classroom library

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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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 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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But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike anyone if one looked at them.

— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse