These Books Made Me

Bonus Episode: Professor Margaret Polizos Peterson, University of Maryland

November 10, 2021 Prince George's County Memorial Library System
These Books Made Me
Bonus Episode: Professor Margaret Polizos Peterson, University of Maryland
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Earlier this season we discussed the Roald Dahl classic “Matilda.” The episode’s expert interview, Maggie Peterson from the College of Education at the University of Maryland, was too delightful not to be heard in full. Dr. Peterson speaks on her experience as an educator, impressions of Matilda, schoolyard tropes, and what makes great literature. Enjoy the extended cut of this insightful interview!

These Books Made Me is a podcast about the literary heroines who shaped us and is a product of the Prince George's County Memorial Library System podcast network. Stay in touch with us via Twitter @PGCMLS with #TheseBooksMadeMe or by email at TheseBooksMadeMe@pgcmls.info. For recommended readalikes and deep dives into topics related to each episode, visit our blog at https://pgcmls.medium.com/.

Will:

Hi, I'm Will a producer and editor for the, These Books Made Me podcast this week. We are releasing an extended interview that Heather did with Maggie Peterson, assistant clinical professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. From this season's Matilda episode. This interview offers an educator's perspective on the craft of teaching, school tropes and books ,and what makes great literature. I'm pleased to share this extended cut with you now.

Maggie:

Hi, my name is Maggie Peterson. I'm Assistant Clinical Professor in the college of education at the University of Maryland. Primarily, I work with pre-service teachers in everything related to literacy, including children's lit, adolescent lit, and teaching writing across the curriculum.

Heather:

Okay. So Maggie, we are talking about the book Matilda today, and I know you have some background with this book personally, so I thought we'd start there. If you could tell us a little bit about your history with the book.

Maggie:

So I'm a huge Roald Dahl fan. I have my own personal attachment to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that was one of the books I remember reading as a kid and just , um , it being this sort of gateway to literature because Roald Dahl does something in the worlds that he creates that I think is if not unique, it was different to me at the time. And it's a, I'm going to call it satire for want of a better word, but it was the first time I think, I remember thinking this book is doing something there's some trick happening here or some double meaning. And , um , it was specifically around the grandparents and the way Roald Dahl made the buckets in that book. So so poor was something that I, I just remember thinking he means this and something else. So Matilda was a book I came to , um , later, actually in life. And it was because my son loved this book. He was , um, he probably honestly saw the movie first and then read the book. He was big on doing that. And we had a rule in the house that you were supposed to read the book first, but just sort of happened that way. And it was one where it was also a, again, a thing where all of a sudden I saw that the, what I would have called satire and like thinking ah problems being put forth, my son saw as humor. And I mean, he there's several books that can name that. He would just laugh maniacally while he was reading and Matilda was one of them. And he thought that the meanness, I mean the control, the sort of over the top violence done, especially by Miss Trunchbull was, you know, funny in a way it was, it was again like larger than life. And I think , um, he saw that as being yeah, humorous. He just, he loved it. So that's sort of my history with this book

Heather:

So going back to this idea of it's a very different read for an adult. Then it is done, It is as a child. Um, can you talk a little bit more about how you think Trunchbull is viewed by a child versus how she's viewed now as an adult?

Maggie:

What I love about Roald Dahl and I can't think of one of his books that doesn't do this. He like William Steig, another favorite of mine, does not pander to children and he does not create nice or pretty worlds. And I think his child audiences and I, as an adult lover of literature, I think , um , appreciate that, this world of truly despicable characters is, is not, it's not one, it's not meant to present you with a hat or pretty view of the world, but I also think it's meant to kind of create these characters that you can identify with. You can see Miss Trunchbull in the world in a much less exaggerated version, but she acts as a real life villain, a real life, antagonist that kids recognize as that. I think, she's not a monster, she's a teacher. So that's a familiar role. And one that if you've ever been in school, you may have felt victimized by teachers in, in your own life. So it's one that immediately, it doesn't try to connect you to a fake world. It connects you to a real world that you yourself can see in a way that again is way bigger, way worse. She's way more of a caricature than a real life, terrible person, this behavior that randomness that need for control that really sadism she's sort of a sadist. I mean, the character is one where he is yes. Speaking to directly to kids talking about there are behaviors that you will encounter. And , um , Miss Trunchbull sort of embodies all of the worst of them. You know, I think every text is a teaching text. I think walking away, you're not supposed to want to be like Miss Trunchbull, you're supposed to see her behavior as a , um, as a thing to call out in the way Matilda does as a heroine and then also to not be like, and it takes some of the things that are in school already that can seem random and cruel and just amplifies them into, you know, a character that, again, for my son was hilarious. He saw that as being like, just over the top of kind of, I don't know, Monty Python of like cruelty,

Heather:

Right. slapstick she is throwing the child by the hair...

