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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide
 

Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I

TEXTBOOK REVIEW:
CRITERIA FOR ALASKAN CLASSROOM TEACHERS

by

Conny Katasse
Anchorage Community College
University of Alaska, Anchorage

“Our texts place a heavy load on any child who cannot identify with the white ethnocentric point of view. When children feel that their forebearers didn’t count in molding the past, they feel that they have little chance to shape the future. It is the responsibility of textbooks and other teaching materials to make all children feel their true importance.”

Foundation for Change
“Guide to Racism Rating”
Testing Texts for Racism

Introduction

Any Alaskan classroom teacher who agrees with the quotation on the preceding page is probably aware of the need for standards or criteria to aid her/him in the development and selection of instructional materials. The first textbook review committees were born during the 1960’s Civil Rights movements, but many such committees also exist today, functioning in advisory (most prevalent) or policy-making (less frequent) capacity in cooperation with local school boards, Indian Education Act programs, and special interest groups advocating the needs and interests of minority students. Organizations such as the Foundation for Change, Inc. and The Council on Interracial Books for Children have undertaken the task of disseminating guidelines for textbook and supplemental reading evaluation. The National Council of Teachers of English and other national educational conferences have addressed the problems of racism and bias in the teaching of English and the content areas. In a special gesture, the State of Montana amended its constitution in order to recognize “the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians” and to commit “in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”1

Where does this widespread professional interest in textbook review leave the Alaskan classroom teacher? Probably back where she/he started- anxious to examine her/his own materials for accuracy and honesty, but unsure of how to proceed. Despite national awareness of the need for textbook evaluation, teachers typically receive no coursework or training in review as part of their undergraduate programs in education.2 Ethnic studies and curriculum development projects occasionally address the problem, but it is rare for local school boards to undertake the difficult task of textbook review before being coaxed to do so by minority parents and teachers.3 Consequently, the classroom teacher who is seriously interested in materials evaluation may encounter a school board that, is unable or unwilling to help her/him. In addition, the parents of the students will most likely hold diverse attitudes about the need for standards in textbooks and about what the standards should be.

The information in this report is designed to be read, modified where necessary, and applied by Alaskan classroom teachers in all subject areas and grade levels who want their students to “feel their true importance.”4

Which Materials Should be Evaluated?

Most teachers would probably agree that evaluating all of the materials they use in their classrooms would be a time-consuming, perhaps endless, task. However, continuous materials review should be built into each school day, and teachers will certainly want to work along with students, school personnel, and parents for effective, efficient review.

Generally speaking, any instructional or supplemental (enrichment) material which will be made available to students needs to be thoroughly examined by their teacher. Books, newspapers, magazines, other periodicals, films, filmstrips, slides, tapes, records, workbooks, programmed learning packages, games, and activity kits deserve equivalent examination and review procedures. Social studies materials and all kinds of literature frequently attract the attention of textbook review committees, particularly because of inaccurate portrayal of the contribution of Black and Native Americans. In Alaska, materials which depict the traditional and modern lives of Alaska Natives (Eskimos, Aleuts, Athapaskans, Tlingits, Haidas, and Tsimpsians) warrant special attention, and in any locale, teachers should scrutinize carefully the materials which describe the so-called minority and majority groups in the immediate area.

In an effort to limit its review project to a workable scope, the American Indian Historical Society’s all-Indian organization of scholars and historians held a conference to establish criteria for the adoption of books in history and social sciences in 1965. This textbook correction program opened up the whole state of affairs concerning education ABOUT Native peoples; it is also blamed publishers, educational writers, and school administrators for failure to provide accurate classroom instructional materials. A direct result of the conference was the creation of an independent Indian publishing house, the Indian Historian Press, Inc.

