Thoughts after reading Insurgent

A small storm of thoughts have converged on me today as the result of three occurrences: 1) Yesterday I finished reading Insurgent, 2) I am disheartened by some of the response to the choosing of Miss America, 3) I am ever mindful of the place YA literature has/should have in the high school classroom.

Whenever I read a book, I think about what students could gain from reading it. In this frame of mind, I noted the following passages from Veronica Roths Insurgent:

People, I have discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them (510).

Color fills her cheeks, and I think it again: that Johanna Reyes might still be beautiful. Except now I think that she isnt just beautiful in spite of the scar, shes somehow beautiful with it, like Lynn with her buzzed hair, like Tobias with the memories of his fathers cruelty that he wears like armor, like my mother in her plain gray clothing (517).

If this book were read in my classroom, I would ask students to explain what they thought each passage meant in the context of the book. Then I would ask how they could apply this meaning to what they know of life.

How valuable it would be for young people to reflect upon their knowledge of othersfriends, family, acquaintances, strangersand on what they can or cannot truly know about them. How valuable to reflect upon what they choose to share with others and what others can never really know of them. Or upon how they can trust people whose motives may or may not be transparent to them. Or upon beauty and whether it might possibly stem from what people become because they have suffered.

Despite the usefulness I see of including such a book and such a discussion in a high school classroom, I have personally witnessed some educators dismissal of contemporary YA works as worthless, simple, or too focused on kissing, popularity, and vampires. Can such an attitude be espoused by a person who has read a book like Insurgent and discussed with students the passages quoted above? I have a hard time believing so.

The truth is that high school students possess many resources that will make meaning of canonical textsfor them. The teacher will do it in the classroom. The internet will do it outside the classroom. With so many answers out there, the sad truth is that many students choose not to read the challenging, original text at all. If they dont read the text, they cant make their own meaning.

One of the primary values of YA literature, to me, besides its presentation as less daunting than a canonical tome, is the use of a young adult protagonists perspective to make it easier for the young reader to make their own meaning.

When I read comments about in Indian-American becoming Miss America that call her a Muslim terrorist, or bemoan the fact that she was chosen just after the anniversary of 9/11, or that another, whiter candidate is somehow more American because she can shoot a gun and loves her country, I think of the chance that might have been missed when these commenters were in high school, what truths they might have discovered if they hadnt been forced to accept a teachers interpretation of a canonical text, but instead had been asked to read and discuss YA literature that delivered messages about being human in a way that could help them make meaning for themselves.

I believe that texts read in schools should be challenging, but I dont necessarily believe that for a young audience they should be challenging for their obscure language, sophisticated art, or esoteric philosophy. Many, many young people, to be sure, have the skills and aptitude to handle the canon independently or with minimal guidance, and I strongly believe all students should experience the canon. However, I feel there is a challenge even greater than the one to stretch a vocabulary or appreciate brilliant figures of speech. It is the challenge to ones ideas and beliefs about the world. For many, many students, YA literature is the very best vehicle to help them rise to that challenge.

I realize that this post probably seems self-serving because I’m now going to be a published writer of YA literature. However, my belief in the power of contemporary YA books predates my decision to write them. I write because I hope something I have to say will challenge young people to examine, then confirm or revise, their ideas and beliefs.

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Reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars cover

In the past 24 hours I have been a-flurry with thoughts about YA literature, mostly because I had two significant reading experiences. The first is the YA novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished last night. The second is an article in NCTE’s Council Chronicle (Volume 22, No. 2) titled “YA LiteratureWhere Teens Find Themselves” by Lorna Collier, which I read this morning.

Originally I wanted to write this post about Green’s novel, about how wonderful it is and what ideas I have for reading it together with a classroom of high school students. But while I considered my topic over breakfast, I read the NCTE article and found these quotes particularly relevant:

From Don Gallo, ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE) co-founder:

“There are some schools where no teacher even knows about YA lit . . . You ask, ‘What do you think about young adult literature?’ and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t teach that crap here.’ That’s been an attitude of some English teachers since forever. There are school districts where YA is used in middle school but not high school because ‘in high school we do the REAL literature.'”

From Robert C. Small, past ALAN president, quoted from a 1986 article published in NCTE’s English Journal:

“These are works of literature [from a list including Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, etc.] even in the narrowest and most conservative sense. They have serious intent, careful craftsmanship, effective expression, and other qualities that make literature literature.”

Essentially, the point I took away from this article is that many teachers don’t teach YA literature because they think it isn’t valuable in a classroom.

