NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:


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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Two

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 3 and 4, and here are some ideas I tagged:

Because YA lit is accessible and because it puts so much value on existential wondering and the identity development that stirs, it serves as uniquely powerful material for drawing students into these conversations … They should also expect their thinking about the books to be deeper because of the interactions they have with their teachers and peers. They should expect that reading will allow them to reflect on their own lives, and they should expect the process of reading books in the company of others to enable them to discover more than they would on their own. (pg. 82)

When we think of books as avenues through which to access existential wondering and identity development, it elevates the very nature of the work we do in our reading workshop.  If we present YA lit as an invitation to this kind of collective deep thinking at a time in their lives when they are naturally inclined to want to do such thinking, our students cannot help but want to participate and respond.  Reading with this kind of intent  will foster engagement and make reading workshop a place to both grow as a reader and a person – truly meaningful, long lasting work.

(From “Portraits of Classrooms” – Carrie Melnychenko high school YA Lit class): “Collectively my students want to be able to analyze something. Author’s craft. Character analysis. Something. They want the chance to chew on it for a while and rethink their thoughts on things…I’m not here to tell them what’s in it, as if here I am, the guru of the book. No, I’m going to sit back in my chair and go, what do you think? What would you do? It becomes a big conversation…That’s what they will remember.” (pg.60)

I loved this acknowledgement that kids are prepared to do so much more than we often think they are once they know that they have the freedom to ruminate over the analysis of the literary elements in a text, that there is no one answer that we are asking them to arrive at (i.e. our answer).  For this to take place, we have to be willing to do what Carrie does – lay a foundation for meaningful analysis to take place, and then sit back and give our students the freedom to do the loud and messy work of articulating thoughts and shaping new thinking.

…it’s important to note that there is no one right … way of implementing YA pedagogy.  Each of us must personalize our work with these books and develop an approach that is right for our context…We need a vision for teaching YA lit – and we need to figure out what we want our own version of YA pedagogy to look like. The first step is to ask ourselves what our stance toward this literature will be. (pg. 70)

This section of the book reminded me that working with YA lit requires commitment: to read widely so that our classroom libraries reflect the interests and needs of  all our students, to get to know each year’s incoming class of students so that we can match them to books they will be drawn into, and to figure out that stance towards this literature that will help to shape the beginnings of  important conversations.

(About the value of readalikes): The important thing about readalikes is to base suggestions in specific things the reader says about his or her enjoyment of the original book.  The goal is to help the reader follow and cultivate a focused thread of connection. (pg. 77)

I loved this section of the book and the idea of “readalikes”.  I work towards creating book stacks for kids based on what they have read and liked, but this practice goes one step further in encouraging students to recognize “a focused thread of connection” and build a reading life around such a connection.

We should begin by thinking broadly and strategically about the books we bring into the classroom. We need to ask ourselves, what kind of textured reading experience do I want students to have as YA readers in my class?… Which books will stimulate discussions so spirited and passionate that students look around and say, “I want to read what they’re reading”? (pg.88)

Chapter 4 ended with this directive, which is a timely one.  As I begin to box up our classroom library for the summer, I hope to do an initial strategic assessment of the books we have and the books we need.  In this, Jennifer Buehler asking us to be just as intentional in the selecting and purchasing of our books as we are about the teaching and thinking that will take place because of them.  Perfect summer work!

Now, to this week’s NCTE book club task:

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 8.47.34 PMOur task this week was to take what we had gleaned from chapters three and four and contribute to the following:

This week we’ll build each others’ toolkits by sharing strategies we use in our own classrooms to build community. Please describe something you’ve found effective in build towards one or more of these “qualities of classroom community”
  • Belief that the work is important.
  • Discussions that blend personal response and literary analysis.
  • A sense of being known and valued.
  • Collective investment in a shared experience.

Belief that the work is important.  At the beginning of every year, I present five books that have been life changing.  These are books that I return to time after time because there were words of wisdom or humor that I needed to read again, savor again, and think about again.  I show my students marked up pages where I have written notes to myself: comments, questions, references to other texts.  Through this little exercise, I hope to demonstrate that reading is an active, life long enterprise. We read to know how the world works, and how we work.  Reading is, therefore, important work.

Discussions that blend personal response and literary analysis.  My sixth graders come to our reading workshop with many, many personal connections,  I suppose because this has been the way their elementary school teachers have most often asked them to respond to their reading.  I have to make it a deliberate practice (especially at the beginning of the school year) to find a way to loop that initial conversation around literary analysis and slowly draw that in through a series of verbal cues that might sound like this:

“that’s an interesting personal memory to connect to, let’s think though about how the author used flashbacks in these scenes. How did these flashbacks  of memory help us understand the character better?”

I think that a consistent repetition of cues like this help my students realize that our best book conversations are a blend of personal response and literary analysis. This is work we practice in all aspects of our reading workshop life, from independent reading to book clubs and whole class read alouds.

I’m looking forward to reading what other book club members have to say, and to assembling my own reading toolkit.

#IMWAYR: Teaching Reading With YA Literature by Jennifer Buehler


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.