Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Was Dr. Seuss Racist?!? Fake News or a Teachable Moment?

Dr. Seuss is an American icon.  My own children have celebrated his birthday every year since kindergarten at their school.  We have read many of his books at home and I have used The Cat in the Hat in my psychology classes to illustrate children's development of consciousness and morality.
This spring I was confronted by a couple of conflicting images from his past:

 
Who was Dr. Seuss?  Was he the artist who was criticizing the American isolationist group, "America First" and their inability to question Hitler's xenophobic attitudes in Germany or was he the propagandist who used racial slurs and Asian stereotypes to depict Japanese-Americans at the time of Japanese internment?  Was he both?  Or was there more to the story?
In my classes, we have two catch phrases, "How do you know what you know?" and "I love history" and they combine to help us ferret out the answers to these questions, while also helping us understand how to see what's fake news and what's not.
 
Most people have no idea of the Dr. Seuss from before The Cat in the Hat, but he drew propaganda cartoons for the US government during World War II.  How do we get that story?
I had my students read the blog post that brought the anti-Japanese cartoon to my attention.  The blog was called "The Angry Asian Man," which told the story of two elementary kids, a brother and sister, who brought flyers about Dr. Seuss' racist past to school to show their classmates that there was more to their favorite author's backstory.  The backstory included his cartoons which had used racist stereotypes to characterize Japanese-Americans at the beginning of World War II.  The kids' great grandparents had been interned, which made their ancestors the targets of Seuss' propaganda.  The kids wanted their classmates to know the rest of Seuss' story and made flyers to educate them.  However, both of their teachers objected to them handing out the information in school and emailed their mother and father explaining what had happened.
The kids' father explained that he and the kids' mother had taught the siblings about Dr. Seuss's propaganda past even though they had read the stories at home.  He also hoped that schools were havens for critical thought, but also pointed out that Seuss had made a change later in life and that he and the kids' mother would have added that part of Seuss' story to the flyer.  In the end he thanked the teacher and moved on.
So, was Dr. Seuss racist?
So, was Dr. Seuss racist?
How do we use the blog post and the cartoon to decide that question?  We have to analyze both.  We start with the big questions:
Text--What is being directly and overtly communicated in the document?  What is it saying?  Summary.
Context--What is the historical context for the document?  Where does it fit in history and why is that important?
Subtext--What is not being directly communicated in the document but is being implied or is being communicated between the lines and how do we know that?
If we can discover the answer to these questions, we can use the document to help us understand our answer to the bigger question, in this case, Was Dr. Seuss racist?
In order to get to the core of these big questions, we use the basic question words to get to the bottom of the document and how it answers our question:
Who?
What?
Where?
When?
How?
Why?
However, those words themselves need to be stretched to get to us to the core of text, context, and subtext.
How about this?






We take the blog post and the America First cartoon and analyze them using the question words to get us to understand what is the text, context, and subtext.
We use what we know to answer the question, Was Dr. Seuss racist?
However, can the students explain whether or not Dr. Seuss was racist in detail?
Not yet.
From there we add a few other documents to the mix.
First, there is a collection of cartoons that Dr. Seuss created before and during World War II, "Dr. Seuss Went to War" then there is an article, "When Dr. Seuss Took On Adolf Hitler," which gives some background (context?) to what Dr. Seuss did during the war.
After working our way through those documents, we analyze three more documents before we make our final judgement, "Can We Forgive Dr. Seuss?" "10 Facts About Horton Hears a Who," and 
"Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons."  After analyzing them, we ask ourselves, are they all equally important to our understanding of Dr. Seuss and can they help us answer our question?
By breaking down Dr. Seuss and his work, we can gain a much better understanding of the "text," in his case, the point of his cartoons, while also gathering the historical context of his work.  After all the docs, we can clearly glean the subtext to what he was saying about the enemy, which illustrated the prevailing mood in the United States during World War II.  We can also clearly use examples to explain how we know what we think and know about Dr. Seuss.
We have been able to gather evidence to explain how we know what we know about Dr. Seuss.
In the end, my students said that Dr. Seuss was neither a racist nor was he not a racist.  They said his work and his life are much more complicated than that.  They did unequivocally say his anti-Japanese cartoons were definitely racist, but that he had a change of heart after visiting Japan after the war.  They also said his children's books are not racist and have been great aids in helping them understand the world.  They also said that all of this was legitimate information, but that some documents were more valid and trustworthy than others.  In other words, the allegation that Dr. Seuss was a racist was not "fake news" but something much more complicated that needed analysis to gain a fuller understanding.  For our class this year, it was definitely a teachable moment and yet another great reason for me to exclaim, "I love history!"
So, what do you think, was Dr. Seuss racist?  Analyze the documents and let me know what you think.
Learning is My Business!


