GUEST BLOG: NOT JUST OLD, DEAD WHITE MEN: ADDING CONTEMPORARY YA LITERATURE TO THE SECONDARY CURRICULUM

Reading

My son, Eric, is a third year high school English teacher. He wrote this as part of his final capstone project in college, just before starting full time student teaching. I think of this as his teaching manifesto. I asked him if I could share this, and I also asked him to write a followup on how it’s going, now that he’s been teaching for a few years.

Not Just Old, Dead White Men: 

Adding Contemporary Young Adult Literature to the Secondary Curriculum

When one thinks of the traditional novels read in high school, many come to mind. From The Scarlet Letter, to The Great Gatsby, to the works of Shakespeare, students across the country are reading texts written before most of their teachers were born. In fact, often before their grandparents were born. While these texts have provided important themes and subject matter, many students have difficulty both comprehending and connecting with these canonical pieces of literature. Because of this, students are not learning to the best of their abilities. They are getting lost and frustrated in the writings of old, dead white men, instead of opening their minds with texts they can identify with. I believe that instead of strictly teaching these canonical texts, one should incorporate young adult fiction into the curriculum. 

Young adult literature looks very different from canonical pieces. Many works of classic literature look very similar, with the exception of writers like Joyce and Pynchon, but those writers are not typically read in high school. Young adult literature today, on the other hand, covers an incredibly varied number of formats, and often traffics in genres like science fiction and fantasy. Some contemporary young adult literature has nothing to do with genre at all, not an alien civilization or dystopia in sight, but the difference is, the story is set in today’s world, with characters the students can relate to. And if the characters are not like them, they are at least their contemporaries. Students can easily identify with the novels, and with characters who are like them, more so than with canonical texts. This leads to students actually reading the assigned books, and learning more. 

When one reads a canonical piece, the formatting is often essentially the same. There will be a narrator telling their story, set in some historical setting. There is nothing really unique about them. For the most part, these classic texts look the same to today’s student readers. This is in sharp contrast to what is currently popular. As an example, take the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Ransom Riggs. The novel is built around vintage photos that both catch the eye and propel the story forward. This helps the student identify the plot and themes. As James Serafini says, “Using storyboards to simultaneously display images from a novel allows readers to focus on the images and design features necessary to construct meanings.” This method of writing works to engage the student with the text. A student connects with this kind of writing more than a canonical piece. Samantha Beatty, an eighth grade teacher at Wellston Middle School, in Wellston, Ohio, teaches this novel. She says, “Miss Peregrine’s is a text that is very popular at this age, and is something that my students really enjoy reading. The students connect with the text and its themes, allowing an excellent learning environment.” Because the students connect with the text so well, learning is not only easier, but it makes it fun, and fun translates to reading more. That is one of the most important facets of adding young adult literature to the curriculum. 

I mentioned that young adult literature looks very different from canonical texts. Books like The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent series, present dystopian worlds that are clearly offshoots of our own. At the time of this writing, six out of the top ten novels on the NY Times Young Adult Bestseller List use dystopias as their settings. This is not just escapist literature. These novels, and many like them, use the dystopian setting to talk about important things like the corruptive threat of power, the role of media in society, the danger of totalitarianism, even religion. All in a palatable way that should be included in the curriculum. Instead of trying to jam something like The Great Gatsby down student’s throats, a book set in a world few of today’s teenagers can identify with (unless those teenagers live in Beverly Hills), including a novel that students can connect with helps them learn better.

Traditionally, guys like reading novels about guys, and many girls like reading novels about other girls. One issue that canonical texts face is that many of them are strictly geared towards the young men in the classroom. Many of these novels are written by men, about men, and for men. Even when the writers are women, the results are often the same. Very few canonical pieces feature a female character that young girls can look up to, and identify with. Novels like The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre feature a female lead character whom many consider to be weak; not exactly a role model for today. Without a lead character to identify with, many young girl students lose touch with the novel. However, young adult literature is a place where many young girls can find a character to look up to, to emulate. Hermione, Katniss, Tris, Eleanor; these characters are all powerful young women who make excellent role models for students, male or female. For teenage readers without good role models at home, they may turn to fiction to find their heroes. This is almost impossible to find in canonical pieces, so incorporating young adult literature into the curriculum fills an important role. 

