Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Little House, Long Shadow Book Discussion - Chapter 4

Fellman focuses Chapter 4 on how the Little House books have been used in the classroom: the reading of them and the activities based upon them. Through the 1990s, the Little House books were very much a part of the classroom scene in the United States. Changes in curriculum, changes in the textbook publishing industry, and recent government regulations affecting the teaching of reading are cited by Fellman as making the books less ubiquitous in classrooms since 2000 than they were in the previous fifty years.

The author admits it is impossible to make the connection between what children read in school and their beliefs as adults. She hopes to show, however, that the reading of Wilder’s books at school has made “individualist interpretations of the texts possible and appealing.” Because teachers like how these books teach values without preaching, the Little House books are seen as embodying universal truths, and as providing a “valuable introduction to an important chapter of U.S. history.”

One very interesting thing that Fellman mentions is that the acceptance of the books didn’t come out of nowhere, but that conditions were right for the books to make their mark in the educational system as well as in individual homes. We are taken back to the early 20th century to where young people’s leisure reading tastes were formed by experts in literature instead of the children; where children’s services in public libraries and libraries in elementary schools were being introduced; and Macmillan established the first children’s book division in 1918. After WWI, editors of children’s books were appointed at major publishing houses. 

During the Progressive Era, there were efforts to impose standards on what children read for pleasure. “Basal materials, with carefully chosen reading selections keyed to children’s cognitive and social development and accompanied by step-by-step guides for the teacher,” were used from the 1930s into the early 1990s. Schools became an important market share for publishers. The Little House books became a favorite with librarians, teachers, critics, and children as a result. Readers identified with Laura. The books also grew with them. Because of the positive elements in Wilder’s books, experts saw them as appropriate to include in basal readers. In the 1980s and 1990s, basal readers came under attack. Teachers were relying on them too much. So now, teachers were encouraged to get children to read complete books by reading books aloud in class.

Fellman touches upon the discontent with history and social studies texts used in American classrooms. Some teachers support historical fiction to help teach history to students, claiming the need to harness the power of narrative when teaching children. The Little House books are considered, “the best loved of all American historical fiction.” The challenge for some teachers is the books’ depiction of Indians. This brings the discussion back to basal readers and the particular selections from the Little House books that are used. In the end, teachers are important to what students derive from assigned materials. Fellman states there is ample evidence to suggest that “the choices of books that teachers make for their classrooms, access to those books, and the presentation and discussion of them affect the responses expressed by the children.”

My thoughts: As someone who works in publishing, I found a lot of this chapter interesting. It also helped me to understand how education has changed since I was in school versus how it is for my children now. Teachers remain influential in what children get out of the books and excerpts they read at school.

The one thing I keep coming back to, however, is what I feel is an unfair depiction of the books as being prejudiced against Indians. The fears Caroline felt toward Native Americans was based upon real danger at the time. Laura's fascination with a culture different than her own never made me feel she looked down on anyone. As a child, she was curious about how these people lived and what they were like.

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