Maggie:

The kid explodes because he ate so much cake. Yeah. It's got that element to it for kids. For sure.

Heather:

So clearly we're not supposed to want to be like Trunchbull,

Maggie:

mm hmm

Heather:

but is Miss Honey really the ideal here? Should we want to be like her because she ends up being rescued by kindergarten basically. Yeah

Maggie:

Yeah. So you have these two poles and it's one of the iconic, maybe the story we tell about what teachers are to the untrained eye, what we remember about what teachers are and should be right. The good ones, the good teachers quote unquote were strict and they were tough, but they were also nice. And they were kind, and you learned from them, Miss. Honey, as one of the icons. And then Miss Trunchbull the one that's , um, you know, awful and random and not , uh, effective , um, even in her cruelty. So you have those kinds of two, like, I dunno, icons of teaching, Miss honey, like you don't, or at least I don't remember in the book, you seeing her doing anything except for maybe modeling kindness in terms of the point of view where you don't necessarily , um , if I'm recalling it correctly, see teaching happening there's they're just there. Yeah.

Heather:

A couple of like flashes where I know there's the point where she's taught the children how to spell the word "difficulty" which is like an above grade level word.

Maggie:

Right, right

Heather:

And she taught it to them via song. And that's immediately squashed by Trunchbull who says like, yeah, basically you're not paid to sing songs to them. What are you doing?

Maggie:

Right, right, right

Heather:

But other than that, no, there's not much there

Maggie:

One of the things like, again, with working with pre-service teachers is they often see fun as learning. And so if they watch an activity or if they watch something in a classroom where kids are engaged, they will automatically assume that real learning is happening. And it's not always the case. There can be a fun lesson that's engaging where no one comes out with any learning, but it's again in the life of the book, like the teacher who you like is creative and they sing songs and they do engaging activities. And you, I don't know, you just learn from being around them. Like, they're just so wonderful that their aura of greatness gets into your brain. And you learn through that. It goes along with like the tropes that we see of teachers all the time. And one that sticks out immediately is like , um, Jack Black and School of Rock, right? It's if you're inspiring, this is one that people will recognize, because if you're inspiring and your sharing some kind of creative thing, then you must be a good teacher. You must be right.

Heather:

Yeah, It's the Dead Poet Society...

Maggie:

Exactly

Heather:

So O Captain my Captain.

Maggie:

Exactly. So we get this , um, when you ask, you know, future teachers, like, what are the qualities quote unquote of a good teacher? They'll often say extroverted, funny, kind. And that's not, that's not, you know, of course I would argue, good teachers are not born, they're made, but those qualities don't align with what really highly effective teaching is. So that is, I think w you know, adding to that story, they, they don't always say like pretty, young, but that comes up too, for sure. That's it, that's, it's in that, it's in that , um, uh, kind of way of doing it and it's all over children's literature. So Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about going into the classroom after having finished, basically the equivalent of like ninth grade and she models kindness for her students. And you are supposed to see her as being a better teacher than the one that she had because of this kind of, you know, again, just being nice. So

Heather:

Speaking of tropes.

Maggie:

sure

Heather:

and teacher is such a common like archetype in children's literature , uh , as an educator, how do you feel about books that focus on school experiences or on teachers? Do you seek them out? Do you try to avoid them? Are there any pet peeves with that sort of genre of children's lit for you

Maggie:

I try to as much as possible make my students who are future teachers really be critical of the way that teachers are portrayed, because they're everywhere. What's his name, Ben Stein in a Ferris Bueller, Bueller, Bueller, anyone. There are, there are in media and in books. And in all ways, there's this , um, there is this vision often very, very surface level vision of what um teaching is. So I try to with my students, especially when we come across everything from like, you know, Miss Bindergarten, starting kindergarten, there's a book that teachers were in love with for a long time where it's the teacher's first day of school and she's under the bed. And , um , her husband's like trying to talk her into actually going to school, all of these kinds of portrayals, whatever they are. I try to teach my students and in children's literature and an adolescent literature to approach books, specifically as something that's been made and as something that's been made, we should be questioning who made this and why, what are the portrayals here true to life? Are they complex? Are they adding to our understanding? So I don't really avoid them. I mean, I think there are also hilarious, like again, Trunchbull, a great example of sort of Gothic, examples of teachers. You have it in the Harry Potter series with , um, Snape and even McGonagall is kind of like an iconic , um, tough but fair teacher. So I think we try to be critical about that for future teachers. I will say this they're all written, most books, even some that have written by teachers are written from, like, I always say teaching is an iceberg, right. And it's what it's, so that's what can be seen above everyone thinks that they have a sense of what teaching is, what good teaching is, and that it's not taught. That's not something that you need to study or that you develop over time and, and , uh , research, etcetera. Yeah. They tend to focus on again, what is seen by anybody who goes into a classroom, which if you've ever been a teacher, it's probably your pet peeve that you're like, everyone thinks they know my job and that they know what good teaching is. So I wouldn't, I wouldn't steer clear, but I would definitely, I would want my students to be critical for sure.