By centering its efforts solely on textbooks, the American Indian Historical Society became the first organization to recognize “a difference between a book for general readership and one accepted for classroom use.”5 The Society maintained that books for “free reading” by the general readership need to provide the individual with choices, even if these choices include misinformation, distortions, or omissions of important history. Students, on the other hand, are compelled to study from approved textbooks, and “in this case, we have a right to insist upon truth, accuracy, and objectivity.”6

The following statement, summarizing the viewpoint of the American Indian Historical Society, is accepted by the majority of the textbook review committees surveyed by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Nevertheless, a growing number of committees are extending their pre-screening authority to include supplemental and non-textbook instructional materials.

We . . . believe everyone has the right to his opinion. A person also has the right to be wrong. But a textbook has no right to be wrong, or to lie, hide the truth, or falsify history, or insult and malign a whole race of people.7

What is “Racism,” and Whom Does It Hurt?

According to “Definitions of Racism, A Contemporary Glossary” published by the Foundation for Change, racism is more powerful than racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of color can be racist-if the force required to carry out systematic discriminatory practices is present. In other words, “power + prejudice = racism.”8 There are various kinds of racism, too, such as institutional, individual, White, and paternalistic; and some people classify sexism as a subcategory of racism. Most important to the classroom teacher, racism in textbooks can be identified without long years of special training. An open mind and a thorough background in her/his subject area are the teacher’s essential ingredients for useful textbook review.

Slurs and halftruths about non-White and other minority groups are often easier to spot than slights or omissions. Textbooks have given generations of American students the mistaken notion that nothing important happened in the “New World” until the continent was “discovered” by White Men. Most history books tell only the story of European occupation of North America from a one-sided point of view:

Native Americans (Indians) become important only when they block the path of expanding white domination; Mexican Americans (Chicanos) get attention only when Whites are ready to take over the Southwest; and Blacks make history only when they pose problems as slaves or modern-day militants.9

Alaska Natives are hardly mentioned at all, and this restricted view of history fosters the development of White ethnocentrism by assuming that a superior role for Whites is needed to fulfill America’s destiny. While recent textbook revisions have corrected some glaring errors, teachers must search for books which treat minorities as a basic part of American history. “History through whose eyes?” is a question that social studies teachers should constantly ask of their books and their own classroom presentations. Teachers-and their students-should also be alert for stereotyped definitions which often appear in racist social studies books: Is a primitive any dark-skinned, half-naked person who utters strange sounds while a proud White male discovers the shore by planting his country’s flag in the sand? Does progress for White people deny a land of plenty to Americans of other colors? Is the word problem used to describe whatever or whoever is troublesome to the Whites in power, and are the problem-makers usually poor, dissatisfied non-Whites?

Other loaded words such as savage, conniving, lazy, treacherous, wily, inscrutable, docile, happy, and patient may be used subtly to refer to minority persons, and students can even make a class project out of checking their texts to find out who gets most of the favorable and unfavorable adjectives.

The “bigger” the book, the more important a check of its index becomes. Does it include Blacks, American Indians, Asian Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Alaska Natives in their own right or only in relation to White society? Are minorities listed separately-or only under such headings as “Slavery,” “Migrant Workers,” or “Wetbacks”? Teachers and students should also be aware that many publishers “pad” indexes: checking is necessary to be sure that each reference is a real one to the group in question, rather than just a passing comment, map citation, or one-sentence footnote. Comparing the number of genuine index entries for all groups, including Whites, will give an indication of the book’s balance-or lack of it.

Analyzing Books for Racism and Sexism

Racist and sexist books and other media distort perceptions until stereotypes and myths about minorities and women are presented as reality. It can be difficult for teachers to question society’s attitudes and to encourage students to discuss racism and sexism in a book. However, discrimination, in the positive sense of the word, is an essential survival skill for modern children and adults; knowledge about and respect for the similarities and differences among human beings are values that develop slowly over the experiences of a child’s lifetime, particularly her/his school experiences since many children do not see “different” people in their neighborhoods.

