family and you’re reading a book with a main character of color, how can you discuss the book without centering whiteness or viewing the character as representative of all BIPOC individuals?

How have I approached unpacking popular children’s books? Click here for my thoughts on The Bad Seed by Jory John.

How have you approached these conversations? What resources have you found to be helpful? Any questions? Please comment below xoxo

My 2015 Recap

A year ago, I focused on how my glass was half full. I was – and am – thankful to be a mom and an educator. Nonetheless, as 2014 drew to a close, there were still a lot of loose ends in my life:

  • Was my breast cyst benign or malignant?
  • Could I physically handle my job? (I only had six days between my lumpectomy and the start of the semester. I had three new classes to teach and 30 more students than the previous semester. And, I still had my usual two migraines a week.) Assuming that I could handle the added responsibilities and that the cyst was benign, would my full-time contract be renewed?
  • Was I really at peace with no longer being in a relationship with The Man? Or, would I return to my old pattern of going back to an ex-boyfriend?
  • How would I fare at being a single mom?
  • Where would Roya get into preschool? (The DC preschool hustle is an interesting process with applications, recommendations and interviews.)

Today, I can reflect on all of those questions and stressors with a huge sigh of relief.

Most importantly, surgery in January revealed that the cyst was benign. My November MRI showed no evidence of cancer. According to my oncologist, I now have the same risk of anyone else my age of getting breast cancer. Breast cancer thus becomes a disease I had, not a disease from which I’m in remission. That matters clinically and psychologically.

On the work front, I’ve been able to handle all of my responsibilities effectively. My contract has been renewed through May 2017, and I get excited every time I head to campus. I recently was asked what I liked best about my students. I paused as I tried not to shed any tears and replied, “How much time do you have?” I know how lucky I am to truly love what I do.

I also appreciate where I am professionally. If an opportunity as a panelist or expert doesn’t benefit my continued role as an instructor, I have the ability to respectfully decline. Choosing what’s been the right fit has led to some amazing opportunities, though. A few highlights:

  • Speaking about The Hunger Games to a sold-out audience at The Smithsonian;
  • Being interviewed by Associated Press about drone technology;
  • Filming a short video for WebMD about what to expect when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer; and
  • Talking about selfies for American Magazine.

With respect to The Man, I do not doubt that we were meant to meet and fall in love. I also do not question that we are no longer meant to be a couple. He was put in my life so that Roya would be born. He was a love in my life, and there will be another in the future. She is the love of my life.

As far as being a single mom, I don’t view that term — or my reality — as a negative. Roya is a great kid, and I’m thankful to be in control of every day and every decision in her life. And, I can exhale, knowing that she ended up in the right preschool for her.

Is our life utopic? Of course not.

Parenting is joyously exhausting (or exhaustingly joyful?). Between Roya’s sleep patterns, grading and curriculum development, a five-hour stretch of sleep is a good night for me. And, it would be nice to have time to see my friends, work out and write. But, I know how privileged I am to say that the toughest parts of my year were lack of sleep, missed brunches, and wanting to fit into my skinny jeans.

stef woods, city girl blogs

As we change the calendar to 2016, I pray that the new year brings Roya and me more of the same. I am truly content with my relationships, my family and my job. I go into 2016 without any loose ends. Roya and I are blessed to be happy and (knock on wood) healthy. I hope the same for you and your loved ones, too. xoxo