Teacher told to stop reading Dr. Seuss book during Planet Money podcast

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Mandy Robek had only read a few pages of Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches and Other Stories” when her third-graders began picking up on its themes.

Some Sneetches had stars on their bellies, while other Sneetches had none. The “Star-Belly Sneetches” had picnics and parties and marshmallow toasts, but the “Plain-Belly Sneetches” were never invited.

Robek, a teacher in Lewis Center, Ohio, was reading the book as part of a lesson plan given to her for an episode of NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast focused on economics lessons for children. As she continued, a student named Noah spoke up.

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated,” the student said, his classmates audibly agreeing. “Like, disrespected… Like, White people disrespected Black people, but then, they might stand up in the book.”

Shortly after Noah’s comment, a school administrator who had been sitting in on the lesson asked Rob to pause reading the book, saying she wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with the subject matter.

“I just feel like this isn’t teaching anything about economics, and this is a little bit more about differences with race and everything like that,” Amanda Beeman, the school district’s assistant director of communications, told Rob.

The exchange was recorded and included in the podcast episode, which aired on Friday, about a month after “Planet Money” reporter Erika Beras visited the school. In the episode, Beras says “The Sneetches” — which touches on supply and demand and other related topics — was recommended by multiple economists so the third-graders could learn “how economics exists in the larger world.”

It was the last book of the day for Robek’s class. But instead of finishing it, Beras says in the episode: “Our final lesson abruptly ends.”

Some Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery will go out of print

In recent years, activists and scholars have criticized Dr. Seuss’s books for being rooted in racist stereotypes that harm people of color. Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided in 2021 to cease production of six of the author’s titles.

But “The Sneetches” was not among them. Beras said in the podcast that she selected it for the “Planet Money” episode because of its references to class, entrepreneurship, discrimination and game theory.

Beeman told The Washington Post that some student conversations on economics weren’t included in the podcast because “a third of the story is on my interjection.”

Beras and Planet Money did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

The idea for the episode was for Beras to call economists, ask for recommendations for children’s books about economics and then try to teach lessons from the books in real-life, according to the podcast.

“That’s when I found this article Mandy Robek had written a few years ago for an education site about how she uses storybooks to teach economics to third graders,” Beras says in the episode. “So I came to her with a proposal.”

The final lesson plan that Beras and the Olentangy Local School District came up with included six books by authors such as Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Eric Carle, Beeman told The Post. From credible commitment to labor-market matching, the books were intended to cover “real-world concepts that adults struggle with,” according to the podcast episode.

Before it was recorded, Beeman said the district requested that the stories focus on economics and financial literacy only, with “no political themes and topics.”

School book bans and challenges, at record highs, are rising again

On Dec. 13, the day of the recording at Shale Meadows Elementary, Beeman sat in the class as Rob read each book.

She wasn’t heard in the episode until she asked Rob to pause reading “The Sneetches” about 24 minutes into the 30-minute podcast.

Beras asked her to reconsider: “I mean, we have a list here of all the things this is about: preferences, open markets, economic loss.”

“Yeah, I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it,” Beeman replied.

After the exchange, the episode features University of Michigan economics and public policy professor Betsey Stevenson, one of the economists who recommended “The Sneetches.” She tells Beras that the book has “a beautiful amount of economics” and the plan to keep politics out of the lesson was not going to work because “economics is political.”

When she got the call from Beras explaining what had happened when reading the book, Stevenson told The Post it was disappointing to hear.

“The fact that most children have a natural inclination to think that excluding people based on superficial characteristics is unfair and that now feels too fraught for a school district, that some parents wouldn’t want their children expressing those ideas, to me is kind of sad,” she said.

A few days after Beras’s visit to Ohio, she says in the podcast, she asked Beeman about what happened with the final book.

Beeman wrote back that the district had opted into the podcast “on good faith to feature a positive story in education.”

“My role in our district is to protect staff and students from misrepresentation in the media,” she wrote in the Dec. 19 statements. “We shared with the students’ parents that the books would be teaching lessons on economics. When the book began addressing racism, segregation and discriminating behaviors, this was not the conversation we had prepared Mrs. Robek, the students, or parents would take place.”

Beeman told The Post that the district promotes important discussions and does not “suppress any viewpoints.”

“I was just going back to the goal and objective of the podcast,” she said.

“I am disappointed that the focus has now been on my choice to stop the book early,” Beeman added. “And not the phenomenal conversations and learning that took place in Mrs. Rob’s class.”

When Rob had stopped reading the book that day, Shale Meadows students asked how “The Sneetches” ended.

“I didn’t know what happens in the story,” one student said.

“Me neither,” echoed another.

“You know what?” Beeman responded. “I think that’s one that maybe we can ask, you know, with our parents at home.”

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