Why should one include young adult literature into the curriculum? Well, at one Chicago high school, “Student’s don’t audibly groan when they whip out their books at the start of English class” (Eldeib). Many students have trouble connecting to canonical texts, either because of the language it is written in, or the content. Young adult literature can change all of that, as many of the themes are the same as canonical texts.  Young adult literature “Can be just as complex as classic canon, but can be more accessible and relatable” (Connors). This is an important point made by Connors, as it shows that young adult literature should be fully encompassed inside the realm of traditional texts. It is important that teachers instill upon their students that reading is important. Some believe that “The THAT of teenagers reading is more important than the WHAT” (Gibbons). In this day and age, with computers and iPhones and the internet, with videogames ever more popular, literacy is something that slips through the cracks sometimes. Young adult literature can help increase literacy. Instead of high school students just reading The Scarlet Letter, full of purple prose, moralizing, and what people today would call slut shaming, you can pair it with Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth about Alice. This novel covers the same themes as The Scarlet Letter, but in a much more accessible way. Reading a young adult literature take on a canonical piece, specifically pairing them together, gets students interested and able to identify with both novels. 

Traditionally, resources such as SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, and No-Fear Shakespeare have been the bane of the teacher’s existence. These resources allow students to take the easy way out, and not actually read the texts that are assigned. They just read the shortened version, try to pass the quiz or test, crank out a paper, and forget about it completely. One of the best parts of teaching a contemporary young adult novel is that often a SparkNotes has not been created for it yet. As Connors says, “…Used to promote close reading, which is considered essential for standardized tests”. Because the students do not have anywhere to go for answers but the text, they will be forced, at first through necessity but later through their own wanting, to closely examine the text. Students will have “discussions… [that] are an essential part of what happens within our classrooms nearly every day” (Roberts). Having full class, or small group discussions about the text opens students’ minds to what others think, and makes them really explore the text on their own accord. Using young adult literature truly opens new doors to students. 

Some feel that the current Common Core Exemplar Novels are dated. In fact, a survey done by S. Wolk, as quoted by Rybakova, says that, “Of the top ten books read in secondary schools nationwide, Shakespearian plays make up 30%, and of the top texts, one was written by a White woman; all other texts were written by White males. The most recent book that students read out of the canon is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960”. It has been 56 years since the latest novel was added to the canon. The world has changed by leaps and bounds in that time, and yet, the literature students read in school hasn’t. That is an issue; this is why young adult literature should be supplementing these texts. How are students expected to identify with characters and events that were written decades before they were born? The literature taught in classrooms needs to change with the students, not be held rigidly in place. A changing of the guard needs to happen, at least partly. 

I am not saying that canonical pieces should be completely replaced, quite the opposite in fact. Young adult literature should be taught in conjunction with canonical texts. Many canonical pieces are part of the Common Core Exemplar lists, because of their importance as pieces of literature, and their importance to society. However, many young adult texts cover the same themes, in a more modern way that is relatable to teenagers. Look at The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Catcher is a classic novel, read in junior English classes across the country. Its main theme, of the struggle of growing up, and the loss of innocence, is still extremely applicable to students everywhere. However, it was written in 1951, when the world was very different than it is today. Holden Caulfield’s big loss of innocence in the novel is seeing the F-word written on a wall. However, in this day and age, that word is regularly said even in elementary school playgrounds across the country. The standards are different now than when Catcher was written. For those students who have trouble identifying with Holden Caulfield, there is a very suitable companion novel. The perfect novel to pair with The Catcher in the Rye is Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It takes the very same themes of growing up and the loss of innocence, but makes it more relevant for students. These novels are perfect to pair together, and can be used for close reading, and comparative essays. Pairing these two texts is an excellent way of blending the canon with the new.   

