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We are not an alternative school.
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The perils of sanitizing literature for our learners


Bhanu Shankar

Jul 12, 2020


Being a facilitator, one is sometimes unsure or uncertain while assigning resources for reading. Facilitators need to realize that there are no right or wrong choices when it comes to picking up resources for learners as long as the literature is age-appropriate. This again, may be contentious for some.

Every teacher, teaching General English in Cambridge will spend a lot of time ruminating over the resources that can be assigned to students. We want literature to sustain and engage our learners’ interest and pull at their hearts’ strings in some way. One such book which I assigned my ninth and eleventh grade learners was Chigoze Obioma’s book: The Fishermen .

I had read it about two months earlier and my son who is also a tutor said that it was a good piece of fiction to assign students. I did have my misgivings though. The story is a rather blunt tale set in Nigeria and has its low moments in the storyline. However, I went ahead and assigned the work nevertheless.

A fortnight later I got a response from one of my learners who observed,” I found the narrative too depressing for my comfort. Therefore, may I start the other book instead?”

When I first got the e-mail, it threw me off because there is in me a tendency to take everything personally and self-criticism was my initial reaction before processing it rationally. After some careful consideration and some deep thought, I realized that the learner was saying ‘no’ to the piece of writing and not to me personally.

In the past I have advised colleagues on assigning reading and I would hear back from them about how this went. The reactions and constructs, were never personal then, even if students liked or disliked stories. It was just a matter of indirect information, as the feedback was not to me but to the learner’s facilitator.

After I got the response from my learner, I had to stop myself from going down the road of self-deprecation and think ‘I should have known better than to assign that work’. In addition, another truth dawned upon me: we want to sanitize everything for our children. Whether it is the environment, the topics we discuss, the stories we tell – we want them all to be happy and joyful. However, there are many other emotions out there that many of our children may probably not experience. In many ways sanitizing our resources may be depriving them of the opportunity to process and face those emotions. I wrote back to the student asking him to let go of the book and read another one. I warned him however, that while the narrative in the second story Markus Zusak's ' The Book Thief ' was distinctly different, it was still set in Nazi Germany and World War 2.

I showed my son the response I had drafted to the learner and he had a valuable suggestion to add: that the learner could perhaps re-visit the book in a couple of weeks if he felt up to it and that ‘part of reading literature is also to make us deal with emotions that we may not be comfortable about’. I realized at that instant, why young teachers connect so effortlessly and efficiently with Gen Z.

We have come a long way in learning. Learning is for us to face the uncomfortable, the often-sticky and not-so-pleasant ideas that we have constantly been trying to brush under the carpet. It is our responsibility as facilitators to create a safe environment for learners where we give them opportunities to discuss all issues, especially the difficult ones. We will be doing a disservice by trying to sanitize issues so as to make them feel comfortable all the time. With a plethora of literature available from every continent in the globe, it is important that we point our learners to a variety of resources for students to experience different kinds of narratives and stories that will help them relate to different people and people being different.

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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

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