Reading from a different angle



Our class recently discussed S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), considering it in the light of Erik Erikson’s views (1963) on American identity, which he believes developed under the pressures of various “polarities”: individualism vs. loyalty to the community, hard vs. soft (“better a sinner than a sucker”), etc. If you’ve read Hinton’s breakout novel, published when she was just 17 years old, you know Ponyboy’s struggles as he negotiates the embattled line between the Greasers and the Socs.

It’s a popular book, riffing off of West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause and other outsider/insider texts. Hinton’s novel highlights the lower-class and middle-class divide: what kind of cars the members of the two gangs own, where they live, where they hang out, what they wear. To modern readers, the divide is visible, felt, continually contested. There is no DMZ, only “our turf” and “their turf”.

Which brings me to my point. While Erikson allows us to see Ponyboy’s struggle as a metaphor for every American’s struggle, it’s a monochromatic and monogendered struggle. That is, Hinton’s characters (and Erikson’s examples) are all white and mostly male.

Do modern teens, living in a more integrated country (albeit still haunted by racism and its consequences), notice the missing people? Is it enough to argue that Hinton’s purpose was NOT to address issues of race or gender? Is there any benefit in asking students to consider the novel from the stance of a woman or a person of color?

9780060243647_xlgDown-These-Mean-Streets-9780679781424Because my job requires me to think about diversity – among the teachers in my courses and their current and future students – I read with such questions in mind. It may be that the way to make the omissions visible is to pair Hinton’s book with something like Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions, featuring African American and Puerto Rican characters. Set in Harlem the 1980s, Myers’ novel is closer to the experiences of students in NYC classrooms. Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets is another, perhaps even more interesting option, since it was published the same year as The Outsiders.

Whichever book I select, it will at least address one part of diversity, helping readers to see and wonder about what’s missing.


2015 and a new course

huckpicHere’s the reading list for this term’s course: Huck Finn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Town, Dave at Night, Fifteen, The Outsiders, The Bluest Eye, Feathers, American Born Chinese, Donald Duk, kira-kira, and Where Do You Stop?.

Are some of these titles new to you? Well then, keep an eye on this blog to learn more about each of them. Our focus will be on how children and adolescents are portrayed in American fiction, and I hope we can come up with some useful insights.

Happy reading to all!

Banned Books Week 2014

BBW13_CoverArtThanks, SDR, for reminding us of Banned Books Week, coming September 21-27. As ELA teachers, let’s find a way to celebrate this, and reading, with our students.

The American Library Association’s website has many suggestions for ways to participate, as does the NCTE’s website. Remember: few things seem to excite teens to read more than someone telling them a book is so dangerous it must be taken off the shelves.

A challenge to each of you: tell us what dangerous book you’re going to read.


Article about American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang's self portrait

Gene Luen Yang’s self portrait

In the May 2014 issue of English Journal, Melissa Schieble discusses how to teach “racial literacy” via Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel. “Racial literacy” is Lani Guinier’s term for a critical stance that “moves citizens to explore race as less about interpersonal injustices and more ‘about the distribution of power’ and resources” (p. 49).

Schieble also proposes a list of questions to help students develop skills in critical visual literacy — in other words, how to read graphic novels as more than just entertainment.

Schieble’s list includes questions that look at “image syntax, shot distance, angles, and color” (p. 50). These questions work just as well when viewing film, sculpture, photography, or any other form of visual art.

These are the types of questions that will make APs happy to see students addressing in your classroom, especially if they see you moving the students from graphic novels to more complex informational texts which must also be read critically.

So find this article and read it, pen and paper at hand for the notes you’ll want to take.


Top-Ten Digital Reading Tools

blog wordleWant to help your students get excited about reading, especially reading independently? Sara Kajder’s April 19 post on her NerdyReader blog gives some pointers for hooking your students via digital tools such as GoodReads and Wordle. As Kajder explains,

It is usually the [reluctant readers] who are the most surprised when we begin using a variety of apps and digital tools to support their work as readers, as the thought of using Vine or Instagram in English class both disrupts their expectations and leads them to rethink the ways in which readers choose texts, make meaning and share their thinking with others.

How many of Kajder’s recommended digital reading tools are you familiar with?


