The (Mis)representation of Enslavement in Historical Literature for Elementary Students
by Timothy Patterson & Jay M. Shuttleworth - 2019
Context: Elementary teachers will make difficult pedagogical choices when selecting materials to support their students’ learning about historical topics. Given the variety of historical books written for their students, certain stories will be emphasized and ultimately legitimated and others will be silenced through absence.
Objective of Study: The objective of this article is to identify and analyze children’s literature spanning a spectrum of theoretical positioning and to interrogate their instructional implications. We investigate narratives and images of enslavement in children’s literature through the question: how is enslavement portrayed in recently published elementary-level (first through sixth grade) literature?
Research Design: This article is a content analysis of 21 recently published elementary-level books that portray enslavement in U.S. history. Unlike previous studies of enslavement in children’s literature, we analyzed both the narrative text and the illustrations in our dataset using methods that ensured interrater reliability. To accomplish this, we developed and tested an analytical tool for understanding the interpretive stances books deploy when they portray difficult moments in history. We deductively categorized textual and visual depictions of enslavement into one of three stances: selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious. The criteria for these stances were established through critical race theory and the broad research tradition on African-American subjects in children’s literature.
Results: Our analysis revealed the presence of all three depictions in children’s literature. Our findings call attention to the need for careful decision-making on the part of elementary teachers, as their decisions around book selection will enact a curriculum that honors particular perspectives of U.S. history. The problematic elements identified in previous studies remain prevalent in modern books for elementary students. However, our findings also suggest teachers will be presented with a more complicated set of options when selecting among historical children’s literature than previously documented by researchers.
Conclusions: While a diversity of interpretive narratives about enslavement is present in elementary-level history books, the invisibility of race in U.S. history remains a powerful feature in current historical resources. Researchers of a number of topics in K–12 education will find utility in the analytical tool developed for this article. Selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious are interpretive frames that can be directed at any number of topics in children’s literature.
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