How to Discuss Dr. Seuss in the Classroom: An Inquiry Learning Approach
Back in January we posted an article about how to teach the U.S Capitol Attacks to students. It received many positive comments and so much support. In light of recent controversy surrounding the Seuss family’s decision to stop publishing six of Dr. Seuss’s books, we wanted to touch on some ways teachers can discuss these sensitive topics with their students. Students of the 21st century deserve to be included in conversations about topics and issues that affect them and the people around them. Dr. Seuss has recently become a popular topic of conversation, and serves as a great starting point for discussions about themes that students are naturally curious about. Schools should encourage students to voice their opinions about these issues and take part in shaping a new narrative. This is what inquiry learning is all about.
Explore the Issue of Dr. Seuss
As mentioned in our previous article, students need opportunities to talk about these topics and spaces to safely process their feelings and reactions. They need to dive deeper into factors that contribute to these events and decisions, and separate facts from misinformation. In the context of the recent news about Dr. Seuss and his books, teachers should take the time to present the issue to students in a way that is unbiased and objective. Furthermore, it is helpful to provide students with as many perspectives as possible (within your professional judgment).
For example, use the excerpt from our Exploring Dr. Seuss Inquiry pack to explain the issue from people who believe we shouldn’t be removing his books from publication:
“It is important that we recognize Dr. Seuss’s entire career and heritage; this includes elements of racism and stereotypes. We can learn a lot about how these things have influenced our society, and learn lessons about racial acceptance, growth, and inclusion. Dr. Seuss and his books can be a great conversation starter about why they are perceived as problematic.
“Some would argue that the best way to move forward is by examining the past and discussing how things have changed. Removing these books and illustrations skews history and does not paint an accurate picture of our past society. Without these books and this information, people will remain uninformed as to how society has progressed. In addition, Dr. Seuss regretted including racial undertones in his work later on in his life. Some people feel that it is unfair to judge a man from the 1940s with a mindset from the progressive 21st century.”
To understand arguments on the other side, offer students this explanation:
“There are some serious problems with the way Dr. Seuss and his books portrayed people of colour, villainized specific groups of people, and contributed to hate crimes and hate speech. According to a critical analysis of race in some of Dr. Seuss’s books, 98% of the characters are white, and only 2% represent people or characters of colour.
“Some people feel that supporting Dr. Seuss and his work goes against everything society is striving for right now – equality, support, and acceptance. His books and illustrations were indicative of a racist worldview that influenced a lot of his work. Some would argue that just because Dr. Seuss was a reflection of the world at that time, doesn’t mean that he should have perpetuated the negative stereotypes of people of colour. Moving forward, it can be hurtful and harmful to read stories with racist undertones because it continues to perpetuate racism and harmful stigmas.”
The Importance of Exposure to Sensitive Topics
Depending on the topic and the age of students, there are many reasons why exposing students to sensitive material is important to their development. Raising awareness of issues such as mental health, racism, privilege, and other similar topics have many benefits:
- They give voice to marginalized groups, or students who would otherwise shy away from participating
- Discussing these topics legitimizes them for students who might feel shy, intimidated, or embarrassed to bring them up
- Broaching these topics allows students to share their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences
- They provide opportunities for students to raise awareness of different perspectives and dispel myths or misconceptions
In addition to these benefits, it is important to point out that oftentimes the topics we might define as sensitive are usually the ones that students are the most interested in. Working these issues into inquiry plans and activities helps steer outcomes towards student-oriented learning. For example, asking “what do we want learners to do with their new understanding?” lends itself to an inquiry approach, and puts the onus on students to create something meaningful as a result of their learning. Furthermore, using an inquiry approach informs the design of the learning environment itself, which has positive affects all-around.
Try the Socratic Method to Foster Discussion
The Socratic Method has been around for over 2,000 years. It was developed by Socrates as a technique whereby teachers pose questions to students in order to facilitate open-ended collaborative discussions. Unlike debates, they are not competitive. Students support their answers with evidence or references. The goal is for students to examine questions deeply in order to understand their ideas more thoroughly.
Try this: sit in a circle with students and read the excerpts from above. Group the students into two groups – one inner group and one outer group. Next, instruct the inner circle students to read, analyze, and discuss the topic for 10 minutes or so, while the outer circle observes and listens. When the time is up, the outer circle students evaluate the inner circle, referencing how they discussed and analyzed the topic and how they communicated with each other. While they do this, the inner circle remains silent and listens to the feedback.
Repeat two more times until both groups share their ideas and listen to feedback.
In this format, teachers are the ones who direct the learning by asking direct questions to students to stimulate a deeper understanding of the content. While participating, students should make note of other students’ arguments, opinions, and comments if they would like to further probe the issue or provide feedback. This process should be modelled by a teacher beforehand to demonstrate the expected behaviours. Students should have plenty of practise with basic concepts like independent thinking, listening, and being respectful.
The benefits of using Socratic circles and seminars in the context of Dr. Seuss and his works is that students get to hear the opinions of their classmates, build their soft skills, and practice empathy, trust, and compassion. In addition, students are exposed to different viewpoints that may challenge their own beliefs and assumptions. Critical analysis, reasoning, and rationalizing to find answers are all skills students are exposed to by using these methods of learning.
Best Practises When Teaching Sensitive Topics
Although students routinely explore knowledge from many perspectives, they do not always get the opportunity to give their opinion in a meaningful context. In some cases, despite our best efforts, it is difficult to create a space where students feel both safe and heard.
1. Set ground rules for discussion: Make it clear that all students are included and that all voices are welcome. Recognize the diversity of opinions that exist, and the variety of backgrounds, experiences, and influences of students and their lives.
2. Be prepared: Knowing the topic you are discussing with your class beforehand allows you to anticipate responses, questions, and points of conversation. Preparing for a rich and multi-layered discussion covers your bases in terms of knowing how to respond when moments get a bit uncomfortable or awkward.
3. Build in opportunities for soft-skill building: The soft skills students build during inquiry learning are the building blocks from which they can effectively create change, express themselves, and find deep meaning in their learning.
4. Teach appropriate vocabulary: Students are naturally curious, and sometimes don’t always use the right terminology. Download this set of vocabulary terms and share it with students when the opportunity arises to teach them about terms they may not know. (Included in our Exploring Dr. Seuss Inquiry pack).
Dive Into Dr. Seuss Inquiry Questions
Hopefully, discussion should generate some questions and ideas from students. Here is a sample from our recent Exploring Dr. Seuss Inquiry pack to consider exploring with your class:
- How might Dr. Seuss’s life influenced his books and illustrations?
- What reasons might other publishing companies or authors have for removing problematic literature?
- How would you rewrite a Dr. Seuss book to make it more reflective of our modern society?
- What challenges might there be in preserving books like these for future generations? (If you agree that they should be)
- How is our examination of Dr. Seuss influenced by our own society, standards, values, etc?
You can download a copy of these questions, and many more inquiry activities about this topic by clicking here.