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels of all time, has themes that transcend time, and is still exceedingly relevant today. Racism is sadly alive and well; this is one novel that has aged well. But even To Kill a Mockingbird has a contemporary pairing. Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is about a young African-American teenager on trial for felony murder. The novel focuses on racism in modern day New York. Monster is something that students can really relate to, as the main character is a teenager, instead of a young girl, like Scout. This pairing does an excellent job of combining the canon with the new, and is something that helps students learn. 

Another pairing that should be done is the classic 1984, by George Orwell, with the newer Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. The conversation about government surveillance is currently at a fever pitch, with the San Bernardino shooter’s phone unlocking case dominating headlines. 1984 has never been more relevant. At the same time, Little Brother encompasses all that 1984 does, but it does so on the bleeding edge of technology, using words and ideas teenagers live with every day. Using both of these novels, in conjunction with current informative and non-fiction news articles, would make for an excellent unit that once again blends the canon with young adult literature, while keeping it relevant and interesting for students.

Chadwick and Grassie recommend first picking a theme, such as civil disobedience, and then finding both a canonical text and a contemporary piece to accompany it. In the case of civil disobedience, a classic work is Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which is a common text to read. However, instead of just reading that, one could accompany it with any of Cesar Chavez’s speeches. Chavez also offers an ethnic approach. Additionally, one could use any number of speeches from the Black Lives Matter movement, to give civil disobedience even more of a current twist. 

As has been said before, the canon should not be replaced; only supplemented. While some students really do enjoy the classics, many others have a difficult time getting into these novels. Fisher outlines several techniques that are very useful in teaching these difficult canon texts. The first is that modeling is a fantastic technique to help students learn. 

Students need to hear their teachers thinking aloud about complex texts. These events should provide them an opportunity to witness how another person works to understand the text. Importantly, teachers have to understand what made the text complex if they are going to effectively model aspects of text complexity. For example, if the sentence structure contributed to the complexity, then the teacher needs to model how she works to make sense of those sentences.

By modeling and using think aloud, students observe the proper way to dig into a difficult text. This method is extremely helpful for those students who are visual/auditory learners. Modeling is an excellent way to help students with difficult texts. Another technique is annotating. Fisher says that by color-coding as one underlines or circling words and phrases one doesn’t understand, or which appear to be key points, is very helpful (Fisher). A combination of modeling and annotating is one of the best ways to help students attack a text, and are great methods to use when using a difficult text. 

Young adult literature is not always accepted in every classroom. In fact, some believe that young adult literature has absolutely no place in the English classroom. Gibbons says that “… young adult literature lacks sophistication and literary merit. Teachers in our study indicated that YAL does not have the qualities of canonical texts, and, therefore, will not help students to meet the same curricular objectives”. However, young adult literature can have incredibly complex themes that more than hold up to scrutiny, and are more than able to add value to the curriculum. If one were to look at a novel like The Hunger Games, one could dismiss it immediately as young adult escapism that adds nothing to the conversation. However, on closer examination, strong themes like the power of sacrifice, the importance of standing up for what one believes in, and even civil disobedience in the face of a corrupt government are evident. I think even Thoreau would find something of value in Katniss’ struggle. This contemporary novel has very complex themes that more than hold up under a microscope. Young adult literature has a lot of value in the modern day English Language Arts classroom. 

Young adult literature has a lot of value in the classroom, if only teachers are willing to work with it. I recognize this would go against the grain in many school districts, and I do not think it could happen all at once. There are definitely challenges involved. For instance, when considering book pairings, one such pairing I thought of brought up something that should be briefly discussed. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks with Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Both are heartbreaking and harrowing looks at drug addiction. But Cruddy, while one of the most deeply moving novels I have ever read, is also unsparing in its depiction of drug use, sex and violence. Books like this, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and even His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman because of the treatment of organized religion, would be wonderful to teach, but could also lead to censorship challenges. In my view, the benefits would be more than worth the risk, but I recognize that this is one more thing a teacher must consider.

