This week's guest contributor is another example of another great person in the YA world. Joellen Maples, Ph.D. is an associate professor at St. John Fisher College. This week she talks about using YA and Critical Literacy to help new teachers frame conversations about difficult topics. The young adult novel she uses as an example is All American Boys, which builds on one of the text that we used in our Kennesaw presentation. Her post really gets at the core of the purpose of this blog--to help us inform each other about the variety of ways we can use YA literature. YA literature isn't only enjoyable literature; it is also a tool to help us teach teachers. Those teachers, in turn, use this literature in their classrooms in a variety of way to engage their students.
Okay, Joellen lead us through it.
I don’t want parents to call the school about me.
My principal will be mad if I talk about this in class.
I don’t think students can handle these topics.
Should students be reading young adult literature with swear words in it?
I don’t know how to do it.
In this blog, I want to focus on All American Boys (AAB). This novel which has won several awards including the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and was an ALA Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book tells the story of two teens, Rashad and Quinn, who grapple with the repercussions of police brutality against Rashad. The novel discusses the impact of the act on the characters, the community, their families, and their school. When we finished reading AAB the all too familiar responses commenced from my students. I turned and looked at them and asked, “If not you, then who?” As teachers, I try to impress upon them the necessity for them to have these talks with their students through the use of young adult literature and critical literacy. As I listened to all their reasons of why they couldn’t use the book in their classrooms, the only response I really accepted is I don’t know how to do it. That’s fair, and fortunately for them, I did know a way for them to have these discussions. One of my students in particular, Melissa (pseudonym), wanted to use the book with her 5th graders. She exclaimed, “Ugh! Maples! You’re giving me a headache. I’m scared.” As I’m apt to do, I used a little of my Maples’ guilt and looked at her, smiled, and repeated, “If not you, then who?” She stared at me and said, “Argh. Ok. I’ll do it! Teach me how.”
Melissa chose to read AAB in a rural school in upstate New York with her 5th graders. She had a lunch book club and read with the students daily. I commend her willingness to see the value of using such a text and discussing racism and police brutality with her students. Students at her school do not experience much diversity at all, but they were aware of the recent incidences of police brutality that had been on the news---Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and unfortunately many more. She taught her lesson that focused on disrupting the commonplace and had discussions with her students about incidences of police brutality against African Americans while connecting it to the novel. She deconstructed what it meant to be a police officer and how interactions with officers might change depending on one’s race. Even though the students were young and needed a lot of scaffolding and unpacking of terms and ideas, they shared many thoughts for Melissa to build off of. One of her students remarked, “When people say racist I actually think about someone treating a black person like they don’t have the same equal rights like we do. Like they treat them unfairly and poorly. They treat them basically the opposite they would treat a white person.” Even more exciting was the support that Melissa received from her students’ parents. One parent actually wrote to her commending her for using the book with her child by saying, “I think it is important for our children to read literature that highlights racism to open their eyes to prejudice that did and /or does in fact exist. Truth be told, a middle class child from our school can lead a pretty sheltered life and have no idea what certain people have experienced in their lifetime as a result of racism. Reading is knowledge. Knowledge is power.” In fact, on presentation night in class, Melissa’s students wanted to come to the college to share what they had learned through this project and some parents came as well. It was so encouraging to hear the parents tell my in-service teachers that they must read books such as AAB and do lessons like this with their students. It was quite an impact.
During her reflection, she shared that through this assignment she learned not to be afraid, and she acknowledged that the critical literacy dimensions gave her a tangible framework to help guide her lesson and discussion. I think we fail our teacher candidates by not helping them learn how to have such difficult discussions but impressing upon them to do so. She expressed to her peers that “books do not harm children and are gateways to having difficult discussions.” She saw the benefit firsthand of using young adult literature when one of her students said, “My experience was that I was more interested in this book than any other. It kept my attention and I didn’t want to stop reading it. Also because there was a realistic event in the story, I learned how awful blacks are treated; it’s unfair.” This was the first young adult novel her students had read, and they were really excited to read more in the future. Finally, her parents’ support in what she was doing really increased her confidence. She learned that communication with parents made them allies rather than adversaries when it came to reading books about tough topics.
For me, the experience reminded me of the importance of the work I’m doing by promoting the use of young adult literature in classrooms. I hope to develop in my students a critical acumen that follows them beyond my course. McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004) point out that teachers do not just become critical as it is a process that involves “developing theoretical, research, and pedagogical repertoires; changing with time and circumstance; engaging in self-critical practices; and remaining open to possibilities” (p. 55). I often think about this quote when I am teaching. I express to my students that they are not just “doing a critical literacy lesson.” It’s not a one time lesson. Critical literacy should be a constant thread that runs through their decisions about teaching, how they teach, and what they teach. They must become critical and as the quote expresses so well, they must constantly be reading, researching, and revising their teaching pedagogy. They must also be fearless regardless of how difficult a discussion may be and constantly checking their biases and prejudices and evaluating how those feelings are impacting their teaching, their students, and the choices they make in the books they use in their classroom. By equipping them with an understanding of critical literacy both in theory and practice and exposing them to powerful and engaging young adult literature, I am positive they will have the tools to remain open to possibilities for themselves and more importantly, their students.
Edelsky, C. (1999). On critical whole language practice: Why, what, and a bit of how. In C. Edelsky (Ed.), Making justice our project: Teachers working toward critical whole language practices. (pp. 7-36). Urbana: NCTE.
Glasgow, J. (2001). Teaching social justice through young adult literature. English Journal, 90 54-61.
Lewison, M., Flint, A.S., & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 79(5), 382-392.
McLaughlin, M., & DeVoogd, G. (2004). Critical literacy as comprehension: Expanding reader response. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(1), 52-62.