#IMWAYR: Teaching Reading With YA Literature by Jennifer Buehler

IMWAYR 2015

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

NCTE Reads

My summer PD plans got off to an early start on Sunday(we have three more weeks of school, here in New Jersey!) when  NCTE’s summer book club kicked off with its first discussion.  We are reading Jennifer Beuhler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives, which is a fascinating analysis of how we can teach YA lit in meaningful ways.  Buehler calls for  the “development of a YA pedagogy – one that places student motivation at the center of our teaching while upholding the goals of rigor and complexity” (pg. 8), and her book is a road map for how to get there.

We read chapters 1 and 2 for this week’s discussion, and here are some ideas I tagged:

In the real world, readers are always blending their personal response to a book with their analytic understanding of the text.  Readers also instinctively search for connections between books and real-world contexts…As teachers of YA Lit, we can foster complex reading experiences and promote autonomy if we devise classroom tasks that invite students to engage in these forms of blending and connecting.  We don’t have to create new tasks to achieve this goal. Instead, we can recast and reinvent what we already do. (pg.11)

This idea of recasting and reinventing is one that both interests and excites me.  I love working on teaching efficiency – i.e. taking a fresh look at my teaching practices through the lens of new thinking (especially thinking grounded in current research) and reshaping and refining what I do.  So, I cannot wait to read ahead for Jennifer’s guidance in this process of recasting and reinventing.

We must establish contexts for reading that challenge students to be purposeful and intentional in their choices.  One way to do this is to foreground meta-level questions about why we read.  When we invite students to read for the same reasons that real readers do…they become more capable and committed to reading.  Students can develop agency and autonomy as readers only if we give them room to shape the course of their reading. (pg.11)

Like other teachers, I come at establishing contexts for reading through mini lessons, modeling, and our classroom discussions about shared reading.  I focus on strategies with my sixth graders, but I would love to learn more about how to deepen those meta-level questions in ways they will find meaningful and habitual.

Complexity can be found in the text – in the overall quality of an author’s writing and thinking.  But complexity can also be found in what readers do with texts…This means that as we evaluate texts for their inherent measures of complexity, we also need to explore how and why texts become complex for readers.

Because YA lit can speak honestly and directly to teenagers, and because the issues the books explore lend themselves to discussion and debate, it’s easy to see why YA lit is ideally suited to the task of teaching teens how to find and make complexity.  (pg.29 & 30)

Some of my sixth graders still read quickly and for plot. In fact, I would say that this is the natural inclination of most of my sixth graders.  So, getting them to slow down and think deeply about a character’s journey through a story line deliberately plotted out by an author would, indeed, add complexity to their reading tasks, and a greater seriousness to the way they went about their reading.  Here, again, I have much to learn.

Buehler also makes distinctions between “complexity of style: (language, structure, stylistic elements)  and “complexity of substance” (character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together), and walks us through the process of looking for these in two books – Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and A. S. King’s Ask The Passengers.  This was a fascinating exercise in close reading in its best sense; it allowed me insight into the goals Buehler believes we can achieve with our students:

When we teach students to make nuanced judgments about complexity, we help them better understand what different books can give them.  By providing them with a framework for thinking about complexity, we empower them as readers.  We equip them with tools that will serve them in their reading lives for the long run. (pg.49)

Our task this week was to take what we had gleaned from those first two chapters and contribute to the following:

 

Week 1: Make
This week we’re going to create a curated list of YA novels with rationales for why they are complex texts. These lists may prove useful if you choose to use any of these novels in your class and are asked to justify your selection. Please share the title, author, and a few sentences explaining why a YA text of your choosing should be considered complex. Don’t worry if someone else has already listed a title you were considering; either add to their rationale or write your own. Multiple perspectives will strengthen our understanding of any of these books. Consider the elements listed on p. 37 in crafting your rationale:
  • Complexity of Style—language, structure, other stylistic elements
  • Complexity of Substance—character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together

Here’s my contribution:

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart.  I chose this as the first read aloud of the school year because I knew that my students would love everything about this story and that it would be the perfect way to launch our reading community. Joseph Johnson has just been orphaned when the book begins, and his beloved pony Sarah, all he has left of his own the world, has been stolen away.  Joseph sets out to find her, a journey that is filled with unexpected twists and turns and more heart ache.  He comes to realize, of course, that his search for Sarah is really a search to find love and meaning in the world after so much sorrow and loss.

