ART AND literature always provide invaluable life lessons so it’s no surprise that the controversy over the principal of a Florida-based Christian charter school showing a picture of Michelangelo’s nude statue of David has been blown up all over the internet.
First of all, much of the media’s sensational coverage of the story is apparently wrong. The principal, forced to choose between resigning or being fired by her school board, says the decision for her to leave was not made on showing that picture alone. She denies that a parent called it pornographic.
She seems to have been one of those controversial educators who didn’t play it safe in the classroom. Her ideas about teaching clashed with those of her administrators. I get that. I was like that too. I understood the value of walking the thin line between safe and edgy in the classroom.
The real question in this controversy is how do we decide what is age appropriate in teaching when culture keeps moving the bar lower and lower for real-life experiences. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have used a book like Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish with students below 14. But five years ago I chose it for a library book club with ten-year-olds.
The novel tells the story of a girl who loves dance and is ignored by her parents who only worry about their university-aged daughter, who is hooked on heroin. It explores the many ways drug addiction happens and provides the invaluable message that if you have something you are passionate about – like dance – you stand a better chance of surviving peer pressure and parents' neglect.
One parent objected to the book and removed a student from my book club. Other parents were not happy, but students said the book was important to them because they knew someone addicted to drugs and their family never spoke about it.
So is a nude picture of David an appropriate lesson for 12-year-olds? It could be if you have a class mature enough to focus on more than the nudity. It's a great exercise in observation if you deal with the obvious distraction. What can we tell from David’s facial expression and stance? What can we discern from the way he’s holding the slingshot?
There are many opportunities to teach observation and analytical skills. Why did Michelangelo choose to portray David as nude? How does that affect our perception of the statue and what does it say about how art was perceived by society and the church in the 1500s?
Who should determine what is age appropriate, educators or parents? It’s an educator’s job to know what is age appropriate, although some teachers are better at determining that than others. Parents often confuse age appropriateness with overprotectiveness, which never works. There’s nothing that piques students’ curiosity more than forbidding them to learn about something.
I knew this when I chose the Babylonian/Sumerian story of Gilgamesh (originally written in cuneiform on clay tablets) to teach 14-year-olds about ancient world history. I warned them there were parts we would not be doing in class because of the controversial content; then they inevitably read ahead to discover those parts.
The challenge in finding age-appropriate material often lies in understanding the students you have in class. A class of 12-year-olds can have students who are emotionally and intellectually below or above that age level. Ideally, you want lessons that appeal to all of them. Sometimes that means exposing issues they will likely face in the near future.
In a library book club, I used Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger with 12-year-olds because it discussed a girl experimenting with taking more and more revealing selfies on her cell phone. Younger students need to think about the impulsive decisions they can make with their phones.
A relevant education means striking a fine balance between age appropriate and edgy literature and art. Parents need to understand they can’t protect children from experiencing difficult and controversial topics just on the basis of thinking they’re too young to be exposed to them.
We can’t judge students' emotional and intellectual needs based on what we experienced or what was appropriate ten years ago. Our fears and insecurities should never get in the way of teaching interesting, relevant and controversial subject matter.
Students’ learning needs are changing quickly to adapt to the fast-paced, technological world where everything you don’t want your children to learn is right at their fingertips.