By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — A special committee of educators, district administrators, and community members convened at the Marshfield School District office on Wednesday and concluded that three books singled out for further review are appropriate for the school district’s kindergarten curriculum.
When the K-6 social studies curriculum was initially passed by the board of education in July, school board member Mary Carney expressed strong concern over one particular book, Jim Henson’s “For Every Child, a Better World,” which includes images of children living in dire situations and poverty. The other two books — “It’s Not My Fault” by Nancy Carlson and “Being Trustworthy: A Book About Trustworthiness” by Mary Small — were not the topic of scrutiny Wednesday but were reviewed because they were planned for the same week in the curriculum as the Henson book.
“I was directed (by the board of education) to basically review everything in that week,” said the district’s Director of Teaching and Learning Kim Ziembo. “But at that board meeting there was no question at all about those two books (by Small and Carlson).”
The local debate over the Henson book was picked up on by major news outlets across the country on Wednesday, from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Daily News. Carney feels the book’s images of children in bleak situations are not age-appropriate for kindergarten students.
As Hub City Times reported in July, Kirkus Reviews said the following of “For Every Child, a Better World:”
But while the characters are in a cartoon style, they express real emotions, and their settings are composed of realistic elements: a smoke-spewing city where the air is too dirty to breathe, an orderly classroom, an ineffective shelter in a rainstorm, a battlefield with shattered household goods (including a toy bear and the wounded in the background silhouetted against yellow flames). The result is that the concepts are made immediately accessible but not trivialized.
“Some of the committee members described the images as graphic and disturbing and yet still approved this for the curriculum for kindergartners,” Carney said.
Members of Wednesday’s special committee said that while the images may be disturbing, they could be used as teaching tools for children.
Committee member Donna Smith, a second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary, said that the book depicts a reality that is increasingly apparent in Marshfield, which was important for students to recognize.
“The reality is in our classrooms every year we have more and more kids that are homeless and more and more kids that are hungry and more and more kids that are victims of abuse in their households,” Smith said. “When we teach kids at a young age and expose them to that, it’s not scaring them or harming them. It’s creating citizens that are going to be caring and giving.”
“I did find some of those images disturbing, but they’re meant to be,” said committee member Jeannine Warner, a reading teacher at Madison Elementary. “In the hands of a sensitive and caring teacher, the dialogue that follows, … that’s where the learning comes in.”
Carney said that if Henson’s book was to be read to a young child, the reading and following discussion should happen in a home setting between parent and child, not in a classroom.
“I believe young children should see the world for what it truly is — beautiful, good, and hopeful — and their innocence remain intact for as long as possible,” Carney said in July.
The recommendation that all three books be approved for the curriculum will now be passed on to Marshfield School District Superintendent Dee Wells and eventually the full board of education. The topic would then likely be addressed and a final decision made during January’s full board of education meeting, Ziembo said.