Except for the Aliens part, of course.
Working in the library with children aged 4-10 I get a lot of really big questions about a huge range of subjects. For example, one Caldecott-award winning picture book referred to a war, very briefly, and some of my 4- and 5-year-olds had questions about it. I allowed one child to describe something he knew about war, and he explained that in this one war, from a long time ago, “Our team won.” An interpretation chilling in its simplicity, both accurate and also deeply wrong.
It’s almost easier with the little ones, though—one just has to break down a vocabulary word into it’s most basic components, and work with them to develop a fundamental understanding of a subject, to expand upon in the future.
With older students, though, I’m always debating how much to share, how deep to go. For example, in one class some 7-year-olds posited that the three little wolves in “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig” were the children of Alexander T. Wolf, protagonist of “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” A brilliant connection, for sure, but then one kid doubted the idea because the Wolf went to prison at the end of “True Story,” and no one would want to marry someone in jail—with the comment that he has to be a bad guy.
It was a throwaway comment, and I had several other students who needed help finding books, and there wasn’t time enough for a conversation about, say, false imprisonment, whether going to jail automatically means you’re a bad guy, and whether convicted “bad guys” were automatically unlovable. I also just wasn’t sure how much to engage, how to break it down for him, or how much complexity his second-grade brain could hold on to.
However, I am actively refusing to perpetuate historical myths and inaccuracies, as best I can. The most timely example is also one of the most interesting. In honor of the upcoming book awards for youth I taught a lesson on the Coretta Scott King award with my 3rd- and 4th-graders, with a brief biographical sketch of Mrs. King and an explanation of the award. Then I read Nikki Giovanni’s 2005 award-winner “Rosa,” which tells the traditionally-accepted story of Rosa Parks. Then I explained that the way that story usually gets told is not completely true, and launch into a brief description of Claudette Colvin (check out “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice” by Phillip Hoose if you don’t know who she is). I didn’t mention her out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, but did explain that civil rights leaders were worried that she wouldn’t make them look good if she got famous, and they immediately decided that that was unfair (as an update, today one of the kids from that class told me, and her classmates, that Colvin had been pregnant, and they all seemed unfazed by that information. Good to know).
I was pleased with that lesson, and even more pleased when parents told me about dinner time retellings and the discussions they had about it. This was an easy one, though. Every day I’m asked questions that I don’t know the answers to—or rather, that I do know the answer to, but am not sure if I can figure out how to help them understand.