Session 5 Highlights: Promise and the Peril of Young Adult Literature

27 09 2011

No literate person who has taken college or graduate courses in the humanities in America during the past twenty years can possibly believe that words on a page directly shape, or even predict, a reader’s response. We have all been endlessly instructed in the ways in which readers make their own meanings in a dialogue with the text. — Aronson, “How Are Our Children Affected by the Books in Their Lives,” 2004

Yet English teachers are constantly on the look-out for “books to teach.” Better they should take a lesson from Michele who commented on Ashley’s blog . . . “I just think I’m good at providing some books with some issues embedded in them and then asking the follow-up questions that will get their figurative wheels turning.”

So, we’re not “teaching the book,” rather we’re teaching students to think deeply and critically about important issues — to become seekers (Aronson, 2003, p. 96). And, as Ryan blogs in support of Aronson’s “moving beyond the artist-moralist labels,” we are providing the space for students to express themselves creatively in new ways that may evolve our definition of art. So the artist-moralist continuum becomes the creator-seeker continuum.

Three artistic representations of women

This creator-seeker continuum supports the mission of the College of Education: “Our inquiry and practice reflect integrity, a commitment to social justice, and the value of diversity in a global community.” A commitment to social justice requires that we understand and teach critical literacy so that our students see that, as Annie reminded us in our “Waves of Change” theories inquiry, “Critical Literacy rests on the idea that language and literacy do not occur in a vacuum.” When we develop a critical stance, we learn to “look at the world as a set of relations” (Michael Apple, September 26, live-streamed presentation, University of Regina) and to understand the power deferential. In fact, “all of children’s literature is about a transfer of power” (Leonard Marcus).

Teacher and child

We worked on choosing themes and essential questions that would inspire our students to develop critical literacy. Nicole Sledge’s work, “Thematic Differentiation for High School Literacy,” serves as a window into her classroom where she works hard to provide literature that, well, serves as literature for every student in her class. That is literature as defined by the National Council of the Teachers of English:

Working toward a dynamic definition of literature. Literature is that collection of texts that best help us develop higher levels of literacy. Less rich texts — those that simply present information or give directions, for instance — may allow us to learn word decoding on the route to extracting simple meanings, but literature enables us to learn complex reading behaviors that involve responding, reflecting, valuing, choosing, and taking a stand on life’s complex issues. — NCTE, The What, How, and Why of Teaching Literature (A Draft Report)

Sledge recommends providing a reading selection for each reading ability group that relates to a common theme and essential questions. Essential questions, Grant Wiggins, has defined as “important, vital, at the heart of the matter — the essence of the issue.” Sledge’s approach respects Howard Gardner’s two key principles in teaching today: individualization or “learning as much as possible about the learner” and pluralization “teaching in a multiplicity of ways so you’re more likely to reach all learners (Future of Education Webinar, Sept. 22, 2011). Gardner’s two principles are also principles 1 and 2 in our pedagogical framework, Learning Through Literature with Young Adults (LTLWYA).

In our LTLWYA framework, under the category of “Open Literature,” we expand our range of literature (beyond books to Web and everyday hard copy and electronic materials) and move beyond whole class to book clubs and individual projects. We also consider building a varied classroom library.

Because speculative fiction (the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and a plethora of subgenres from steampunk to paranormal)is so popular with teens now, we’ll work together on a project to share popular speculative fiction titles representing a range of issues, interests, and reading levels. All reflect in some way the essential question of what it means to be human and how that may be changing. Everyone will choose a book for this project and “curate” the book as well as share a response. We’ll also work in book clubs to share and curate nonfiction titles and sequential art titles that deal in some way with social justice and the need to work for positive social change. Finally, we will all read Rot and Ruin’s sequel, Dust and Decay, and develop a structured interview to prepare for our meeting with Jonathan Maberry in the Bookhenge on December 5. Learn more about The Change Project . . .

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