Links from the post:

  1. He Was Not Who You Think
  2. Dr. Seuss goes to War
  3. When Dr. Seuss took on Adolf Hitler
  4. Can We Forgive Dr. Seuss?
  5. 10 Facts About Horton Hears a Who
  6. Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week’ To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons
  7. Analyzing Primary Documents Presentation


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Moving Forward

How do we move forward?  We have a new president who is unlike any before him.  Whether we support him or not, we do not know what he is going to do and how he is going to do it.

We need to have a plan for judging how the new administration moves forward and how to voice our support or dissent.  In order to do this effectively, we need to decide what's important to us, how to judge whether the government is moving in the right direction, and then how to move forward with what we know.

Why should we decide what's important to us?  As I tell my students, I am a history and government teacher who gets paid to watch this stuff and I still can't keep up with it all.  The Representatives and Senators all have staffs with specific areas of focus to keep an eye on all the different issues and concerns.  We private citizens need to focus on what's most important to us and go from there because it's much more manageable and we'll be much more effective.
How do we decide what's important?  We used this KQED resource in my classes to help the students decide.  It has the general Democratic and Republican stances as well as how the American people feel about nine different issues.  If you're still not sure what's most important to you, try I Side With to gain some depth on the issues.
Regarding the issues, how many should be important?  I stress to my students that 1-3 is ideal as one issue is probably too few and will over-focus us on just one issue and more than three issues will stretch us to the point of not being able to really focus our time and energy and allow us to understand what's happening with these issues.
So, now how do we find out if the government is doing what we want it to do on the issues that are most important to us?  We need to follow a range of news sources that give us a fully formed understanding of what and how the government is doing what it's doing.  Let's start with this graphic by Vanessa Otero (@vlotero--she also gives us an excellent rationale behind the chart HERE ):

As you can see, the graphic has a vertical axis which rates the journalistic quality and a horizontal axis which rates the partisan bias.  Ideally, we'd all have the time and inclination to read ALL the sources in the top two, middle groups to have both excellent daily news sources and in-depth sources on the longer term issues.  However, as we don't really have the time to focus on more three issues, how are we going to read ALL the BEST news sources?  Short answer, we're not.  We don't have the time!
How do we follow our news sources?  I use Twitter and have used Facebook.  In short, I suggest social media.  Twitter is my chosen source as it's organized by the latest sources first and I can always go to a source's individual feed and see if there's anything I missed.  I can also use the excellent search features by hashtags and by keywords.  

Which ones should we follow?  Well, what do you like?  I like to read, but I also like visuals and interactives as I'm a teacher and I'm often looking for current events for my students, so I lean toward print media first and then I go from there.  The New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, and NPR are my first sources for national news.  I also go to the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times for a California perspective on big stories and of course California stories.  From there, I follow the Fresno Bee for local news as well as the Modesto Bee and Sacramento Bee for Central Valley news and California state news.
Those are my starting points.  What you need to do is make sure you understand how you like to consume your news.  Do you like to read?  Do you like visuals?  Do you like interactives?  Do you like video?  Check out the different sources from the graphic or from the list above and find out what medium is your favorite and go from there.

Another emerging helpful source for news is YouTube.  You can find daily videos from the major national news sources on YouTube, but the locals are a little less reliable and often are more off beat and human interest.  The national and international news sources are good and getting better but the locals are hit and miss.  Here's a list of what I've found of the best, The New York Times, Washington Post, PBS Newshour, NPR, The EconomistReuters, and the Associated Press.
Now we have our issues and we've found news sources to keep an eye on how the government does or doesn't do what we want.  How do we do something with what we know?

As political scientists say, there are conventional and unconventional forms of political participation and having our voices heard.  For today's post, we'll deal with the conventional forms of communication.  We have the most basic, voting, and then we go from there to calling and writing our representatives.  The best source for finding the contact information for our elected state and federal representatives is Common Cause.  The three best ways to let your elected representatives know how you feel is to either make a phone call to their district or state office or to send them a snail mail letter or a personal email to their district or state office.  The local offices get much less traffic and your phone call will be answered by a human and your letter will be read and will get a response. The visual below from the Philadelphia Inquirer illustrates these ideas.
What should we do, call or write?  From what I've heard from Congressional staffers, the representatives and aides respond to those types of communication that show more effort and thought.  They definitely don't pay much attention to online petitions, Tweets, and Facebook as much as those forms of communication are much more easily sent and often sent in the heat of the moment without much thought.
The next post will cover the next two aspects of this political conversation, when should we communicate our ideas and attitudes and what to do beyond calling or writing our representatives.
Thank you for reading and please let me know what you think.  As always, Learning is My Business...

Check these sources for more on how to contact our representatives: