In this week’s offering Crag reflects on the various ways preservice English teachers read books. Many begin their careers speaking harshly about young adult literature. Crag suggests that one of their issues is that they need to become cognizant of the various ways they do read and the possible ways they might read to better prepare their students.
English majors in YA classes
A shift occurs every semester in my young adult (YA) literature class after students have read and discussed the first two or three novels. Students have been surprised and challenged by the novels at the beginning of the course. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Winter Girls, Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallfower, John Green’s Paper Towns or The Fault in Our Stars, and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War or I Am the Cheese have been particularly effective in transforming students’ mis/conceptions of what constitutes YA literature. But then these students invariably opine how another novel, say Mathew Quick’s Sort of Like a Rock Star or Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys, or Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius, has not met their literary standards. They subsequently measure each new novel against the standards they have been formulating as readers and literature scholars for a decade. They have acquired the authority of wide and deep reading experiences and of well-tuned analytical skills, yet these readers neglect to consider that the novels selected for this course were written to engage the 14-18 year old readers they will be teaching in the near future, some who may have different (but not lower) standards and some who may or may not have read much fiction—or may not have read much of anything at all.
These English majors have grown up in a literary culture that values their role in reading transactions (reader-response has been a generative critical lens for more than a generation). In fact, many English majors find it difficult to give up the primacy of their perspectives, finding it discomfiting to interrogate a text, especially literary narratives, from perspectives other than their own. If I am going to get these soon-to-be pre-service teachers to read like practicing teachers, I must make space in my course to consider the texts we read from different points of view, so these future teachers can construct and put into practice a variety of approaches to the texts they and their future students will read.
I urge pre-service English teachers to read:
1) as self from their well-earned, well-developed experience;
2) as a character, reading within the parameters of his/her world;
3) as a teacher approaching the narrative, as much as they can, from the point of view of the spectrum of readers they will soon be working with, from independent readers to readers who have not yet been engaged by print narrative;
4) as a writer; and finally,
5) in ways that expand their critical skills. Of course these readings are not transacted discretely but rather simultaneously, synergistically, yet devoting time to considering each perspective ensures they can be made transferable to their students.
Reading as Self
For English majors, to read as self means to tap into reading skills acquired over years of reading, layers and layers of preference and rejection, favorite authors and genres, encounters with clarifying and/or befuddling criticism, conversations with characters and other readers. It means to revel in intra/interpersonal connection with a text world that is as vivid, as vital, as the world outside the pages. It means an incessant intertextuality, a community of books as lively as a group of friends, old and new. It means vulnerability, self-protectiveness—these texts are one’s own (You can’t bad mouth them; you can’t hate them—they are one’s friends). It is a perspective many of the students our pre-service teachers will soon be teaching cannot fathom (avid readers, alas, in the eyes of some are odd birds). Hold on to that perspective, I argue, but don’t privilege it.
Reading as Character
A common reading perspective for emerging readers, one students typically exercise in and out of school from an early age, is identification with one or more characters. The reading process includes begging characters to make the decisions they themselves would, becoming emotionally engaged in what is happening to characters, and sharing successes and failures with the protagonist. As readers grow older, identification is enhanced by the addition of empathy. But whether one identifies with or empathizes with a character, I urge English majors to read from the character’s points of view, to judge them according to the values present within their world, not according to standards imposed from without. For example, my predominantly white, middle-class, suburban students severely judged Sticky in Matt de la Pena’s (http://mattdelapena.com) Ball Don’t Lie. They held him up to standards he had no sustained exposure to, few compelling models of, and no lifetime of practice with. These readers failed to ask what is acceptable behavior for Sticky, to judge him on his own terms. How did he learn the values he lives by? How have these values been reinforced in his life experience? Are his standards moving toward or away from the perceived (received) norms these students know? Novels such as Ball Don’t Lie are rarely a mirror for my college students, but many will teach in schools where the novel will be such a mirror for their students. Reading from within the character’s world exercises the empathy/compassion muscle in our brains and beings.
