WILLA v6 - Section Editors - If not I, who? If not now, when?

Volume 6
Fall 1997

Elementary Section Editor

If not I, who? If not now, when?

Vicki Zack

I am a fifth grade teacher and researcher who finds much joy and fulfillment in my work with the children and with their parents. I want you to keep the joyfulness uppermost in your mind while you read this column, for 1 will speak here mainly of some aspects which have been troubling me. One issue pertains to a recent uproar in Surrey, B. C., Canada, due to a fight about the banning of two books which feature homosexual parents. The other relates more generally to the seemingly constant negative natterings in the media about the 'deteriorating' state of the educational system. Whole language has been a long-standing target of the attacks, and now the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) reforms are beginning to be assaulted (Cheney, New York Times, August, 1997, Ratnesar, in Time, 1997, pp. 42-43). I will touch first upon the situation in Surrey, then the general attacks, and lastly the need to make explicit where one stands. In regard to the last-mentioned item, I know that I am preaching to the converted when I write in a WILLA journal, but nevertheless feel we must each be prepared to defend our principles when under attack.

The controversy in Surrey, British Columbia, began in March, and has been gathering steam since then. In March, trustees in the Surrey school district banned a number of books which featured gay and lesbian parents, Asha's Moms, and One Dad, Two Dad, Brown Dad, Blue Dad. [Please note that I cannot even comment on the literary quality of the books as I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to get copies.] These books had been introduced into the curriculum by the Ministry of Education in order to raise awareness, but some parents, and the Surrey School Board trustees, vehemently opposed their use in the schools. The Ministry of Education of British Columbia as well as the British Columbia Teachers Federation protested that the trustees could not ban the books. The author of one of the books and some of the parents are suing the Surrey School Board trustees. At stake, they feel, are two issues. One is the book banning, and with it, the question: "Who controls the curriculum?" The other is the human rights issue. At the annual general meeting of the British Columbia Teacher's Federation March 21, 1997 there was a resolution passed protesting against homophobia and combating heterosexism.

Others have spoken out and raised awareness. Among them is Lynn Johnston, in a story line in her cartoon comic strip, For Better or for Worse. She received much hate mail when she first featured her son Mike's gay friend, Lawrence. In sharing her purposes with interviewer Joe Murray, she has stated that it would make a difference if we "knew" the person. "A lot of people are more tolerant of the word 'gun' than they are of 'gay'. Ours is an amazing world and it gives a home to a variety of people. We're all part of this planet and tolerance is important to every colour, religion and nationality" (Murray, 1997, p. B-3).

Some insist that everyone has a right to her/his own opinion, and that the pro-ban side in the Surrey situation is defending the right of parents to educate their children in moral values (cited by Todd, 1997). Lemke ( 1995), however, has alerted us to the ways in which prevailing ideology supports violence in order to maintain the existing social order: "We underestimate, because it is unpleasant to do otherwise, the extent to which police brutality, child and elder abuse, marital violence, racial attacks, gay-bashing, and subtler but no less real ways of inflicting pain on people (humiliation, firings) actually function to maintain the dominance of rich over poor, middle-aged adults over children and the elderly, men over women, one race over others, straights over gays, bosses over workers, teachers over students" (p. 14).

The pro-ban religion-fueled Citizens's Research Institute which is at work in the Surrey conflict in Canada of course parallels other such groups elsewhere. Joe Taxel (1997) recently voiced his grave concerns about groups such as the Christian Coalition in the United States, which are becoming very powerful, and speaks of their efforts to demonize curriculum innovations such as whole language.

"The passionate commitment, solid organization, and substantial financing of such groups allows them to yield power far beyond their numbers. In school districts near my home, and around the country, reactionary groups have taken over school boards, succeeded in removing books from school libraries ... and are thwarting even the most modest change efforts." ( Taxel, 1997, p. x)

I am committed to teaching with a whole language approach to language arts and with a reform-oriented problem-solving approach to mathematics, and to studying and writing about the children's learning in both the literature and mathematics areas. Every one of my focused inquiries into the children's work over the past seven years has shown that the children are dealing with rich, demanding, and complex content in a critical and creative way. Thus, 1Ihave evidence that there is learning going on which far exceeds the quality of thinking that was happening in my classroom in the late 60s and early 70s. I should feel secure. I should NOT get disheartened and feel I am being bombarded on multiple fronts by those who want to deprive children of rich horizons on the pretext that they are protecting 'family values,' and 'ensuring' a 'solid' foundation by seeking a return to the 'good old days' of 'basics'. And yet at times I do become disheartened. I have chosen here to voice some of my concerns since there may be much more of this to come. Each of us needs to reflect. We need to establish where we stand, and be ready to justify who we are and why we have chosen to do what it is we do, each in our own ways.


Cheney, Lynne. "Once again, basic skills fall prey to a fad." [Op-Edpage.] New York Times, August 11, 1997: A-19.

Lemke, Jay. Textual politics: Discourse and social dynamics. Bristol, PA: Taylor Francis, 1995.

Murray, Joe. "Cartoon carries message of tolerance." The Gazette, Montreal, August 25, 1997: B-3.

Ratnesar, Romesh. "This is math?" Time, August 25, 1997:42-43.

Taxel, Joel. "Looking ahead: Notes from the former editor." The New Advocate: For Those Involved with Young People and Their Literature 10, no. 2 (1997): vii-xv.

Todd, Douglas. "Teaching ethics to children." The (Vancouver) Weekend Sun, August 15,1997: B-3.