The following guidelines for detecting racist and sexist biases in children’s materials are excerpted from the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, vol. V. no. 3, 1974. Criteria for picturebooks, primers, and fiction are contained in Part I, with additional standards for school books and reference works outlined in Part II.

PART I: Children’s Free-Reading Materials

1. Check the illustrations for stereotyped oversimplifications of particular groups, races, or sexes. Watch for pictures with characters that are demeaned or ridiculed because of race or sex. Be on the lookout for tokenism, non-White characters with White features on slightly tinted faces. Examine the lifestyles of minority characters and their settings (such as “dirty” houses) for unfavorable, yet unstated, bias. Are minorities always associated with ghettos or primitive village living? Or do stories which to attempt to depict other cultures go beyond generalizations and offer real insights into different lifestyles?

2. Check the story line.

  1. Relationships: Do Whites function in power- and decision-making roles while minorities serve in subservient positions?
  2. Standard for success: Do non-White characters have to exhibit superior qualities to succeed? Does the non-White in a friendship do most of the understanding and forgiving?
  3. Viewpoint: Are minority people considered “problems” where solutions ultimately depend upon White benevolence?
  4. Sexism: Are achievements of women and girls based on their initiative and intelligence rather than on their good looks or relationship with boys? Are sex roles incidental or paramount to characterization and plot: that is, could the same story be told if sex roles were reversed?

3. Ponder the effects of the book on the self-image and self-esteem of children; sometimes books establish overt or covert norms which limit children’s aspirations and self-concept.

4. Consider the author’s and illustrator’s credentials. Read the book jacket and check the author’s qualifications to deal with minority themes and other topics. Books ABOUT minorities and women but not written BY them should be very closely examined-even if their stated purpose is to present the majority opinion. (NOTE: These observations do not preclude the ability of writers and illustrators to empathize with the experiences of people with different sexes and racial heritage, but the chances for honesty and authenticity are probably not as good.)

5. Examine the copyright date. Lots of hastily written books on minority themes appeared in the wake of the 1960’s Civil Rights movements; many were composed by White authors and have obviously White viewpoints. The children’s book world reflects only remotely the realities of a multicultural, multi-racial society, and “it has just begun to reflect feminists’ concerns.”10 Of course, there is no guarantee that a book with a recent copyright date is relevant or sensitive. But books are usually written one to five years before they are published, and this time lag is important in the field of children’s books, where awareness and conscious elimination of bias is increasing daily.

PART II: School Texts

6. Determine the author’s perspective. There is no such thing as a truly objective account of anything; every story is told from some point of view. White, European male perspectives dominate certain content areas, and this has influenced the content and presentation of instructional material. Naturally, there is more likelihood that a textbook will reflect the contributions and values of a multi-ethnic society if minority authors help to produce it.

7. Note the copyright date, remembering that it takes much longer to produce a textbook than a story book. In addition, the first (or oldest) date given on the copyright page is the one you should notice; although publishers are occasionally willing to make necessary (and costly) revisions of older editions, “editing out” viewpoints which are pervasively racist or sexist is nearly impossible.

8. Watch for loaded words, especially those which “purr” at majority characters or persons and “snarl” at minorities. Sexist language encompasses adjectives that ridicule women and, in some cases, the use of the male pronoun to refer to both males and females. The generic use of the words “man,” and “mankind” was once accepted, but its exclusive use today is usually interpreted as an indication of the writer’s lack of awareness.

9. Notice the heroes and heroines. Textbooks, in particular, seem to limit themselves to “safe” minority heroes and heroines-those who avoided serious conflict with the White establishment of their times. Today minority groups are maintaining that they should define their own heroes and heroines, based on their cultural values and struggles for justice. Always double-check indexes to be sure that names cited therein are actually included in the text and treated in full rather than fleetingly or disparagingly.