Heather:

Another area that Matilda, sort of looks at is education for gifted children. Um , Matilda's very precocious and there's this sort of struggle at the beginning over Miss Honey, wanting to bump her up in school versus leaving her in the class where she's already done all of the work that they're working on. Do you think that Dahl was making any kind of big commentary on the education of gifted kids or was that just a convenient plot device to, to build tension?

Maggie:

I'm not sure, but I do think it is interesting, also the portrayal of like giftedness that is still pervasive. We haven't done the good work in schools to differentiate learning for all students. And this idea of giftedness is kind of a, again, it's really, most of the time people mean it like IQ, like one measure of something that kids happen to be good at at that moment in time, if you break down like who T who teachers tend to think are gifted, there's a lot of research and evidence to show that we teachers are assigning quote unquote giftedness to , um, boys and specifically upper middle class white boys. It doesn't ring true. Okay. So like her doing it on her own is this kind of , uh , even just, that is a , um, and it's that idea again, of giftedness being a thing that you're born with that like, you're, I don't know, you know, touched by lightning. And that, that thing is your brain when, when really that is not, that's not the case. And it also just aligns it with this kind of like one way of being in literature as being super organized, very verbal, older, mature, that they're really good at school that they actually , um, you know, neat handwriting, like a better than average reader, high vocabulary when we are, you know, looking at giftedness, those, those tend to be the factors that we're looking at. But honestly, many, many very later in life accomplished people. We're not good at following the rules and routines that are huge part of, you know, elementary school and middle school. So , um, so I have to say this cause it's, so it's such a huge thing that we do around giftedness. So we assume that giftedness means things will be easy for students. So what happens is kids who are identified as gifted and talented or whatever tag that they're calling it in elementary school, when they encounter something that they actually have to struggle at what they think is I'm not gifted anymore. I've lost my talent. I've lost that thing that made me, you know, who better than other people. And it's, it's a disservice because what we're valuing is not the actual um effort or thinking, or even interest that an early reader might have. We're valuing this, this thing we can't touch see or identify, we can't even find it. We can't even really test for it in young kids. So it's this, this thing that, yeah, like her telekinetic powers going away is like her. Um, she doesn't, I dunno, she doesn't need them anymore because now she's, I don't know, mastered school or something. I don't know. Yeah.

Heather:

Yeah. Everything is kind of resolved for it.

Maggie:

Yeah

Heather:

And it also, it doesn't roll like disservice to a child, discouraging resilience, I think.

Maggie:

Yes!

Heather:

when you can just do these things,

Maggie:

Thats right.

Heather:

And now you can't. So that means you're not good at this, and you aren't good at this as very like binary.

Speaker 2:

Exactly. And it's, it's a thing again, that kids, when they encounter that thing, they're able to say exactly what you said, well, I'm not gifted anymore, or I'm not gifted at that. I'm bad at math because it doesn't maybe have the same , uh, you know, there's not that level of ease or you're actually having to struggle to learn something, which like you said, resilience, it definitely makes people think I'm broken and I can't learn. Yeah

Heather:

Were there anythings about Matilda that we haven't touched on that you wanted to talk about today?

Maggie:

One is the kind of punishments that are used in Matilda. They have this Gothic element to them. That is a thing that I can remember as a reader being really fascinated by this idea of , um, British schools. And then also this larger than life, you know, punishment. I think kids are a little fascinated by that element of it. And I think in some ways exaggerating it, like it takes the sting out of like real punishments, you know, the, the actual things that , um , happen in school , um ,

Heather:

Missed recess looks very like tame in comparison in being put in the choking...

