Exploring Children’s Literature in the Elementary Reading Program
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In the underlying cause of misconceptions in the Children’s literature journey of exploring, issues that may be encountered in the midst depends on how the literature text is conceived or taken. “Every stage from primary schooling onwards including the structure of the syllabi, the content of textbooks and the teacher training, would be governed by a bureaucracy.” (Menon, 2003) Children’s publishing, unlike adults’ publishing, is about negotiating cultural spaces in a very fundamental and active manner. To my mind, in the world of adult publishing, this negotiation is an intensively personal one between the writer and the reader. But in children’s publishing, this negotiation is a collaborative effort – between the writer, editor, illustrator, teachers, parents, and young readers.
The cultural space is defined by all these participants and complicating the issue further is the fact that children when they begin to learn to read possess many literacies already. These literacies are often acquired through the popular culture narratives they encounter from the time they are born. Every community has a rich popular culture – whether urban, rural, rich, poor, born out of a narrative desire at an individual and collective level. In psychoanalytical terms, we understand that this is a response to a series of deep drives, anxieties, and desires which lie in our unconscious mind. Children enter schools with literacies acquired through their encounters with their environment. These are often the given that they bring to their learning of reading and writing skills in school.
They now encounter other kinds of texts in their books – both in textbooks and storybooks. The literacy practices in schools teach reading and writing skills and give it like a handy toolkit to children to unlock standardized texts in their books. Children’s books can become sites of negotiation and transformation, every text they encounter leading them to new literacies. In the absence of imaginative texts, children acquire a kind of dominant literacy which reinforce the same values and morals of the popular culture they have been exposed. This often tends to continue unchallenged for the rest of their lives. Class, caste and gender stereotypes and biases are further reinforced and seldom challenged by the books they read. (Menon, 2003) The different literacies some children come with, often rich and culturally rooted, that is outside the prevailing dominant literacy, are subsumed by an alienating literacy at school – a literacy delivered through an unimaginative education system and reinforced by equally unimaginative books. Children’s books seem to be an offshoot of popular culture rather than a creative alternative. To understand why this is so it is useful to explore the historical and sociological reasons briefly.
The initial experiences of literature begin in the home, with the parent. This begins with the reading of stories to children at a young age. In many instances, the child picks up on different wording and other signs and symbols, such as wording relations to pictures. The education of the pre-colonial child was entrusted to teachers who were highly respected. The Hindu teachers were the pandits and the Muslim teachers were the maulivis. The division was not rigid then, as Hindu students went to a maulivi or Muslim students went to pandits depending on who was the best teacher in the village Children from rich homes were taught by teachers who came home or they went to the house of a teacher with other children. (Johnson, 2014)
The teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction as a means of civilizing the natives and training them for working in the middle and lower rungs of colonial administration. Schools had to conform to the syllabus and textbooks prescribed by the colonial government if they wanted government aid. Impersonal, centralized examinations would be used to assess the student’s performance. And with this clearly stated agenda, the foundation was laid for an education system whose impact is so far-reaching that we are left coping with the problems it created even today. The textbook culture and a policy of impersonal, centralized examination system were the creation of the British. Each reinforced and legitimized the other while creating a new set of problems:
· An alien curriculum that remained hostile to the student’s milieu.
Created a break between the child and the household changing the entire socialization pattern of the Indian child. Distanced the child from local crafts and occupations and left young people little choice of professions to choose from – clerical, administrative, legal, medical and journalistic and as an offshoot, political. Curriculum content was decided on the basis of what could be assessed by an examiner unknown to the student. This effectively kept out all practical and vocational skills.
With this aspect of learning, it is similar to the new system of learning in the United States that many have converted to use. The textbooks written for teaching English used literary pieces whose idiom and images were steeped either in a Victorian world or the natural world of Wordsworth and his early contemporaries. Neither of the two worlds was accessible to the average Indian child. Learning English meant an enormous and continuous effort, which left no time or energy to grapple with the subject matter of other school disciplines.
The literary study was favored in schools and colleges – fitted nicely into the frame of text-book culture and exams based on essay-type answers. For the colonizers, it was also a useful instrument of acculturation. Texts of this kind could not be read for meaning; they could only be memorized. This privileged the upper-caste sections further as their pedagogical practices were based on memorizing Sanskrit or Persian texts as we have seen.
Historical Context & Early Examples of Children’s Books
Greater sophistication, or simply a new necessity introduced new themes to folklore. Tales of the Roman gods and Celtic legends, for example, shifted with time. Christianity’s extensive sweeping of Europe and connected regions meant that stories, especially those who had long functioned as a guide to understanding, morphed into adjusted accounts.
The United States was still in the infantile stages of nationhood. In addition to the Manifest Destiny and urbanization were reform movement, evangelical religion, and the debate over slavery. Thus, during this unsettling time in the new nation, “It was clear to thoughtful Americans that the permanent support of democratic institutions lay in the public virtue and equally clear that public virtue depended upon the character of private citizens.”
“The process of ‘primary’ socialization – the child’s basic induction into the group ways – is likely to be a source of tension and concern in any society. A considerable measure of success in the socializing process – marked conformity to behavioral norms as well as the desire to conform with a minimum of compulsion – is a necessary condition for maintaining the existence of a group at the level of behavior but more especially at the level of value and belief.’