Additional Criteria for Reading and Literature

By comparison with social studies materials, English and language arts materials might seem to contain insignificant amounts of racism and bias. In reality, it is through language arts materials that most students receive “images” as well as “information” about themselves and other persons, races, and cultures. It is essential that these educational materials foster in each student a sense of her/his personal dignity and an understanding of the positive aspects of diversity in American society. In many areas, including a number of Alaskan villages, bilingual materials are the only answer for Native students, but conventional English courses and reading programs still need revision. Because many elementary, secondary, and college courses are organized around an anthology or basic text, the National Council of Teachers of English Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English recommends the following criteria for materials in the language arts fields:

1. Literature anthologies to be used as basic texts and having inclusive titles and/or introductions (such as American Literature, A Survey Course) must be balanced (reflecting diversity of style, subject matter, and social and cultural view) and fair (more than tokenly representative of all groups). In other words, works by non-Whites must be included, in substantial numbers, to avoid the implication that members of these groups are less worthy or significant than White American writers.

2. Hostile or sentimental depictions of non-White groups must be balanced with realistic ones.

3. In collections where any writer is represented by only one selection, the basis for its inclusion must be made clear.

4. When a dialect of English appears, it must not be exaggerated or inconsistent, but appropriate to the setting and the character (for fiction). Non-fictional materials written in dialects of English need not be ignored; however, they must be presented accurately with appropriate attention paid to the writer’s purpose, audience, and subject. Representations of the speech of bilingual Americans should not be suggestive of cultural insensitivity.

5. Editorial and critical commentary must depict in full the role played by non-White writers in continuing literary development, and literary criticism must draw as heavily as possible from the critical writings of non-Whites.

6. Historical commentary and interpretations must not present idealized or otherwise distorted pictures of social and political history out of which Americans have written and are writing.

Specific Criteria for Children’s Literature

“Literature is what learning to read is all about!”
“Children’s literature makes a definite contribution toward creative development in boys and girls. . .”
“True literature stimulates the imagination. . .”

These quotations from James A. Smith’s Adventures in Communication11 describe the place of literature in the education of children. Good children’s literature possesses the following characteristics:

IT CAN

  1. stimulate children to write for themselves.
  2. provide a means of therapy for troubled children.
  3. help build skills in expression, defining, and elaboration.
  4. help build a colorful vocabulary.
  5. become the basis of constructive daydreaming and problem identification.
  6. make children more discreet in passing judgments and making choices, especially in diction (choice of words).
  7. be a source of creative stimulation.
  8. develop sensitivity to places, sights, sounds, words, lifestyles, and people.
  9. help children build values or standards for creative writing.

Good books should be read, shared, and enjoyed rather than just taught. With the teacher functioning as intermediary between author and audience, the children develop their tastes in reading for pleasure. “Social studies books reach the minds of children, but literature reaches their hearts.”12 According to James A. Smith, good literature recaptures the mood of life and transplants the reader to another time or place. Empathy and projection are developed through good literature, and therefore, literature can be used to complement social studies lessons by providing a “feeling” for a different way of life in addition to the facts about a country or people.

Books read aloud to children must be particularly relevant:

    1. The story should be meaningful to the children and their situation.
    2. It should have a fresh, moving plot or deal with an exciting event.
    3. The story should have uniqueness.
    4. Plausible, direct conversation should tell much of the story.
    5. The characters should be fully developed.
    6. The outcome(s) of the story should appear authentic and believable.13

Honest sentiment, moral values, understanding of children’s abilities, and meaning which continues after the story itself is forgotten are other characteristics of good children’s literature.

Books surveys developed to assist teachers in planning reading programs at various grade levels are useful if they serve as broad guidelines rather than as total programs or policies. Children do tend to have specific interests at different ages, although preferences may vary greatly among individuals and certain groups. Generally speaking, young children like single-plot stories with predictable outcomes, direct conversation, natural climaxes, and single boy heroes or girl heroines. Illustrations are also very important. Older children may develop interests in specific animals, folk literature, historical fiction, biographies, and stories built around a variety of themes taken from real life and the supernatural. Imaginary and real “other children”-with their own characteristics, problems, and backgrounds-are favorite subjects for stories. Teachers should guide but not dominate students in the selection of individual reading materials, choosing from a variety of contemporary and classic, written and recorded media.

