The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #44—“Facilitating Conversations on Difficult Topics in the Classroom: Teachers’ Stories of Opening Spaces Using Children’s Literature”—launched to explore how educators can use children’s books to approach complicated, sensitive, and challenging topics with their students. This issue draws on the experiences of real teachers and the diverse titles they’ve used to initiate these types of conversations in their classrooms.
In the Q&A below, guest editors Mollie Welsh Kruger, Co-Chair of the Children’s Book Committee, Bank Street College; Susie Rolander, K–5 Educator, and Literacy Specialist, Bank Street Graduate School of Education; and Susan Stires, Bank Street Graduate School of Education (retired), take us deeper into the theme of this issue and how children’s literature can be a valuable resource in helping children enrich their understanding of the world around them and navigate their complex social, cultural, and emotional worlds.
Q: Bank Street has historically honored and promoted children’s literature as a tool for helping children understand complex issues and make sense of the world around them. Can you summarize the ways children’s literature and the concept of narrative are integrated into the Bank Street approach to teaching and learning?
A: Bank Street’s developmental-interaction approach is a modification of a purely developmental stance toward learners. The “interaction” is about acknowledging students’ developmental levels while simultaneously supplying them with experiences that have the potential to raise the levels of those learners. These actions, in turn, have an effect on the teacher because of the added dimensions that learners bring to the interaction. Therefore, the teacher and students are working together in an integrative woven pedagogy.
In practice, the teacher begins with the students, recognizing that learners bring their stories and seek—or are curious about—knowing others. These stories are part of the exchange and children’s literature comes in as the added dimension to the interaction.
At Bank Street, we believe in the power of story and that narrative has a place in all areas of education. Although children’s literature is a required course for many of our graduate students, other courses, which focused on integrated curriculum for the various content areas, demonstrate and promote the use of children’s literature as well.
Finally, two valuable groups within the College that have existed since the beginning of our institution are the Children’s Book Committee, which evaluates most of the children’s literature published annually, and the Writers Lab, which supports writers of children’s literature. These groups represent the value of story to the institution.
Q: As Kerry Elson and Kindel Turner Nash explored in their essay, sometimes the conversations we envision having with children through literature don’t always pan out the way we hope. Why is it important we still make a conscious effort to initiate those conversations?
A: Teaching and learning are about relationships, and developing relationships involves these interactions because, even if their form is imperfect, they are essential to building understanding. It is always important to open things up and explore when we have a difficult topic to deal with in the classroom. We must know our students. The curriculum is inherent in the students themselves.
What if we don’t have these interactions? Avoiding difficult topics does not help because it leads to a null curriculum. Yet, it is still there in its hidden form. Even when we try and the discussion doesn’t pan out, we have to reflect and ask ourselves: Why? Is it the book? Is it how it was planned/organized? The discussion? Then, we need to go back to re-engage or move on, taking that learning forward to the next opportunity.
Q: The authors in this essay work with children of all ages including young children, adolescents, etc. How does using children’s literature to approach hard-hitting topics change as children grow older?
A: We noticed this change across age groups as we organized the essays for this edition. The approach changes and the literature becomes more expansive as the ideas become more abstract.
These are the elements of child development that educators must understand and act upon as they design their curricular responses and select their literature. In one way, the content changes, but in another way, it stays the same. Many times, the same book can be utilized with different age groups but the conversations will be different.
Q: Oftentimes, families may be sensitive to having their children exposed to tough topics at school. What level of parent engagement is appropriate when deciding what literature to bring into the classroom?
A: Educators need to be aware of the values and culture of the larger community as well as the school’s culture. It is necessary to have a well-planned curriculum that includes information about the curriculum to families. Communicating about curriculum with families also eases possible sensitivity issues. When planning, educators should also include forethought about the possible ways to respond to negative reactions of families to topics that are perceived as difficult or tough—ones that we are also calling important and necessary.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this issue?
A: Our hope for readers is that they benefit from the possibilities and the procedures shared in this edition, appreciating the opportunities along with the nuances of the “how-to.” Since these concerns are laced throughout our society and affect children everywhere, we hope that we have provided our readers with the inspiration and tools for doing this work. The issues are there in our students’ lives and we have to pay attention to supporting them as they make their way in the world.
Further, we hope our readers recognize that they are not alone as they are finding their path and developing their abilities to enact these sensitive engagements with literature and through discussion. Children’s literature is an amazing tool to initiate and/or support discussions. Thanks to our authors of Occasional Paper Series #44, we have provided articles that span across ages, and possibly even for adults. We hope that readers are encouraged to try and take a thoughtful risk. Be brave!