Do teachers really think this? The article didn’t cite any specific research, and I didn’t do a search for such research before writing this. What I do know for certain is that I didn’t include young adult literature in my classroom for many years.

Why didn’t I? First and foremost, I was completely unfamiliar with it. By the time I started teaching, my last encounter with young adult literature had been junior high school, when I was primarily concerned with questions of love and popularity. As I moved into high school I became a strictly adult book reader.

I went to high school in the late 80s, in a time when YA literature was not the same as it is now. That’s not to say YA lit of the 80s wasn’t valuable or important, there just wasn’t the huge volume and variety there is now. I wonder if I were an adolescent today if I would have a greater or lesser interest in YA books, and I wonder if young teachers today who were raised in a world of such books are more likely to teach them.

When I started teaching, I did not look down my nose at YA literature. As I said, I just didn’t know a thing about it. My teacher preparation program hadn’t exposed me to the latest and greatest works of YA lit, and no one in my new English department was teaching it. Although I don’t know this for sure, I don’t think a single English teacher in my department in the mid-90s had a classroom library with numerous new releases. I don’t say this to be critical. I don’t think they had any better idea what was new in the YA publishing world than I did, and I was fresh out of college.

The truth is that I didn’t really get interested in YA literature until I attended a BER workshop titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” I was looking for professional development points in order to renew my teaching license, and it seemed about time for me to really learn about what my students were reading when I wasn’t assigning Frankenstein or Romeo and Juliet. This coupled with my growing interest in a writing career put me on the path to developing a classroom library that sought to keep up with YA lit as it was being published.

It might seem obvious to you, if you are not an English teacher, that it’s important to keep up with the real world of books, but it’s not always so obvious to an English teacher. We are trained to teach the canon. We are trained to teach literary analysis, the five-paragraph essay, and (sometimes) grammar.

My own experience was that the more familiar I became with the actual real world of book publishing, and the more I understood and read the books my students were reading, and the more I could share about the professional world of writing (in other words the more I stopped being insulated from my field by classroom walls), the more I felt I could offer my students a glimmer of understanding as to how what-you-do-in-school is relevant-to-life.

There’s something about literature that always feels abstract when you’re a student. Something that makes the big ideas float around in a great mist you can wade through and even glimpse through, but never hold in your hand. The ideas encountered in English classes are universal, but contextual. I feel YA literature is a valid way to provide context for the audience it’s meant to address.

The story of a cancer patient and her romance with another cancer patient, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is one book I would use with students at any high school level. It is the kind of literature I wish all high school teachers were using in their classrooms. Although many more teachers are using contemporary YA works today than back in the 90s when I started teaching, I like to think even more would use it if they just read a book like The Fault in Our Stars.

And since this post has become longer than I intended, I’ll leave off with two blurbs from the back of my hardcover edition. I think they pretty succinctly state why I would love to read Green’s book with a group of high schoolers:

“[Green] shows us true lovetwo teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating and emotional ordealsand it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” -New York Times Book Review

The Fault in Our Stars takes a spin on universal themesWill I be loved? Will I be remembered? Will I leave a mark on this world?by dramatically raising the stakes for the characters who are asking.” -Jodi Picoult


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Epilogue web series

Turning time travel on its head, one paradox at a time.

My favorite part about being an English teacher was sharing my passion for story. Every year I had a number of students whose passion equaled mine, and working with them was always such a joy.

In the tradition of teachers sharing their passion, Diana Dru Botsford, my long-time critique partner, has collaborated with her film students at Missouri State University to create the web series Epilogue. Here is the press release:

Effect precedes cause in this 6-part science fiction time travel web series. EPILOGUE separates itself from the classic ‘time travel’ trope using biological time travel which comes at a physical cost.

When a modern world-wide plague becomes resistant to all cures, time-travelers must seek answers in a legendary 14th century rural French village known for its immunity to the original Bubonic Plague. The team gets more than they’ve bargained for when the inevitable twists of time travel force them into discovering the modern plague’s origins… ending in an unexpected confrontation to prevent humanity’s extinction.

The EPILOGUE web series will appeal to science fiction/fantasy fans, web series viewers and anyone who enjoys character-driven action-adventure. As EPILOGUE’s characters race to save the present, they struggle with what matters most: the good of the many, the few, and the one.

In a world where the more things change, the more they stay the same; EPILOGUE questions the very nature of time, seeking the means to change the past and future in order to save the present.