Maggie:

Right, in the pope, in the choking. Exactly. Right. Um, or, you know, force fed. So that element, I think is one that is appealing because it gives kids, this have this great quote where it's like, books are a safe place to explore dangerous ideas. It's the same kind of idea. This is like a vicarious, oh, that's terrible. Um, when I was teaching high school, a parent came and spoke to another teacher and she said, all the books that you're teaching are depressing. They're very depressing. And they deal with really serious, real life issues. And they do because that one, students are interested in those really serious, real life issues of suicide, drug abuse. I mean, adolescents coming of age stories, sexuality, all of those elements. So Roald Dahl to me, y Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach are, So I think still be loved by children is that they, again go with issues that kids are real. They are, he talks about issues that kids are really interested in that parents might not think are the best thing for their kids to read. There's something happening here where the author is speaking directly to these kids and to the things that they care about. Um, and in some ways I think as parents, and even as teachers, maybe we just need to get out of the way, like, there's, we don't need to insert ourselves to be saying, you know, you shouldn't act like Miss Trunchbull right. You know, there aren't real teachers like that. We understand, that , I think we don't give kids enough credit. We don't give readers enough credit for understanding. But the thing that I talked about in the first place, something else is happening here, let me see if I can get to the bottom of it. What is Roald Dahl doing? Is this real life? Cause it's not, it's not. Um, and it's, I think a thing that I've been guilty of as a parent, trying to protect my own kids from, you know what I mean, I want to get out of the way I want, I want them to, I want them to know Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. And I want them to question Matilda as a character, and I want them to be interested in the things that happen. I want them to learn about Gothic novels in the process. Yeah. I was in a classroom once and a teacher had put out a bunch of National Geographic magazines for the kids to use for a project and a mother who was in the class. And my daughter was in second grade class, one of the best, second grade teachers I've ever seen , um, flipped through. And she found a picture of a child's funeral in Mexico, in National Geographic. She was incensed. And I thought you want your child to think kids don't die.

Heather:

Yeah.

Maggie:

And I often run into that with my teachers too, my future teachers. It's hard to push back on because it's also a very parochial sense of what kind of world we're giving. And yet they will complain that they're in college and they never learned about, you know , uh, Indian boarding schools experiment. So they'll say, how come I never knew about that? You didn't know about that because we tried to cleanse what the real world,

Heather:

make it palpable for another But that being said, I bet that that mom, that objected to the coffin, I bet she read the Little House books when she has a kid.

Maggie:

Right

Heather:

And so like a child goes blind...

Maggie:

Yes!

Heather:

from like Scarlet Fever I think,

Maggie:

Yes!

Heather:

And so that's like one of the things as we've been doing this, that with each book, we've had a split between those of us who read it as children and those who are seeing.

Maggie:

Yeah

Heather:

the first time as an adult.

Maggie:

Yeah

Heather:

And it's been very interesting. Um,

Maggie:

Yeah,

Heather:

but like, yeah, if you're looking at something as an adult and it's your first encounter with it,

Maggie:

Right

Heather:

you're more critical of it than you would be.

Maggie:

Yeah

Heather:

If it's something you came to as a child yourself,

Maggie:

So true

Heather:

and like lots of the classics, they have really heavy stuff in them.

Maggie:

I mean,

Heather:

they have deaths, they have...war

Maggie:

Bridge to Terabithia.

Heather:

Oh yeah.

Maggie:

I read in fifth grade and I remember my mom being like, what's wrong! Because I was sobbing. But that book was, I mean, I loved that book. That book was my, you know, Secret Garden. That was a book that just like, I mean, I still have feelings about that book. You know, that was something where again, identified me as a reader, as a person who was like connecting with literature and made me realize , um, kids can die.

Heather:

Yeah.

Maggie:

Kids can suffer. Like that is a thing that I don't want. We're giving them the world. We should be at least honest.

Heather:

Right

Maggie:

about what that means. The books that people like again still. And I have, I have this argument at least once a semester with people, the books that people think are great for kids, not all, but some of my students, especially are things like The Rainbow Fish, these like, you know, let's all share. So I do try to do a lot of, you know, high quality literature is literature, kids love, but also high quality literature is literature. In that it's asking more questions than it's answering. It's providing these

Heather:

Well there's an interpretation available...

Maggie:

Yes, exactly. That you have to do some of the thinking and some of the work.

Heather:

You have to make the leap, you have to make the choice

Maggie:

Right? Yeah. And that the author, in some ways trusts that you're going to do that, that there's like this pact they've made with you, that they're going to entertain you. And they're going to show you how terrible witches are in the, the real I mean, I actually think that, witches were way. It's like scarier book than , um, than a Matilda. But that, that is the deal. They're going to ask you questions and you're going to have to answer them for yourself.

Will:

Love that final thought. Thank you so much, Maggie Peterson for your time and your perspective. And that's it for this special bonus episode of These Books Made Me stay tuned for more bonus content during our hiatus as always feel free to drop us a tweet. We're @PGCMLS on Twitter and #TheseBooksMadeMe, you can also send your questions to thesebooksmademe@pgcmls.info. And don't forget to check out our blog linked in the episode notes.

Intro
Welcome, Maggie Peterson
Figure of Miss Trunchbull
Miss Honey's teaching style
What makes a good teacher?
Teacher portayals
The concept of giftedness
Gothic punishments
Dangerous ideas and serious issues
Literature for kids
Outro