New York approves war-oriented reading textbooks for third-grade classrooms
By YOAV GONEN Education Reporter
Last Updated:9:33 AM, March 18, 2013
Posted:1:15 AM, March 18, 2013
Tales of war, bombs and abduction — coming to a third-grade classroom near you.
City and state education bureaucrats have given the green light to an English curriculum for elementary schools that includes picture books with startlingly realistic portrayals of war — to be read by 8-year-olds.
They include “The Librarian of Basra,” which contains drawings of fighter planes dropping bombs on a palm-tree-lined Middle Eastern town.
In another illustration, the protagonist looks worried, peering out a window at soldiers manning machine guns on a rooftop.
The terrified townsfolk wonder, “Who among us will die?” and “Will our families survive?”
Similarly, “Nasreen’s Secret School” depicts the abduction of a young man from his home in Afghanistan by soldiers and discusses Taliban rules that forbid women to go out in public alone.
“There’s no way in hell that I find it appropriate for third grade, let alone elementary school, on so many levels,” said a Queens elementary-school principal who was shown one of the books by colleagues outside the city.
“We don’t have to bring the message of war with it. We don’t have to bring in guns and bombs,” said the principal. “My assumption is that some person would have read the material and gone over it and approved it, but I don’t know in what world they could have been living.”
The books are part of a new English curriculum created by Expeditionary Learning, a non-profit arm of the group Outward Bound.
The content was commissioned by the state Education Department for grades 3 to 5 as part of New York’s unique bid to adopt a statewide curriculum.
Last month, that curriculum was recommended by the city’s Department of Education as one of two options for students in grades 3 to 5 because it aligns with new national standards known as The Common Core.
The standards emphasize using more nonfiction texts, but that has also raised questions about when students are ready to be exposed to world issues.
“If you ask me do I think guns and war are appropriate for children . . . I would say certainly not,” said Susan Neuman, chair of the Department of Learning at NYU Steinhardt. “This is likely to be too adult and too complex for them to understand meaningfully.”
Last week, the Chicago public school system deemed “Persepolis,” an autobiography about growing up in Iran, too “graphic” for the students in seventh grade, who were reading it as part of the Common Core-aligned curriculum.
New York State and City education officials emphasized that the preferred curricula are only recommendations, and that principals have the final say over what books enter the classroom.
"Some of this [Common Core] material can be emotionally charged or may use language outside of a student's particular cultural experience,” said SED spokesman Tom Dunn. “The curriculum materials are only suggested - with the decision to use them made at the local level.”
But one upstate principal, whose school spent thousands of dollars on the Expeditionary Learning books at the state's recommendation, said SED should be playing a more hands-on role in screening content.
"I think somebody at State Ed should have a responsibility to read all the books they’re recommending," he said. "I think they have to do their due diligence and take a look at it before it’s kicked out to us."