Guest Post by Debbie Levy
Visitors to this blog who are in the teaching and reading professions know—better than I—of the movement among literacy experts to give children more so-called “risky” texts to read, listen to, and discuss. By definition, risky texts raise difficult issues, and these educators say that kids can handle them, when the books are age-appropriate.
Risky texts might raise feelings of sadness, guilt, or anger, even among young readers. That’s the risky part.
But in my view, and the view of many others, the benefits can far outweigh the drawbacks. Quoting an academic paper I read recently: risky texts “can help students learn about . . . injustices, make connections to their own lives and broader social contexts, and consider potential actions to redress these injustices.” They also promote empathy and a moral sensibility to the sufferings of others.
I didn’t set out to write a “risky book” when I wrote We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, a picture book about how voices upon voices over years upon years built up this famous song like a collage. The book describes how this song came to be and how it helped the people who sang it while they fought against injustice—and how it still helps people today.
The book starts like this:
Back in slavery times—
when enslaved people worked long days
with no pay and no say,
no freedom, no fairness,
no choice and no chance—
the people sang.
They suffered, yet they sang—
to soothe the hurt,
to fight the cruelty,
to declare that—yes!—they were human beings.
Each spread has lyrics from the song, or precursor of the song. The book travels through different historical events and times in which the song evolved and played a part.
I didn’t think of it as a risky book.
But this past August I received a letter about the book—about this page:
The text, if you can’t read it in the image, reads as follows:
It took a war—the Civil War—to end slavery.
But even after,
white people treated black people
as less than fully human,
excluding them, ignoring them,
even attacking them,
all because of the color of their skin.
Black people were no longer slaves,
it was true.
But they were not truly free.
Still they believed things would get better.
Still they sang.
As I said, I received a letter.
“Hello,” the letter began, “at work we had a book fair, and I purchased your book We Shall Overcome. My mouth dropped on page 7, and I had to put the book down! . . . Why didn’t it just say, after the civil war, ‘people’ still had a hard time getting along or understanding. Why did you have to be so . . . I don’t have words. . . . I thought the book would be shocking to read to my grandson.”
Now, I wouldn’t want to take the approach this letter-writer wanted: to suggest that the problem after the Civil War was that people had a hard time getting along. The problem was racism, and although this book doesn’t use –ism words, I wanted readers to know that white-on-black prejudice was the problem. It wasn’t a matter of simply not getting along.
Reasonable minds can certainly differ on what a particular child should read. And, of course, a grandmother should choose what she’s comfortable reading to her grandchild. But I do want children to know and to face truths, even uncomfortable ones. I think they are capable. And I think that facing truths is something that goes on, and should go on, in our schools. Which brings me to using this book in the classroom—both as part of social justice education and to get kids writing about how to respond to injustice.
In my own interactions with young students around this book, I’ve found that they don’t necessarily grasp the notion of racial bigotry at first. (Not a bad form of ignorance!) But we do need to introduce them to this part of our history, which, as we adults know, isn’t really a thing of the past.
So, with the younger students, I like to begin by talking about unfairness, with some “what if?” questions. What if you couldn’t go to your favorite park because of your hair color? Had to sit apart in school or on bus or in movies because you go to a different church—or don’t go to church? Couldn’t go to the place where they serve the best ice cream in town because only blue people can and you are orange?
They giggle, but they get it. And then I talk about how, not so long ago, restaurants could refuse to serve you a meal if you were African American. I explain that, in those days, if you were African American, if you were Mexican American—you could not drink out of the same water fountains as white people in some parts of the country. (I share photographs of these and other segregationist practices. They are easy to find on the Internet.)
So, I ask the kids, what’s unfair about all this? Write a letter to persuade the people in charge—the owner of a restaurant or theater or ice cream parlor, the superintendent of a county park, the president of the bus company—to allow equal access to these places.
And I ask: if you were being treated so unfairly, or if someone you loved were, how would you feel? Write a diary entry about this.
We can agree that being treating this unfairly could make you so angry and frustrated that you might want to fight. But fighting with your fists could create even more problems for you and it probably wouldn’t get you what you wanted.
So, I ask the students, how can you fight with your brain? This is a good question to discuss in a group. And it’s a good question to lead into reading my book, because the story of the song “We Shall Overcome” is in part the story of the ways people in the civil rights movement thoughtfully fought against race discrimination.
After reading the book and after singing the song, I ask: why was singing part of the fight against unfairness? (I have my answers. Singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard. And singing can give you courage and can lift your spirits—especially if you’re singing with others. But I want to know what the students think.)
Two more writing activities after reading the book:
Write a journal entry from the point of view of a person who lived through one of the time periods in the story and timeline. It can be someone who participated in the struggle. It can be someone on the sidelines. Someone black, someone white.
Write your own new verses for the song, verses that respond to problems you see in your or community today. (Bullying comes to mind. Social shaming, too. But let’s see what’s on the students’ minds!)
This last activity is my favorite. The song’s structure is simplicity itself, so everyone can succeed at this. I like encouraging the idea that everyone can author his or own lyrics about fighting injustice. And the lyrics can lead to a discussion of these difficult issues. The new verses, like “We will stand with you,” or “We are on your side,” are among the rewards for taking on a “risky” subject.
Debbie Levy is the author of more than twenty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young people, including the Jane Addams Award Honor book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, and the Sydney Taylor Notable book, The Year of Goodbyes. Visit http://debbielevybooks.com/