Complexity of style:  Although the story is told in what seems to be a straightforward style with Joseph narrating the events in a chronological order, there are many flash backs for the reader to navigate through to piece together why Joseph is recalling this particular memory at this particular time.  Many of these flashbacks are in the form of things Joseph remembers his parents advising him, and the language of these quotes is formal, deeply figurative, and of a particular voice.

Complexity of substance: Joseph encounters a Chinese boy his age, who cannot speak a word of English.  He, too, is in search of someone – his father, lost somewhere among  the Gold Rush mines.  Ah-Kee  is subject to the racism of the times, which Joseph must both console him as well as defend him from. Other thematic issues such as courage in the face of loss, self sacrifice and keeping the faith when things seem without hope are also explored. The time frame and setting of the book (1890, in the mountains and cowboy towns of Washington State) are also important in understanding the text and making sense of the characters and events.

I’m looking forward to learning about new titles to add to my must read/must have in the library lists.

 

 

 

#IMWAYR: Not reading…but making #cyberPD plans to!

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

During these last weeks of school, I simply stop reading anything but student work – there is just so much of it to process!  But, I can look ahead and make plans for summer reading and that is what I am up to today.

Each summer, the #cyberPD community gathers to read a book together, and share what we’ve learned and how we plan to apply this new learning. You can learn more about #cyberPD at Cathy Mere’s blog, where she describes the process better than I can.

Our first task is to share our book stacks – here’s what I have packed up in my “summer to-reads” box already:

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#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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The story of Mildred and Richard Loving has been very much in the news recently.  A critically acclaimed movie, a sensitively told picture book, podcasts, and the re-airing of documentaries are just some of the ways in which the Loving’s extraordinary battle to challenge Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws has been revisited and retold.

For those not familiar with the Loving’s story, here it is in a nutshell: Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in the same town, Central Point in Caroline County, Virginia. Things went awry when their friendship blossomed into love, for Richard was white and Mildred was black, and interracial marriage  was against the law in  Caroline County (anti-miscegenation laws, in fact, existed in 24 states at the time).  The young couple have to travel to Washington D.C. to be married, and are arrested immediately upon their return. It takes time in jail,  many years, and many court battles before the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Lovings, and they are allowed to live in peace and raise their children in the place they called home – Central Point, Virginia.

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Patricia Hruby Powell’s Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case is a welcome addition to this collection, especially because of the way in which it tells the  story: in verse, and through the voices of Mildred and Richard.  The two perspectives allow the reader to better understand how both Richard and Mildred processed the events as they unfolded, and gives us some insight into what they thought and how they felt. 

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I loved that the book included snippets of history (the Civil Rights movement, the Brown vs. Board of Education case) which allow us to put the Loving case in its historical context. Shadra Strickland’s delicate artwork adds so much to the experience of the book, as well:

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Our students take so many of the advances made by the Civil Rights movement for granted today, even as many of those advancements (voting rights, for instance) are under assault. Books like Loving vs. Virginia remind us of the sacrifices made by individuals like the Lovings for such rights and for progress, and they remind us that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing struggle in which we must all participate. Loving vs. Virginia is a must have book in middle and high school classrooms, it would make for an important readaloud, especially now.

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Words With Wings

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Day dreamers have a special place in my teaching heart.  It is true that they need extra doses of reminding, and that one can never be sure if they are with us or hundreds of miles away even as their bodies are right there in our classroom.  And it is also true that sometimes the questions they ask and the answers they give bear little relevance to the material we happen to be studying at that very moment.  But the thoughts they share, they things they say and write, often take us to unusual places; daydreamers are special people.