Baby steps may be necessary. I look forward to taking those baby steps when I become a teacher, and eventually giant steps, because I believe strongly that this is the best way forward to promote literacy and make fiction relevant to kids today. It makes many themes and ideas accessible to students, and for some it can instill a lifelong love of reading. While the canon has become that for a reason, adding young adult literature to it, not replacing it, is the key to an incredible, and incredibly relevant, ILA curriculum. 

Not Just Old, Dead, White Men: Revisited 

I wrote the above essay when I was a starry eyed, completely inexperienced 22 year old potential teacher, completing one of the last classes before I student-taught. In the five years since then, I’ve taught at two very different schools, and thought a lot about my ideals as a teacher, specifically relating to literature. 

Let’s be honest here: Many English teachers get into the profession because they have both a love of literature, and at the very minimum, a desire to work with high schoolers every day, and help them learn and grow for the future. Graduating college, I knew that I was going to struggle to reach at least some kids with literature, kids who had never picked up a book willingly in their lives. Sadly, that was a takeaway from student teaching. My hope was that teaching more contemporary literature would help these kids embrace reading. 

The first school I taught at, fresh out of college, was different than most. It was a boarding school for kids with emotional or behavioral disorders. Each of these students, while mostly of above average intelligence, all had issues that prohibited them from learning well at a traditional school. At this school, educationally, I could teach literally whatever I wanted. I was lucky enough, in my time there, to teach both a science fiction literature class, and a horror in literature and film class, two passions of mine. I was given the freedom to adjust my curriculum as I saw fit, and because of this, most of my students were highly engaged readers. This led to many in depth discussions and analyses during class, and ultimately led to them better understanding the meaning behind the content, the reasons why. 

I also taught traditional 12th grade English during my time there, but in that case I had to follow the lead of my co-teacher. My co-teacher was using a very traditional curriculum, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, my students seemed a little lost until we were able to make connections to their world, to build bridges between the novels we read and their lives. Students today almost demand more current curriculum, just to engage them. Something I’ve found to be true so far in my few short years of teaching, is that the more students trust you, and enjoy the content you bring to them, the easier it is to get them to listen. However, not all, or even many, schools allow a teacher to teach whatever they please. 

My current school has a very interesting background that affects some of my curriculum. It’s a relatively new school that has only been operating for about nine years. It was originally started by families who came from a biblical cult that has since ceased operation. This means that some topics, even as straightforward as evolution, really anything “slightly controversial” (I once got a small talking to for showing a documentary on Auschwitz while reading Night), are almost completely off limits. For example, I originally wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider a brilliant work of fiction, as well as a novel that is easily relatable to modern society. That did not go over well. Additionally, my girlfriend, who also teaches at the same school, wanted to teach Monster, which is commonly read in ninth grade. That was also denied, for being too real.  For my ninth and tenth grade classes, I am required to stick to the essentials. Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and the like. I try my best to connect these texts to the modern world for my students, but it isn’t always effective. I have a little more freedom with my upper grades, and I can teach just about whatever I want in AP Lit, but it can be a struggle. 

This year, after literal begging from my tenth graders, I convinced my principal to allow me to teach something more modern. We read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, as a companion piece to 1984. In short, I was given the chance to test out my college ideals. This unit was done to great success, as the students had a very easy time identifying with the novel, the themes, the characters, everything. It led to some incredible conversations in class. I was lucky I was able to do something that could really show my students off. 

Looking back on everything, I still have a very long way to go to really implement what I want to do. I know it depends on the administration, on the location of the school, and so many other things. I want to stress that in many ways this is a wonderful school to work for. Their academic standards are rigorous, and the students post some of the highest test scores in the state. My students in particular are doing very well. What really matters in this day and age is to get students engaged. And so far, in my very early teaching career, teaching literature that is relevant to the students is one of the easier ways to accomplish it.

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