Read as Teacher
The next perspective I ask students to practice is from a teacher’s point of view. How might a mixed group of students approach the text we are reading? What would you want students to take away from it? What prior knowledge does it require and/or activate? Is this text a mirror for them or a window? What are the language demands? What do you as teacher know now about constructing meaning, about the act/s of interpretation? How can you help students acquire the skills you take for granted?
I remind them that some of their student readers will read anything put in front of them, some who have read extensively in genres not generally included in a classroom (fantasy, science fiction, romance), but some others who have not met an interesting book in their lives, who may not yet have the ability to sort out characters, to predict how they will act in certain situations, who may not yet have the ability to pick out telling detail from plot and setting, who may not be able to use word attack skills or context clues to meet vocabulary needs, and readers who may not be able to hold the first clause of a compound sentence in their minds long enough to make meaning after they have read the second clause. What will you do so each and every student engages meaningfully with the text or texts you will be assigning and/or the texts students will be self-selecting? If this is a difficult text for your students, how will you scaffold the reading for your students so that they will acquire the skills that will help them grow into the independent readers you would like them to be? None of these are easy questions to answer.
Read as Writer
Another approach I hope all future English teachers take toward texts is from the point of view of a writer producing these kinds of texts (fiction or non-fiction). One compelling reason to ask students to read literary fiction and non-fiction is to enhance one’s own writing. This reading perspective then has a dual purpose: to analyze as a reader/writer the decisions the writer has made to expand the awareness of decisions one can make in one’s own writing. What moves did the writer make? Why did he/she make these moves? Are they effective? If not, how could a text be revised to strengthen it? What can this writer teach students about writing and reading?
In English class at all levels we spend a great deal of time de/constructing characters (e.g. Sticky). Constructing a character is analogous to constructing an argument. The development of a character is cumulative, each element building on the previous, each particle of information contributing to the whole. For an example I ask students to watch how Coe Booth builds Tyrell in Tyrell and Bronxwood. he doesn’t simply tell us that Tyrell wants a life in the future very different from the life he is currently living. He is not mired in the present moment as is often the assumption made of youth in the inner city, sloughing from one self-centered experience to the next. In every action readers can observe how Tyrell, unwilling to follow in the self-destructive footsteps of his parents, looks to the future, to safe and secure shelter for his brother, to acquiring the means to control his own life. By the end of Tyrell, Booth has fashioned a character that embodies the argument that youth struggling in poverty are not without dignity, not without a sense of purpose. The moves Booth employs are lessons for all readers and writers.
Read as literary critic
College English and English Education faculty and scholars in the last 20 years have done significant work in exposing pre-service teachers to literary criticism and paving the way for literary criticism to be a part of the high school curriculum. Deborah Appleman (Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents), Lisa Schade Eckert (How Does It Mean?: Engaging Reluctant Readers Through Literary Theory), Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism: Helping Students Engage with Challenging Texts), Anna O. Soter (Young Adult Literature and the New Literary Theories: Developing Critical Readers in Middle School), John Noelle Moore (Interpreting Young Adult literature: Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom), and others have published informative and practical guides that describe many strategies to help pre-service teachers and high school students begin to put into action a range of critical points of view: feminism, deconstructionism, sociocultural, and new historicism, among others. Robert Petrone, Mark Lewis, Sophia Sarigianides, and others are currently applying the youth lens to YA literature, work that is bringing nuance to our assumptions about adolescence. Reading YA through these lenses initially challenges my skilled university readers. As readers they are comfortable with and well-practiced in reader-response, with historicizing a text, but when they are asked to take up other layers, to unpack texts for what they say about gender, race, and sexuality, they struggle, at first unwilling to give up their personal reading for a theoretical approach.
I haven’t had to teach these perspectives systematically yet; my suggestions, my steady reminders to read and think from different perspective, have usually been effective enough, along with infusions of mini-lessons as needed on various critical perspectives. But I have a plan in my back pocket, a plan to structure a YA course around these perspectives, moving through the course from personal/interpersonal readings to critical readings.
Until next week,
Steven T. Bickmore