I Eat Youth-Owned Culture for Breakfast

In this month's issue of Wired, besides an in-depth look at Craigslist, and an article on "good enough" tech, there was an interesting piece on education reform. In, Revenge of the Nerds, Daniel Roth posits that if we really want to reform education, and create schools that work, then we need to "make them geekier." If the school culture is geek, then the kids who excel are the cool kids and every kid wants to be cool (or, you know, not cornered in dark hallways or vaguely threatened during every passing). Viola - excellence!

Now I could really get into how making schools geekier is a fine idea, but that actual education reform needs to encompass a heck of a lot more than that. How a geekier school doesn't exactly address the myriad issues facing many underachieving kids such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of adequate space and time . . . but I won't because I'm sure that Roth didn't mean his one page fluff piece to be the end all and be all of modern education reform. I'm pretty sure that he realizes that citing the success of two charter schools (which can, and do, cull their student populations from the mainstream, and which have the option of expelling students who aren't working out. Those students end up back at their real public school which is now devoid of all those geeky star-achievers that were drawn to Awesome Charter School . . . see where I'm going with this?) does not a workable plan for reform make. I trust that Roth and the educators he talked with just want us to think about geekifying schools as part of overall education reform that works neighborhood by neighborhood to improve the overall lives and health of the children there.

But I'm not going to talk about that.

What I will comment on is the use of one quote from Tom Vander Ark, a private-equity manager with High Tech Schools, one of the charters mentioned in the article. His solution to geekifying schools (and, thus, saving them) is destroying youth culture. "A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You've got to break that." Roth's reaction? "The result: One hundred percent of High Tech graduates get into college."

Cause and Effect.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Huh. Really?

Hey kids! You know that big consolidated high school? The one that all the kids who didn't get into (or got kicked out of) the charters go to? The one with serious financial issues? With all the new, inexperienced teachers? The only school in the area to offer state and federally mandated services to English Language Learners and students with special needs? The one with class sizes of 30-40?

Yeah, that one! Did you know it's failing because of you? Once we destroy the youth-owned culture of that school all of you will get into college. Rad, huh?

A youth-owned culture is not a bad thing. Youth are not a monolith, believe it or not. A youth-owned culture will mean very different things at different times and in different places. Teens can be creative, compassionate, loving, involved, intellectual, open-minded, driven, organized, excited, artistic, literary, passionate, informed, and supportive. They can also be cruel, petty, lazy, uninvolved, violent, dismissive, pre-occupied, close-minded, and intolerant.

Instead of working to stamp out youth-owned culture, perhaps we can work to engender a positive one. I want the teens I work with excited and involved in school. I want them helping to run the show. I want them to feel supported in this ownership.

I think that Vander Ark and Roth do, too. I have a sneaking suspicion that the term "youth-owned culture" may refer only to a very specific type of youth culture - one that is imbued with violence and uninterested in education. If so, then they should say so. And maybe stop to consider why that aspect of youth culture is violent and uninterested in education. Until we work to address the underlying issues affecting teens attitudes towards and achievement in school, education reform will go no where. All the geekifying in the world won't put food in a hungry kid's mouth, or give them a quiet room with a desk to work in, or keep them from working two jobs to help pay the bills. It won't increase teacher salaries to attract the best and the brightest to the field, it won't lower class sizes, it won't make a full class-set of textbooks and equipment appear. There are bigger issues here.


On Race and Representation

We discussed in class the other night the intersecting issues of race, racism, representation, and censorship in YA lit and public library collections. I wanted to share some thoughts on these issues from the school library media center perspective. Well, my school library media perspective, at least.

For many children, the school library or media center is their home library. It is one they have regular access to, and one designed specifically for their use. As such, it is central to the question of children’s rights to intellectual freedom and access to information. ALA comes down on the side of children, stating that, “although the educational level and program of the school necessarily shapes the resources and services of a school library media program, the principles of the Library Bill of Rights apply equally to all libraries, including school library media programs." So here, we have the Children's Internet Protection Act regulating internet access, while school systems design their own selection criteria for print and other resources.

It is this selection process with which I am concerned. As we work to build our school library collections how can we ensure that we are building inclusive collections that celebrate our society’s wide variety of cultures, traditions, languages, histories, beliefs, and view points? Is there a difference between selecting for bias-free materials and censorship? How do we take into consideration the greater societal impact of the subtle sexism and racism of many text and children’s books without eliminating problematic materials?