Why We Teach YA – PB

Why We Teach YA:
As teaching professionals, I think we often teach YA because we have our own important memories of being young adolescents in the classroom. Some important experience has led us to the decision to teach. A passion for learning and literature certainly helps in this challenging job. We realize the real possibility of making an academic contribution to these young students and the importance of this influence, both personal and professional on students once they become adults. For me it was the memorable experience of literature and poetry that I discovered and loved but it also stems from feeling excluded in the learning process and being misunderstood by the teaching professional. Personal experience like this is something that we can build on in deciding how to approach the role as teacher and student friend.

Who We Are-PB

Who We Are:

We are individuals who recognize the importance of learning, the process of learning in individual lives and how language and the proper use of English can be of great value to anyone striving to be their best professionally or personally. We wish to show the importance and power of the English language and how through its use, it can affect the cultural, political and racial environment around us. There is a tradition of learning through literature and written response but also I think we are prospective teachers who realize that unlike social media where individuals are detached physically, in the classroom we have the opportunity to communicate on a one on one basis. The important use of dialogue and the exchange of ideas that can be seen not just through words but body language and facial expression is something we want to take advantage of in the process of teaching students. We care about humanity and the idea of justice and liberty, as corny as it may seem in our modern day world of money conscious action. We want to express the idea of caring, kindness and fairness, even if there seems an imbalance of material wealth and opportunity for all. We want to make a real contribution to the lives of young adolescents through the means in which we have been given, the lesson plan and our own interpretation of learning.

The Glass Castle, A Great Non-fiction book

The Glass Castle,  A Great Non-fiction book

I know we are all into fictional novels but if we have to teach non-fiction in our classroom I would recommend the book, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I read this book in another class this semester and instantly fell in love with it. It’s an autobiography about a young girl who grew up homeless with her family and ended up going to Harvard. Its an easy read and the story serves as a model for students to strive to excel in life, no matter how difficult their circumstance may be. JA

The Graveyard Book – Mini-Lesson Reflection


If you’re interested, Neil Gaiman discusses the writing of The Graveyard Book in the above clip on YouTubeThere are also clips of him reading the whole book; I haven’t watched him read every chapter, but it’s something to consider using in the classroom.

It’s interesting to discuss a book from the perspective of a reader, but it’s really quite informative to hear from the writer on the experience.  Gaiman points out how he couldn’t write the book he wrote without having the experience of raising his kids, and I think that really comes out in the story.

In the mini-lesson, we mostly discussed the story from the perspective of Bod learning and growing up, but we never really talked much about the way the spirits in the graveyard felt about Bod.  If I were to actually teach this book, not only would I use the mini-lesson I designed, but I’d also want to include discussion of the perspective of the spirits that raise Bod.

Anyway, these are just some concluding thoughts on the mini-lesson.  I appreciated all of the comments I received, so thanks again!


The Presence of Magical Realism in YA Literature: When You Reach Me and How I Live Now

For those that aren’t too familiar with Magical Realism (and if everyone is, forgive me if this is patronizing), its the presence of “the fantastic” or elements of the fantastic woven into a narrative that would otherwise constitute as realistic fiction. The most famous examples of this type of writing can most readily be found in works created by South American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, Daughters of Fortune). While my experiences with this genre of fiction are fairly limited, I have always been fascinated by the idea that “fantastic” elements could be woven so easily (almost flippantly) into a narrative. Magical occurrences take place and all the characters in their books continue about their business as though it isn’t odd that one of their family members has naturally green hair and possesses a staggering ethereal beauty (found in The House of the Spirits).

how i live now                  when-you-reach-me

The week in which we read When You Reach Me and How I Live Now was very refreshing to me because of the fact that the authors of these novels wrote their narratives in a very similar vein. Miranda’s realization [SPOILERS] that the homeless “laughing man” on her street was actually Marcus time traveling from the past to prevent Sal’s death comes so easily once all the pieces fall into place and she readily accepts this “impossible” idea as fact. In short, time-traveling Marcus is Miranda’s equivalent of a green-haired family member. How I Live Now‘s Daisy never actually states or sees [SPOILERS] Edmond’s mind-reading abilities or Isaac and Piper gifts with animals as anything out of the ordinary, but rather treats them as things that simply “are.” I love how both Stead and Rosoff blend these elements into their narratives so seamlessly, and haven’t really encountered anything quite like this in YA Literature (save for Allende’s City of the Beasts and L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, of which When You Reach Me was partially inspired by).

Thoughts, anyone?