Recently, I had the great opportunity to teach an elective literature course designed for pre-service teachers, and chose to focus on issues related to reading and teaching children’s and young adult literature set in urban spaces. The overarching goal for the course was to examine representations and performances of “the city” in literature aimed toward young readers, and, then, how these characterizations might affect individuals and groups within and outside “urban” stories. Our class discussions ranged from the intersection of geography with the socially and culturally constructed identity markers to problematic depictions of poverty to issues of privilege when attempting to teach these stories.
We read several children’s literature selections--Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty and Bryan Collier, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and Chris Soentpiet, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, Water in the Park by Emily Jenkins and Stephanie Graegin, and Dear Primo by Duncan Tonatiuh—and young adult literature selections--Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork, Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, and The Secret Story of Sonía Rodríguez by Alan Sitomer. Alongside this literature, we explored varied scholarship to help us think about the overarching goal for the course, including critical multicultural analysis (Botelho & Rudman), perspectives on street literature and literacy (Brooks & Savage; Cahill; Gibson; & Norris), history of immigration narratives (Brown), and representations of adolescence/ts (see English Journal 104(3), particularly Groenke and her co-authors’ article).
Briana Stuhlman <email@example.com>
The landscape of an urban environment involves themes of racism, class privilege, and poverty and how they trap youth within the urban lifestyle. Gunshots, gang violence sirens and crumbling streets are common images of the urban environment (Thomas, 2011). Society’s consciousness unfortunately believes that to be a youth in the urban landscape is to engage in this social imaginary, which can be extremely limiting to these students’ potential. It is important to be aware of this social imaginary and how it shapes our understanding of youth in urban environments. Too often we associate individuals found in these spaces as having a lack of potential and underestimate their success trajectory inside and outside the classroom. Teachers in schools serving this population of students need to acknowledge the diverse challenges youth in urban environments face. It is also important to be self-aware of the social imaginary lens you as a teacher have when interacting with these students in order to prevent prejudice towards your students’ potential and work to make sure the environment does not limit that potential. Students, no matter the social imaginary presented, deserve for their education to be invested in.
One aspect of the [class] conversation the struck me this week was the definition of “urban.” Thomas (2011) states that when one thinks about urban the first thing that comes to mind is space. The small amount of space and high rises. We think of things such as “the Empire State Building in New York City to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.” We may think about what urban spaces lack, such as trees and grass (open areas). This is all true but there is much more to what urban means. Urban for me is what my students carry living in the city. They carry the fact that they are all minorities in this country. They carry that 95% of them are below the poverty level. They carry the fact that they may be smart enough to get into a great school but they can’t because of cost. At the same time many of my students carry one thing that is not normally referenced that children in urban environments carry: love and support by their teachers. … I have been trying to look at different lenses of what “urban” is. When looking at this I thought “okay” I have a great representation of urban, then I read Thomas’s article where she cited “Urban Geographies of Privilege.” After reading Page by Paige, I just think of a quote [Thomas took from Gossip Girl]: “Winter is coming. It’s the city’s favorite season and mine, too…it’s time to break out those credit cards and hit Bendel’s and Barney’s” (p. 15). A lot of people in urban environments have the opposite feelings about winter coming. Things that would come to their minds are heating bills for heat that doesn’t even work, coats that are not very warm, and holiday gifts that are not going to be bought because money is tight.
Rachel Shea <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I could not be happier that I decided to take a class that focused on urban literature due to how it allowed my ideas about reading and education to grow. It was so beneficial to read books about characters from such different cultures from my own. Coming from a small town, I never experienced diverse cultures at a young age, nor did I read books about fictional children who had different backgrounds from myself. It was eye-opening to me to read and analyze books about children and adolescents in urban areas, whose lives growing up differed so much from mine. Race, class, gender, family life, and self-identity are among the vast amount of topics that we covered in this course. I think it is so important for students to read books that they can relate to. In my opinion, a level of interest in a book can have a very positive impact on one’s reading habits. Now that I am student teaching in an urban school in Baltimore, I do not think my students would have a connection to many of the books I read in elementary school. As an aspiring teacher, I realize even more now how crucial it is to take into consideration the backgrounds of each individual student in our classrooms.