This issue has been of concern to teachers and librarians for years. In 1978, the National Council of Teachers wrote a guideline to recognizing and dealing with censorship in our school systems. They describe some forms censorship may take:

"1. Subtle censorship of "selection." The perspective of the individual or group making selections can be one-sided, sometimes from lack of wide knowledge of literature for children, sometimes from a bias against certain types of books or their content, authors, or illustrators.

2. Deliberate exclusion of certain books. Classroom teachers and librarians sometimes fear that community groups or school officials will object to a book. A list of controversial topics has long kept many books out of some schools or libraries entirely, or on special shelves. School librarians sometimes have a storage room for controversial books."

They recommended creating a written selection policy and a procedure to deal with complaints leveled against materials in collaboration with the PTA and community. They also recommend frequent communication between librarians, teachers, administrators and parents concerning books being used in the curriculum, and available in the library. Inviting the public to book talks and discussions on hot-topic books offer a forum for dissenting viewpoints to be heard, without resorting to formal complaint.

In 1981, the NCTE dug further into the heart of my question with their position paper, The Students’ Right to Read. In it, they discuss the growing pressure from the community at large that English teachers faced in text selection. In it, they discuss issues of racial bias:
Literature about ethnic or racial minorities remains "controversial" or "objectionable" to many adults. As long as groups such as Blacks, Indians, Orientals, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans "kept their proper place"--awarded them by an Anglo society--censors rarely raised their voices. But attacks have increased in frequency as minority groups have refused to observe their assigned "place." Though nominally, the criticisms of racial or ethnic literature have usually been directed at "bad language," "suggestive situations," "questionable literary merit," or "ungrammatical English" (usually oblique complaints about the different dialect or culture of a group), the underlying motive for some attacks has unquestionably been racial.

However, here we are still discussing “traditional” censorship: censoring the voice of the minority, the powerless, the dissenting viewpoint, the dialect. Here we have teachers and librarians fighting the power structure and working to even the playing field for traditionally disenfranchised peoples. What happens when, in the interest of plurality and respect, librarians seek to remove biased works from their collections?

Once again, we can turn to the ALA’s interpretation of it’s Bill of Rights:

"Censorship may include removing or not selecting materials because they are considered by some as racist or sexist ... Librarians have an obligation to protect library collections from removal of materials and resources based on personal bias or prejudice.

Intellectual freedom, the essence of equitable library services, provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable."

According to the ALA, the removal, or omission, of works due to bias, prejudicial language, or distortion is a violation of our patrons’ intellectual freedom. ALA has declared that the provisions in the Library Bill of Rights apply to school libraries and media centers, as well as public libraries. However, I think that this interpretation fails to recognize the societal impact of hundreds of years of one very particular viewpoint. It fails to consider the role played by our dominant power-structure in publishing, education, and entertainment. When every textbook a child reads, every informative text in their classroom, the majority of television, movies, and magazines is written from a specific viewpoint that devalues their language, their culture, and their history, I think that it is the responsibility of the school librarian not only to represent other points of view, but to de-emphasize these harmful and repetitive voices.

Children are profoundly influenced by the books they read. The fiction they read informs their world view and their sense of self. The non-fiction texts they read profess to tell them what is true about the world. How irresponsible it would be of a school librarian to stock her shelves with accepted and acceptable lies in the name of tolerance. The problem with keeping, say, The Indian in the Cupboard, on the shelves on it’s artistic merit is how to deal effectively with the incredibly harmful stereotypes is professes. A child who has never known an American Indian, and may never know one, has no existing schema to map this book onto. Offering equal shelf space to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian does not guarantee that this child will ever read it. So I am left not wanting to censor a viewpoint, but recognizing that a) that viewpoint is harmful, and b) that viewpoint is a pervasive force in society and certainly does not cease to exist outside of that one book. Perhaps pairing problematic books with their more enlightened brethren? Or offering book discussion questions with them? Or sending kids to the public library (I kid, I kid!)?