In her verse novel Words With Wings, Nikki Grimes gives us Gabby –  a memorable daydreamer, who finds comfort and delight in words.

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Gabby’s world comes apart when her parents divorce: her daydreaming, word-spinning father moves across town, and her practical, take-care-of-everything mother has little time for Gabby’s daydreaming ways.  As she adjusts to a new school, and a new home, and now a deep hole in her heart where her father used to be, Gabby finds that her daydreams protect her and give her both solace and hope:

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But, buckling up for her word rides gets Gabby in trouble in school – it’s hard to pay attention to her teacher when her own thoughts beckon to magical places.  Her teacher is patient, to a point: “Dreams are great things, Gabby,”/he finally says…”Still, sometimes you have to/slide your daydreams/in a drawer/and let them wait until later…”.

So, Gabby tries to still her imagination and be the kind of student (and daughter) that everyone seems to prefer, even though stilling her imagination makes her feel sad and dull. She finds a daydreamer classmate who pins his flights of fancy down in drawings, and one day she puts her own words with wings down in writing.  Those words are snatched away by her teacher, but they become the key to how Gabby can keep her word dreams until later: he makes time every school day to daydream and write. Gabby’s notebook is soon “thick with daydreams”, with words taking flight:

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Words With Wings covers just a year in Gabby’s life, an important year. But Nikki Grimes’ verse is packed with  a spare power – you feel the full range of Gabby’s experiences and emotions.  And, of course, I loved that her teacher found the perfect way for Gabby to let her imagination take flight during the school day – he made time to dream and write!

 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: The Boy In The Black Suit

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Yes, even though it’s the March Slice of Life Challenge and I am a writing maniac this month, I managed to read this fabulous book:

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Jason Reynolds’ The Boy In The Black Suit is a brilliant book about coming to terms with death and grief.  Matt Miller begins eleventh grade weighed down with sorrow: his mother, the rock of  his young life, has just died, and his father seems to be drifting away in a grief cloud of his own.  Unmoored and feeling very alone, Matt is at first conflicted when he is offered a part time job at  the funeral home where his mother’s service had been held. Mr. Ray, its suave but kindly director takes Matt under his wing, stepping into the role of surrogate father when Matt’s own father stumbles into the street in a drunken stupor and is badly hurt.

At first, Matt is embarrassed about his new job and having to wear the black suit necessary for work to school every day.  Matt is secretly drawn to funerals – some deep and unknown part of his soul seems to need to see how others grieve, how others cope with their grief, since he himself is struggling so much with it.  Then he meets Lovey, who speaks at her grandmother’s funeral and seems to know the secret of how to handle grief and how to to be strong.  

Reynolds does a beautiful job of writing this story from Matt’s perspective in such a real way: he misses his mother, he mourns the way his father seems to be falling apart, he appreciates the stability and support of Mr. Ray, and he enjoys strategizing about flirting with Lovey.  He embodies all the deep feelings, confusions and contradictions of young adulthood.  I especially loved the character of Mr. Ray – the embodiment of that one adult who can make a difference at a crucial time in a young person’s life.  At one point early in the book, Mr. Ray senses that Matt is lost and searching for answers to his loss: why his mother? why now? how to keep going on?  Mr. Ray compares life to  the card game ‘I Declare War’: “I can lose and lose and lose and I don’t know why. But there’s nothing I can do but just keep flipping the cards. Eventually, I’ll win again. As long as you got cards to keep turning, you’re fine. Now, that’s life.”

This is definitely a book for 8th. grade and up – Matt is in high school, and some of the language and references in the story reflects that.  It is a hopeful story, one of the resilience of youth, and the healing power of community and love.

Here’s the author speaking about The Boy in the Black Suit:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#IMWAYR: Rainbow Weaver, Mama and Papa Have a Store & Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

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Linda Elovitz Marshall’s glorious picture book Rainbow Weaver is a delightful read on two counts: the story is hopeful and uplifting, and Elisa Chavarri’s illustrations are a feast for the eyes.