After reading Water in the Park and reflecting on the text as a class, I wanted to discuss the importance of an outdoor space for a community in greater depth. Growing up in a suburban setting, I had an adequate amount of land around my home and a large neighborhood I was able to explore with my peers, without any imminent threat to my safety. Memories of my childhood surround this freedom associated with being outside, either working with my dad in the yard or playing with my sister. However, I have come to realize these seemingly unimportant details were privileges I had because of where I live. Many times in large cities this outdoor space to roam free is occupied by large buildings, both functioning and dilapidated, sidewalks, pavement and crowds of people. While in no way are these components of a city necessarily negative, they do prohibit the ability to sustain the kind of outdoor environment I have always had. I think outdoor space is so important for the developmental growth of children, so providing a space for them is crucial. … While parks and community gardens are not the one solution to improving outdoor space for children and other members of the community, it is a step in the right direction. Having a central location for the community to come together has immense power in bringing people together.
Amy Lordan <email@example.com>
Street literacy is based on experiences, which means that everyone’s understanding of street literacy is different. For example, if we look at the characters in Magoon’s novel, How it Went Down, we can see that even two people living in the same area have different ideas of what it means to be street literate. While Tariq eventually believed that in order to survive in the streets he needed to be part of a gang, Jennica realized that in order to survive she needed to separate herself from the gangs. This shows us that street literacy is constantly changing. The more you learn, the more experiences you have, shapes your personal view of street literacy. … As teachers we have to realize that in an urban setting, adolescents have certain norms to uphold. They may act in a way that they don’t even want to act, but they need to in order to survive. They have the knowledge they need to survive in their urban settings. They know who to talk to and who not to talk to. What to wear and what not to wear.
How It Went Down is a book that proves the importance of multi-narrative literature in urban spaces. While the book is a fictional work, it is a book that hits close to home with many of the modern news headlines. Kekla Magoon provides a critical analysis of multiple characters who are searching for answers and closure to a shooting of a black teenage boy. The genius of this book is that there is not one answer. Just as it occurs in real life, everyone remembers the event a little bit differently. There are many ways to use How It Went Down in the classroom. Since How It Went Down draws upon so many character’s perspectives, there are bound to be characters students can relate to or can recognize similarities to people in their own communities. The book could serve as an instrument of healing for a community who may be going through a similar traumatic experience, and may provide voices for students who have not been able to put words to what they are feeling. Although it does make sense to use How It Went Down with a group of students living in an urban area, it is just as important for students living in rural or suburban areas to read as well. It may be more challenging for teachers to get their non-urban students engaged with this text, but it is just as, if not more important, to discuss multiple perspectives with students who may be surrounded by people of one common perspective. It may be hard for White, suburban students to relate to all that is going on in our country with issues of racism and police brutality. But hopefully, multi-narrative books such as How It Went Down can provide students with new insight to the multiple layers of community tragedies and social justice issues.
So, reading these stories set in urban spaces, alongside the scholarship on similar issues, affected these pre-service teachers in a variety of ways—both personally and professionally. Their reactions are further evidence that children’s and young adult literature hold more promise than just as sources of entertainment and educative experiences for young readers. More important, however, we—lovers, advocates, and readers of young adult literature—need to constantly reflect on how this genre teaches its readers to think about young people. In this case, what messages might be internalized by readers about youth living in urban spaces. I read de la Peña and Williams-Garcia and Sitomer and Magoon and others because I trust them to relate stories with which I am unfamiliar, for the opportunity to expand my empathy for those living in both distant and nearby spaces. Young adult fiction should provide an opportunity for its readers to similarly expand their empathy for young people, to open up complex, multifaceted understandings for the exigent and productive lives of youth. We need diverse children’s and young adult literature to have similar effects about those living in urban spaces. I believe How It Went Down, One Crazy Summer, and Marcelo in the Real World work toward this goal. These preservice teachers and I used the opportunity of this course to read such stories with this goal in mind, and I implore other teacher educators and teachers to provide similar opportunities for their students.
YA Wednesday Guest Blog Post
Mark A. Lewis, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Literacy Education
Loyola University Maryland