The Baltimore County Public Schools’ selection criteria come
close to riding this selection/censorship line successfully. They state that materials should be:
* Accurate in terms of content: Library media materials should present facts in an objective manner. Authority of the author, organization, publisher/producer should be a consideration in selection. Materials concerning human development and family life should contain facts which are presented in a manner appropriate to the level of the students.
* Reflective of the pluralistic nature of a global society: Library media materials should provide a global perspective and promote diversity as a positive attribute of our society. It is important to include materials by authors and illustrators of all cultures.
* Free of bias and stereotype: Materials should reflect the basic humanity of all people and be free of stereotypes, caricatures, distorted dialect, sexual bias, and other offensive characteristics. Library materials concerning religious, social, and political content should inform rather than indoctrinate.

We, as school library media specialists, are the guardians of the wealth of information available in our libraries. We must make sure that the materials within those walls are helpful, informative, true, and unbiased. This may mean including information we are uncomfortable about, perhaps, on the machinery of warfare or conservative religious ethics. In my opinion, it also means making sure that our stacks are a place of true plurality and not simply an extension of the status quo.


On Chain-link and Children

For many reasons (personal. political, spiritual) I'm am a staunch opponent of the death penalty. In fact, I believe in serious, radical prison reform. It is an issue near and dear to my heart. It is an issue made nearer and dearer by Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy.

I'm not about to pontificate on the death penalty here. I could spend pages explaining how it's more expensive than life without parole; how it does nothing to deter criminal behavior; how an admittedly biased judicial system should not hold peoples' lives in its syringes and cyanide crystals; how, since 1973, 135 people have been found innocent on death row; how the death penalty is administered arbitrarily. But I won't get into that here. Here, I want to talk about teens.

No Choirboy details the circumstances and experiences of six teens on, or formerly on, death row. Their crimes, their trials, and their various prison experiences are beautifully told in their own words. These teens' search for redemption within the cold walls of our brutal prison system is a testament to the will of the human spirit, and the strength of children everywhere.

It's also a pretty damning indictment of a society that, until 2005, deemed it completely moral and just to execute children.

Let's talk about what it means to be an adolescent, because, as close as the numbers may be, teens are not adults. End of story. Research on the adolescent brain has shown us that "areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex -- the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions -- appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties" (italics mine). A study by the National Institute of Mental Health states, "When contemplating risky decisions, they show less activity in regions of the brain that regulate processes involved in decision-making, compared with adults. The areas are among the last to develop and are involved in control of “thinking” functions, including decision-making, and in processing reward-related input and behavior (the orbitofrontal/ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex)" (italics mine).

Not to beat a dead horse, or a dead anything as the case may be, but adolescents are not adults. They don't act like them, think like them, process input like them, feel like them, communicate like them . . . why on earth should they be punished like them? The preferred alternative to the death penalty, now that it is unconstitutional to execute children, is life without parole. But of all the members of society that our prison system should be seeking to rehabilitate and reform, shouldn't it be the youngest and most immature?

When we take into account the fact that the courts are far more likely to try nonwhite youth as adults and more likely to imprison nonwhite youth, it becomes clear that there is something funny about the way society views children of color. There is a tendency to "adultify" children of color. To assign motive and reasoning to their behavior and not to that of white children. This topic is given a wonderful treatment in Ann Ferguson's book Bad Boys: Public Schools and the Making of Black Masculinity. It's also something that I see and hear every day of my working life.

"They're no children"
"They're kids, but they're not kids."
"They're young, but not innocent."
"Children don't act like that."
"No child would say that."
"They're little (fill in the word of your choice: animals, monsters, thugs, pimps, savages, conmen, criminals)."

That last one may not be a statement of "adultification" (depending on which word you chose), but it's in the same line. Kids will be kids, except when they're obviously expressing deep-seated, adult, calculating, criminal intent.

Yes, a kid may have had a rough start in life, may be poor, may live in a tough neighborhood, may not have enough to eat, may have to work, may have been abused, may be very angry about all of that . . . it doesn't make him not a kid.

So we've gone from the death penalty, to adolescent neuroscience, to teen incarceration, to racism in our justice system, to racism and the "adultification" of children of color . . . these issues all intersect and overlap in so many ways, painting a picture of a system (systems, really - educational, judicial, correctional . . .) that is flawed and biased and incredibly powerful. As public servants I think it's important to remember the context in which we work, and to recognize our own biases and prejudices.