Who Evaluates What, for Whom and Why?

One of the purposes of the American Indian Historical Society conference on textbook correction was to determine where the responsibility for honest textbooks lies. The conference concensus was that publishing companies and educational writers and school administrations must share the blame for past inaccuracies, but that all members of any educational community must work together for the improvement of teaching materials.
It follows that the best (that is, the most balanced and fairest) textbook review committees are broadly based, including teachers, students, other school personnel, librarians, administrators, school board members, racial and special interest groups, male and female representation. School districts can establish comprehensive review boards to formulate goals for entire boroughs anci cities, but each school should also have a textbook review committee of its own, with a membership that is representative of that school’s population of teachers, students, parents, and other interested community members.

Because of the complex nature of school communities, textbook review committees seem to function best when they are allowed to determine their own organization, methods of operation, and by-laws. Some offer training workshops in evaluation, while others cooperate with local civil and human rights organizations to disseminate materials on textbook review. Actions which textbook review committees can take include, but are not limited to, these:

    1. Discuss the biases in books with family members, community youth groups, Literary Appreciation Clubs, and other groups; make a point of uncovering hidden messages and implied values in books and other media.
    2. 2. Hold “open” as well as “closed” meetings to exchange ideas with others interested in analyzing books and classroom materials.
    3. Plan school- and community-wide meetings with speakers on racism and sexism; hold workshops for administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Make sure that there is substantial local input to such workshops, particularly in initial planning and implementation stages.
    4. Encourage open analysis of textbooks and other materials rather than pre-censorship in the classroom. Support classroom innovations which lead to the creation and sharing of book “critiques” as well as book reports by students.
    5. Set up special sections for racist and sexist books in the library; let students working in groups decide which books merit special placement. Post book reviews written by students on library shelves.
    6. Write, and let children write, to book publishers, complaining about specific passages and their offensiveness. Send copies of such letters to local newspapers, and urge others to do likewise.
    7. Inform other local, state, and national organizations of your efforts and exchange ideas with other concerned citizens.
    8. Avoid the “all-of-the-people-all-of-the-time” syndrome.

For newly organized textbook review committees, guideline number 8 is perhaps the most important one to remember: textbook evaluation must be performed with rational, realistic judgment as well as with an eye for undue bias. A book which presents stereotyped images may not always be inaccurate or in need of burning. For example, women did function much like slaves in certain periods of history, and a Black man may be lazy, although it is not his “Blackness” which makes him so. Rather than burn all books which contain racist and sexist images, we must teach children to recognize and confront prejudice, to formulate values based on adequate information, and to resist “snap” judgments of human personality. The story of Chiang and Chiquita Applebaum, a brother (?) and sister (?) with unstable personal identities, describes what can happen when a writer yields to special group pressures and tries to contrive a story that will offend no one. The moral of this story is that a children’s story which offends no one also inspires no one and is unrealistic because no honest point of view is represented. This kind of writing is “emptier” than biased writing, which presents only one viewpoint or maintains that one lifestyle is superior to all others.

Conclusion

The most constructive attempts at educational materials evaluation occur every day in the classroom, where students and their teacher discuss textbooks and other media in an honest, discriminating fashion. From these discussions, projects such as the rewriting of local history or the staging of historical skits to correct inaccuracies can develop. One teacher in a New York public school asked her class to re-enact famous events in American history from a non-White viewpoint. Here are some of the springboards that the students used to get started:

  • Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for Native Americans.
  • Harriet Tubman was the greatest heroine of American history.
  • The U.S. government plotted a war against Mexico in order to steal its lands.
  • The U.S. is not helping Puerto Rico to independence-but is helping itself to Puerto Rico.