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Ixchel lives in the mountains of Guatemala, where Mayan women have woven beautiful fabrics for thousands of years.  This is something she would love to do, as well, but her busy mother has no thread to spare.  Undaunted, Ixchel tries a number of substitutes from blades of grass to  the wool sheep leave behind as they make their way through hilly pastures, but the results are dull and disappointing.  About to give up, Ixchel notices the multitude of plastic bags littering the pathways of her village; their vibrant colors spark a brainwave – she could cut these into the long strips she needs to weave!  Ixchel’s weaving sells at the market and she earns a doubly gratifying reward: she can help to pay for her school books AND she can help to tidy up her village.

I loved that each page had its Spanish translation, too – a great benefit for language learners.

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In the preface to her book Mama and Papa Have a Store, Amelia Lau Carling writes: “As a young couple in 1938 when World War II was beginning, my parents fled the Japanese invasion of their village of Nine Rivers on the lush Pearl River delta in Guangdong, China. Like other paisanos, countrymen from their own land, they settled in Spanish speaking Guatemala”.  Her picture book tells of one day in the life of this store and their family, both of which embrace the traditions of two cultures:

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The young narrator weaves a joyous story of the way many traditions come together to make their village life one of cultural acceptance and celebration.  Carling’s vivid illustrations add so much to this beautiful story of immigrants making a new life for themselves, adapting to their new homes, and seeking to preserve their cherished memories and ways of life.

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Nikki Giovanni’s Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate is a must-have book for every classroom library.  In it, Giovanni shares a selection  of poems by African Americans from the Harlem Renaissance to today.  What I loved about this book was the way Giovanni wrote about each poem to explain its context as well as its personal relevance and connection.  Here, for instance, is Robert Hayden’s poem :

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

which is illuminated and given such rich residence by what Nikki Giovanni has to say about it:

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I thank my good friend Julieanne Harmatz from the bottom of my heart for the gift of this book  – it will add so much to our classroom explorations of poetry.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

Truth to tell, I was afraid to read Dan Gemeinhart’s new book Scar Island.  Both his previous books, The Honest Truth and Some Kind of Courage, were wonderful reads, and I feared that (perhaps) this third book would fail to live up expectations.  Thankfully, I was wrong.

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Here’s the jacket copy:

Jonathan Grisby is the newest arrival at the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, an ancient, crumbling fortress of gray stone rising up from the ocean. It is dark, damp, and dismal. And it is just the place Jonathan figures he deserves. Because Jonathan has done something terrible. And he’s willing to accept whatever punishment he has coming. Just as he’s getting used to his new situation, however, a freak accident leaves the troubled boys of Slabhenge without any adult supervision. Suddenly the kids are free, with an entire island to themselves. But freedom brings unexpected danger. And if Jonathan can’t come to terms with the sins of his past and lead his new friends to safety, then every boy on the island is doomed.

Gemeinhart is able to create Slabhenge in such vivid detail that it becomes another compelling character in a cast filled with compelling characters.  I was completely transported to this place, ghastly and troubling though it was, and I know that my sixth graders would be even more drawn to imagining its storm tossed walls and mysterious nooks and crannies.  One of the literary elements my students have focused on this year has been the way in which setting influences story, and Scar Island is the perfect book through which to explore this idea.

Jonathan’s “crime” and the way in which this is revealed makes for the heart of this story, Gemeinhart creates the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that my sixth graders will love. But, Scar Island  is also a story about how to stand up to bullies, and how fear and peer pressure can get in the way of even the nicest kid’s best intentions.  Scar Island has a touch of Lord of the Flies, which is a good thing for our kids, they need to be reminded of these lessons time and time again.  

I have a long list of students clamoring for this book, and I know that each will say: Dan Gemeinhart has done it again! And  I wholeheartedly agree.