Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: Black Ants and Buddhists

I have had the book Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades by Mary Cowhey on my To Read list for quite some time now. I haven't had the chance to get to it for one reason or another, but over the holiday I was finally able to get my hands on a copy and read it. Cowhey is an activist-turned-public schoolteacher, and from the sounds of it, she runs a remarkable classroom.

Some of the activities she has organized in her Peace Class include a food drive for a local shelter, a voter registration drive during a Presidential election year, and a number of letter writing campaigns and projects. She discusses the way she approaches a number of complicated issues, such as philosophy and non-traditional families, with her first- and second-grade students. She has done exhaustive research on many different topics, and there is an enormous amount of thought and sensitivity behind her treatment of difficult subjects.

As impressed as I am with what Cowhey accomplishes in her classroom, I did find myself feeling a little queasy at some of the things she tackles. For example, she devotes a large part of the book to a description of the way she teaches the exploration of the "New World" and the colonization of the western hemisphere. I can't help but agree with her in some ways: if, as a public school teacher, she is required to teach these topics in first or second grade, she owes it to her students to give them a critical, complete and thorough presentation. She would be doing them a disservice if she were to present the traditional, glossed-over story of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two.

However, I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with the idea of engaging young children in a discussion of genocide, and I found myself wanting to be a fly in Cowhey's classroom so I could hear just how she addresses the destruction of native North American cultures by the European settlers. From my perspective, I am having trouble imagining how such a complicated and, frankly, upsetting historical reality could possibly be addressed without giving children nightmares. While I agree that the Europeans, who took many of the native people as slaves and destroyed many of the remaining people through disease and violence, acted in a way that is morally reprehensible, I also think that presenting the nuances and details of the story could easily be lost on a young child.

I am all for engaging children in community service and teaching them about their civic responsibility. Young people must be empowered so that they feel prepared to act when they see injustice in the world. I believe that children are capable of understanding and doing more than they are commonly given credit for. Perhaps, in Cowhey's suburban district, so many of her children experience social inequities first-hand that talking about them in school is necessary. That said, I wonder if it wouldn't be more appropriate to spend the early grades covering topics that are a little less charged. Either way, Cowhey's commitment to her students and their development as engaged, educated critical thinkers is nothing short of heroic.


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