Other classes of students have participated in restructuring classroom library corners to include more books that appeal to minority (and majority) students. Middle-school children have written book reviews for younger students and designed their own reading lists.

Working with other children on book review projects and “correcting” misleading information is an adventure for most students. Learning not to accept everything in print but at the same time recognizing and appreciating honest, vital literature is a bold undertaking which involves meeting issues such as racism and sexism headon, becoming personally involved with fictional characters and real people, and developing individual tastes in reading by sharing books with others. Children, like textbooks, can be “culturally deprived”-if they know nothing about themselves and their real contribution to culture; if they know nothing about their own history.

Recommendation

What can a teacher, school, school board, and school district do when relevant, unbiased materials about their community are lacking? Conduct a community-wide writing campaign to produce the necessary materials! After some initial training in educational materials design, young and older people working together, in Native languages and English, can enjoy writing, publishing, evaluating, and revising their own textbooks and supplements.

FOOTNOTES

1. Earl J. Barlow. Letter and inserts. Browning, Montana, March 7, 1974.
2. C. Katasse, informal survey in ED 627, summer 1974.
3. Ibid.
4. Foundation for Change, Inc., “Racism Rating: Test Your Textbooks” (flier:
Broadway, N. Y.: Foundation for Change, Inc., 1974-75).
5. American Indian Historical Society, Textbooks and the American Indian (San Francisco. CA: Indian Historian Press, Inc., 1970), p. 11.
6. Ibid.. p. 11.
7. Ibid., p.7.
8. Foundation for Change, Inc.. “Definitions of Racism: A Contemporary Glossary” (flier: Broadway, N. Y.: Foundation for Change, Inc., 1974-75).
9. Foundation for Change. Inc., “Racism Rating: Test Your Textbooks.” front page.
10. Council on Interracial Books for Children, Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, vol. V, no. 3, 1974, p. 6.
11. James A. Smith, Adventures in Communication: Language Arts Methods (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1972), p. 287.
12. Ibid., p. 289.
13. Ibid., pp. 289-290.
14. Foundation for Change, Inc., “Racism Rating: Test Your Textbooks.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

American Indian Historical Society. Textbooks and the American Indian. San Francisco, CA: Indian Historian Press, Inc., 1970.

Barlow, Earl J., Letter and inserts. Browning, Montana, March 7, 1974.

The Council on Interracial Books for Children. Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Issues: vol. 5, nos. 3 and 6, 1974, vol. 6, no. 2, 1975. Broadway, N. Y.

Foundation for Change, Inc. Fliers. Broadway, N. Y.: Foundation for Change, Inc.,
1974-75.

“Black Women Are Proud.”
“Can You Pass This Soul Quiz. . .”
“Chicano and Proud.”
“An Even Chance (film brochure).”
“Indian and Proud.”
“Minorities Versus Courts.”
“Minorities and Education.”
“Minorities and Housing.”
“Minorities and Jobs.”
“Minorities and the News Media.”
“Minorities and Police.”
“Minorities and Prisons.”
“Puerto Rican and Proud.”
“Racism Rating: Test Your Textbooks.”
“Definitions of Racism: A Contemporary Glossary.”

Hoope, Arthur. “Good-bye, Dick and Jane; Hello, Chiang and Chiquita Applebaum,” Learning. August/September, 1974. pp. 99-100.

Isto, Sarah A. (compiler). Cultures in the North: Multi-Media Resource List. Fairbanks: University of Alaska: AEPIC/CNER, April, 1975.

Klein, Norma. Mom, the Wolfman, and Me: Stories for Free Children. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1972.

National Council of Teachers of English. Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. Criteria for Teaching Materials in Reading and English. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1970.

Smith, James A. Adventures in Communication: Language Arts Methods. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.. 1972.

Stensland, Anna Lee. Literature By and About the American Indian: An Annotated Bibliography for Junior and Senior High School Students. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1973.

 

 

 

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Last modified October 7, 2008