EPILOGUE was created by Diana Dru Botsford (co-writer ST: TNG “Rascals,” and Stargate SG-1 novelist [Four Dragons, The Drift], and screenwriting professor) in an extensive collaboration with Missouri State University’s Department of Media, Journalism & Film (MJF). Series production utilized the varied talents of its award-winning screenwriting and film production students and faculty. Fifteen months in the making, EPILOGUE is MJF’s largest undertaking to date.

All six episodes of the series have been released, the latest just this past Sunday (8/12/12). Epilogue is worth watching not only because it tells a good story (and executes it with all the modern movie-making bells and whistles), but because it’s a perfect example of what students can achieve under the guidance of passionate teachers.

All six episodes of Season One are now available at http://epiloguetheseries.com, and the website contains special features including a blog and a look behind the scenes. Check it out!


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Books for high school kids building a classroom library

It took me way too long to discover the value of having a classroom library. I taught high school English for about ten years before it occurred to me to have one, and once I did, it made an immediate and substantial difference in my classroom. The following is a mixture of my actual experience and what I would do if I were teaching now (or will do if I go back!).

Why have a classroom library?

The curriculum at my school didn’t generally contain books my students liked, and it never contained books that were new to the market. This is because the curriculum was largely centered in The Canon, especially in the British literature class I taught, and because the administration was, to put it kindly, traditional. Also, getting approval for a book to enter the curriculum officially took time, money, and a lot of evidence of the books’ educational value, a process which is understandable, but not friendly to the latest releases.

There is some research to show that learners benefit from having a classroom library. Here are a couple of statements I found in a quick search of the web:

“‘The policy of having large classroom libraries was found to be “one of the most important differential policies between high-scoring and low-scoring countries” . . . a powerful indicator for both nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds.’ So says an international study by the Australian School Library Association.” Souce here.

“Research shows that students in classrooms with high-quality classroom libraries read 50 per cent more than students who do not have access to a library in the classroom.” Source here.

What books do you use to stock your library?

Probably the most important characteristic of a good classroom library is variety. I tried to stock mine with both literary and genre books (horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, thriller). For a high school classroom, include titles that would be considered middle grade (for the less strong readers), some young adult titles (for grade-level readers and age-appropriate interest), and adult titles (because some kids prefer to read up). If you have a book that you feel kids would benefit from reading, but you think a more conservative parent might question, you can always have permission slips on hand that need to be signed before letting a student borrow a book. Or you could send a permission slip at the start of the year stating you have such books in the collection and ask parents if they wish to be notified of their child’s choices.

I found titles in a variety of places. First and foremost, I was inspired by a workshop I attended called What’s New in Young Adult Literature and How To Use It in your Program, sponsored by The Bureau of Education and Research. The workshop presenter had read hundreds of just-published MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books, and the workshop itself gave brief overviews of many of them with a view to who would like them and how to use them in class. I came away from the workshop with an annotated bibliography of those hundreds of books as well as notes taken from the comments of the other teachers and librarians in the room. I learned, for example, about Twilight in this setting, back when New Moon was brand new.

I found other titles on YALSA’s (Young Adult Library Services Association) website, where they publish “Best Books for Young Adults” lists by year and list a variety of awards. Some titles I got from my students themselves since every year I had at least a few kids who read a lot outside of school (I came to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series this way). Some books I found from reading reviews about them in the Boston Globe or elsewhere. Some were recommendations from friends. Any place there was buzz about a book, I checked it out. I specifically remember hearing about A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl by Tanya Lee Stone and thinking there’s no way my kids would have the patience to read a novel in verse. I bought it anyway, and it became the biggest must-read in my collection. In fact, one former student still has it . . .

I’ll admit I didn’t have many members of the The Canon in my classroom library because my students were getting so much of that in their regular curriculum. Looking back, I think this was a mistake. I also wish I had included more non-fiction and more non-traditional choices like graphic novels and even magazines.

Where do the books come from (i.e. how do you afford them)?

Since most school systems don’t just hand out thousands of dollars to start a classroom library, you have to find ways to afford it yourself. I created mine with my own money, which is why it probably has a higher percentage of science fiction and fantasy than it should have. I’m not rich, I just love owning new books, and so my classroom library was really a subset of my personal library that I shared with kids at school.

There are plenty of other options, however. I found this website with creative ideas for building up a library without breaking the bank. I like the Amazon.com wishlist idea because it is one way to stock your library with contemporary books. I also like the idea of inviting parents to donate a book in honor of their child because it’s something I would do if extended the invitation. The truth is there are many thrifty ways to stock a classroom library from yard sales, to donations, to public/school library supplements, to periodic exchanges with other teachers’ libraries

What do you do with a library?

