In 1992 I held a picture storybook sale outside the lecture hall where Professor Donald Graves was presenting a full-day seminar to five hundred teachers on the subject of creative writing in the classroom. I listened in on the closing question-and-answer session. A brave teacher spoke up. “How do we find time to use these creative writing techniques when all our time is spent teaching to the test?’
This was the question all the teachers had been puzzling over. Of course every teacher wants to run a classroom where creative writing, artistic expression, and reading for pleasure are nurtured. But the hard truth is that basic skills lessons, with time for review, plus plenty of repetitive drilling are essential to ensure students achieve high scores on standardized tests.
Professor Graves answered firmly, “You have a union. You can change things.”
Slowly the teachers rose, and, murmuring, left the lecture hall. Their day of creative exercises had ended on a somber note. Their labor unions would not fight for this sort of curricular change.
In the world of children’s books much is being made of a recent New York Times article asserting that parents’ need for children to achieve high test scores is now leading to an early abandonment of picture storybooks; longer chapter-books being believed by parents and teachers to be associated with higher reading scores. Another New York Times article published a few days later reports the impact popular culture is having on the rise of “mean-girl” bullying in the early grades.
Evidently, pressure on elementary school children to both achieve high test scores and to adopt aggressive pop-culture behavior styles are rising in tandem. Perhaps a well-known picture storybook can explain this correlation.
In Hansel and Gretel, like children under too much testing pressure, Hansel and Gretel are challenged to grow up fast. Their father is too weak to prevent their evil stepmother from evicting them. During their first exile in the forest, Hansel passes a test: he has left a trail of pebbles, which he and Gretel follow home. The second time however Hansel fails; his breadcrumbs don’t solve the problem of ensuring a safe return. He and Gretel are attracted to a house of candy created by a witch, just as our children, alienated from too-demanding school and schoolwork-dominated home environments, are drawn to sexualized pop culture, violent videogames, and sugary foods, all produced by amoral and sometimes immoral corporations.
To flee the witch, Hansel and Gretel—who have been eating her candy—must push her into her own oven: their escape initiates them willy-nilly into her violence. Perhaps our children, like Hansel and Gretel, must assimilate our popular culture’s violence in order to master it. If so, our role should be to mediate this hazardous process. Picture storybooks—rich in allusion, artistically stimulating, and many with language more complex than that in chapter-books—are an invaluable tool.
Hansel and Gretel return home to find their father chastened and welcoming. But their return would have been meaningless if the father hadn’t already arrived at his own corrective conclusion, and banished the evil stepmother. Are today’s teachers and parents capable of learning from the father of Hansel and Gretel? Are we prepared to push back against the demands of excessive test prep and set aside time in home and classroom for shared reading of picture storybooks?