The time period was one of cultivating the perfect little lady or gentleman. Virtues of the noble class were written into fictitious tales with distinct prominence. The body of work spawning from a disciplined mindset was rather tame, but simultaneously, an influx of adventure stories cropped up in literary circles.
As the fantasy genre became a staple of the children’s literature circles, an explosion of variability inundated the available books for children. Significant publications from the nineteenth century proved children’s books could have literary merit, but the first decades of the twentieth century allowed children’s literature to truly flourish, to come into its own as a district division of commendable works.
What Defines Children’s Literature?
One of the most important facets of children’s literature is that children’s minds are engaged, leading them to become devoted and independent readers. Thus, a simple pastime has the capabilities of becoming a deep-rooted passion for good literature. A child’s connection to literature first begins with hearing stories and associating the illustrations to the storyline. With time, a child can recall the action and tie in the words until they can read the story themselves.
Literature for beginning and young readers must have a distinction from adult literature. Children fundamentally want to gain pleasure from reading or hearing a story, as does any other audience. In direct correlation to age and thus life experiences, children have restricted knowledge of the world. Authors of children’s books are very mindful of this by tailoring stories to suffice with vocabulary discrepancies and inadequacies as well as a sometimes waning attention span. (D., n.d.)
Nevertheless, these adjustments do not detract from the book’s quality. After all, it is the grownup that functions as the ‘authoritative’ audience. “The adult,” May argues, “who knows about story structure, about genres, about rhetorical style, and who searches for the opinion of others, is often asked to evaluate children’s literature.”
What is the Problem?
Today, the majority of classrooms for preschool, kindergarten and primary age children are required to address content standards that prescribe what children are expected to learn. These standards are intended to ensure that worthwhile subject matter is taught. Performance standards have been developed to find out if children have learned the prescribed content. While standards are helpful for identifying valuable content, they can also have a negative impact on children and programs. Some of the problems with standards are that they are not always based on knowledge of how children grow and learn, and often do not take into account children’s needs, capacities, cultures, and unique characteristics. Standards can lead to the teaching of skills in ways that are not effective or meaningful, to the narrowing of the curriculum, and to less time for play and hands-on learning experiences that are important foundations for later school success.
It is useful to find out if children have learned the prescribed content, but the way this is most often done is through testing – which also can have a negative impact on children and programs. One of the major problems with the tests is that they are often not based on knowledge of child development and are therefore not suited to the developmental abilities of young children. Another problem is that tests can only measure a narrow range of knowledge and skills, so they often miss important objectives of early childhood education like creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development. Teachers who want children to do well on tests may eliminate worthwhile learning experiences, introduce skills too early, or narrow the curriculum in order to ‘teach to the test’. Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and – along with the – children’s natural motivation and love of learning.
“Often times tests only measure a narrow range of knowledge and skills, so they often miss important objectives of early childhood education like creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development, “ says the author of Defending the Early Years Project. In this case, the author is saying that these aspects go unmeasured because they are mostly unmeasurable. Each aspect, creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development, all fall under a bracket of ‘ depending upon the situation’. What is meant by this is, that if a certain question or problem occurs each objective has a different outcome per situation. These objectives are important and can be measured daily.
In many cases, as teachers, we fail to see or think that ‘I may not directly test these aspects of the learning environment to grade them directly, but informally I can.’ From the perspective of me, I think that these objectives can be measured and tested into the learning environment. It is important that teachers of young children have a strong academic background in the study of play to best evaluate problems and offer appropriate support to children who have a hard time playing, such as children with physical disabilities. A well-organized environment should enhance children’s development through learning and play. The physical environment allows growth and development through activities and materials in defined play areas. The physical environment is a direct image of the teacher’s planning and the student’s learning. It is where both teachers and students will spend most of their time and a place where they can call their own and relate to. It should be well organized, comfortable, and personable and offer a variety of manipulates for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.
Another problem with literature standards is that they are not always based on knowledge of how children grow and learn, and often do not take into account children’s needs capacities, cultures, and unique characteristics. In an important sense, education can be viewed as the journey from natal culture to school culture to the culture of the larger society. Education inevitably involves cognitive socialization, that is, learning the repertoires of cognitive skills that are required for successful functioning in the dominant culture. In some communities, children are seldom direct conversational partners with adults; children eavesdrop on adults, while older children take on the task of directly teaching social and intellectual skills. Children from these cultural backgrounds are not nearly as likely to show their actual verbal ability in assessment situations based on the elicited response model as those for whom question and answer is a familiar ritual. Culture also plays a role in determining which cues are most salient to children. (Read “ Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, n.d.)
Depending on how the literature text is conceived or taken, many issues may be encountered in the underlying cause of misconceptions in the children’s literature journey of exploring. Children enter schools with literacies acquired through their encounters with their environment. Major problems that occur with children’s literature is the majority of classrooms for preschool, kindergarten, and primary age children are required to address content standards that prescribe what children are expected to learn. Another problem with literature standards is that they are not always based on knowledge of how children grow and learn, and after do not take into account children’s needs capacities, cultures, and unique characteristics.