One common use for a classroom library is to offer additional reading related to topics studied in class. Doing a unit on life at the turn of the 20th century? Stock Janet Fox’s Faithful. Talking about modern consumerist culture? Try Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Addressing the issue of suicide? How about Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why. Studying Huxley’s Brave New World? Give Allie Condie’s Matched a shot.

I used my library mostly as a resource for discourse about story. Some of my students took away strong messages from their reading (like with anything by Scott Westerfeld) and some simply took away the fun of having read a book. I did like that the library was part of our book review unit where we studied professional reviews as a way of experiencing real world applications for the skills English classes teach. I offered extra credit on the term grade to students who did outside reading and wrote up a detailed review. When you build your library, consider keeping a binder with reviews written by your students. Nothing is more likely to get a high school student to read than the recommendation of a peer.

Note that it’s easier for kids to choose a book if they are grouped according to interest. You can do it by difficulty: easy read/grade level read/challenging read. Or genre: romance/horror/non-fiction etc. Or some other way logical to your students.

But you have to read, too!

In my experience, the having of a classroom library is only as useful at it is part of the culture of the classroom. I like to read. I encouraged my kids to read. I designed in-class projects and extra-curricular projects where kids chose their own books, many of which came from my classroom library. Make your library books a part of what gets talked about in class, and make sure you read all (or as many as possible) of the books in your library.

At the start of each term, or more regularly if you like, take out a few books and hold them up for the class to see while you talk about their premises. Inevitably there will be a few kids who find themselves intrigued. Let the kids tell the class about books they’ve read. Make recommending good reads to others a safe and normal thing to do.

My favorite yes-teachers-read-too idea came from my friend Cynthia, who taught next door to me. She made photocopies of a sign that read “[insert teacher’s name] is reading [insert book title] by [insert author].” She laminated the signs and gave one to each teacher to post outside their classroom door. Most of the teachers in school used them, and it was really interesting for kids and teachers to walk down the halls and see what everyone else in the building was reading. Talk about building a positive book culture!

Do you have any tips for building or using a classroom library? I’d love to hear from you!


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What should high school students be reading?–follow-up

Because this website is getting so many hits from people Googling some variation of “What high school students should read,” I thought I would post this follow-up. (Original post here.) What follows is curriculum- and research-oriented.

When we were looking into redesigning the English curriculum where I taught, two sources were at the top of our list, and both have stated positions on kids and reading. The first is the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, published by the Massachusetts Department of Education (obviously my school was in Massachusetts, but you can find the equivalent for your state). The second is the National Council of Teachers of English, of which I am a member (and would recommend you become a member, too, if you are an English teacher at any level). Although I post a couple of passages below, you might consider researching at each source more thoroughly.

From the Massachusetts Frameworks in Language Arts:

Note on range and content of student reading: To become college and career ready, students must grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought whose range extends across genres, cultures, and centuries. Such works offer profound insights into the human condition and serve as models for students own thinking and writing. Along with high-quality contemporary works, these texts should be chosen from among seminal U.S. documents, the classics of American literature, and the timeless dramas of Shakespeare. Through wide and deep reading of literature and literary nonfiction of steadily increasing sophistication, students gain a reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge, references, and images; the ability to evaluate intricate arguments; and the capacity to surmount the challenges posed by complex texts.

From the National Council of Teachers of English:

In order to make sure that all individuals have access to the personal pleasures and intellectual benefits of full literacy, NCTE believes that our society and our schools must provide students with:

  • access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
  • ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
  • teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
  • opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
  • and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

You may also benefit from looking at NCTE’s position statements on literature.

Also note that while we were researching effective ways to update our curriculum, we spent a lot of time on the websites of other schools in our area and of the top-performing schools in our state. We looked at such variables as what schools offered for required courses vs. electives, what texts were taught at each grade level and each competency level, and how much room there was for individual teachers to select books that worked best in their classroom (as opposed to everyone, across the course, reading lock-step identical texts). You may find it quite eye-opening to see what is being taught in the schools near you.

There are many reasons you might be researching “high school reading choices.” Perhaps you are a high schooler looking for the title of a worthwhile read (in which case, I’m sorry this post isn’t helpful), or perhaps you are questioning the curriculum at your school. Maybe you are a parent concerned about your child’s reading at school or at home. Maybe you are a teacher or administrator looking to reform your school’s curriculum. Although schools vary widely in their approach to change, I found my experience trying to update the curriculum a little frustrating. In the end I had to turn to alternative methods for introducing contemporary texts. The most important alternative was my classroom library, which I might address in another post.

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Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

— Les Brown