Monday, May 7, 2012

A teachable moment

I am the librarian of the only mostly middle class school in my urban district. My students expressed interest in the Holocaust, and it was near Dr. Seuss’ birthday, so I began with Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, by Richard H. Minear. I have had success using this text with the generational poverty and immigrant students I have worked with in the past, and I was looking forward to working with students who I knew already have a background knowledge of World War II, and who comprehend the larger themes of the works of Dr. Seuss, such as the equal rights message of The Sneetches and Other Stories. We began by discussing Dr. Seuss’ own brushes with antisemitism- he was German, and that was the language spoken in his home. Due to that and that he had a larger nose, many students at his college thought he was Jewish, and he was not accepted by a group (fraternity) that he wanted to join on campus, so he redirected his interests in to the campus paper.

We began by examining Dr. Seuss’s political cartoon on page 58, entitled “The Old Run-Around.” It depicts the struggle minorities had in getting war industry jobs. One label in the cartoon reads” Negro job hunters enter here.” One student, who happens to be African-American, sank in his chair and his expression changed from listening with interest to disbelief. I was thinking through how to approach him regarding his change of expression when he raised his hand. When called on, he asked, “If Dr. Seuss had experienced discrimination, why is he using an awful term for African-Americans?” I was surprised by his question, so I asked him to elaborate. In our discussion, I realized that, since the term “negro” has not been in use for many years, and since it isn’t one of the current preferred terms, he assumed that this was an indication that Theodor Geisel was making a derogatory statement about African-Americans.

Fortunately, my schedule permits me taking advantage of teachable moments! I asked the students to talk to parents, grandparents, and any other older relatives or neighbors about these terms before our next class. Many found connections to those living in the 1940s, and we explored discrimination and terminology. When we were ending our discussion, I asked the student who had the initial question about his view on the use of the word “negro,” and he said he understood- it was the accepted, polite term at that time. He volunteered that he learned a lot about his grandmother that he did not know, and others expressed similar sentiments. Even though the original intention was to explore the cartoons as an opening to Holocaust study, we all felt fortunate to have explored the student’s original impression. An unintended subject, but a valuable experience!

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