"Making It More Real": Book Groups, Make Lemonade, and the School Nurse
Cindy Dolben is the nurse at Noble High School in Berwick, Maine, and her centrally located office is the heart of the school in more ways than one. Noble has only four guidance counselors for almost 900 students; so, like many school nurses, Cindy sees some of the neediest students in the school on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. Energetic, warm, and maternal, she dispenses hugs, support, and advice as frequently as Tylenol. Without her attention to their emotional and physical needs, many students would be unable to focus on their intellectual endeavors.
Last year, before I left Noble to begin a doctoral program, I taught 10th-grade English in the classroom nearest to Cindy's office. We often chatted in the hall between periods and grew closer as we collaborated to support Kathy, a senior in my elective course, as she endured a difficult pregnancy. Caring for teenage mothers -- before and after delivery -- takes up a great deal of Cindy's time and energy; so, when I finished Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade (1993), a young adult novel about teenage pregnancy and poverty, I knew that Cindy would want to read it, too. She did. What I didn't know then was how significant our book exchange would be for both of us and a number of sophomores in my English classes.
A few months later, I invited Cindy into my classroom to participate in book-group discussions of that text with several small groups of students. Everyone who was involved gained a great deal from those discussions: I learned the value of bringing expert adults into my language arts classroom to share their knowledge with students; Cindy realized that she could play an active, integral role in curriculum and instruction; and the students gained a richer, more complex perspective on numerous social issues.
Divided into three parts, this article attempts to describe that learning in detail. The first part explains how book groups worked in my classroom, providing an overview of the context into which I invited Cindy. The second section makes a case for Make Lemonade as a compelling and provocative text for young adults. The final part addresses Cindy's unique contribution to my students' understanding of that text and discusses the broad implications of her visits.
Book Groups and How They Worked
For a variety of reasons, I have always been a fan of small, student-led book groups in the secondary English classroom. I see them as a way to give students some choice about what they read, while preserving a sense of community and time for group conversation. They provide students, especially less assertive ones, a place to talk that is safer and more comfortable than a whole-class discussion. Because groups are autonomous, they allow students to create their own meanings from books without looking to me to tell them what to think. Book groups are one of the best methods I have in my quiver of strategies to foster independent learning and a love of reading in my students.
Although students can benefit from reading any kind of text in cooperative groups, young adult fiction seems to me to be particularly appropriate. Because YA novels are relatively short, written in accessible language, and frequently set in contemporary times, they require less scaffolding from teachers. Students can provide for each other much of the support that is necessary for everyone in the group to be successful. In addition to Wolff's Make Lemonade, the following young adult novels were popular choices for my students last year: Permanent Connections (1987) by Sue Ellen Bridgers, Orfe (1992) by Cynthia Voigt, A Day No Pigs Would Die (1972) by Robert Newton Peck, Up Country (1989) by Alden Carter, April and the Dragon Lady (1994) by Lensey Namioka, and White Lilacs (1993) by Carolyn Meyer. All of these texts offered catalysts for spirited discussion and issues for students to relate to their own experiences.
There are as many ways to structure book groups as there are classrooms, and numerous teacher researchers have written about their approaches.1 Teachers need to make choices based on what they know about their students' skills, needs, and interests. In my heterogeneously grouped English 10 course, I offered students a number of books to choose from, giving them class time to investigate all of the options, then groups of four to six kids organized around the titles they selected. I gave students big chunks of time in class and circulated among the groups to assist them as needed. The students set their own schedules, established how many pages to read by each meeting, decided on discussion topics, managed their own time, read and responded to each other's journals, and developed a 10-minute final presentation to share with the rest of their classmates. On his or her own, each student also wrote a paper or completed an individual project on the book.
Although Cindy made the most significant impact on my students, she was not the first adult guest I had invited to be a part of book groups. When I began using the strategy, I asked several other English teachers occasionally to sit in on group discussions. This struck me as both a good way to help students focus their group time as they were getting used to working in small groups and a subtle way to share my practice with my colleagues, many of whom were not using much YA literature in their classes. I learned quickly, however, that the schedules of full-time teachers are often so full that they cannot visit a class, even when they want to. Consequently, I broadened my list of potential guests to include other staff members who might be more able to clear their calendars for a brief time. Over a two-year period, the principal, the guidance director, several student teachers, a special education consultant, the alternative teacher, and the gifted and talented teacher joined student groups from time to time. Having adult participants did not absolve students of the responsibility for independent learning, however. Even when they had guests, which did not happen every time they met, students were still in charge of leading the discussions.
I view these interactions with guests as successful. Almost all of the visitors reported being impressed by the students' independence and depth of understanding. At the same time, most of the students enjoyed hearing the perspective of another adult on the group's text, especially when that adult was someone they didn't know well before. The stakes were also raised for completing assigned reading because kids didn't want to look bad in front of an outsider. Last, and perhaps most important, having discussion guests widened our community of readers and learners and made it more diverse, sending an important message to the students that English teachers aren't the only people who read in the real world. All of these benefits, and more, were gained from Cindy's visits, to which I will return in the final section.
Why Read Make Lemonade?
Make Lemonade tells the story of LaVaughn, the 14-year-old narrator, and her relationship with Jolly, a 17-year-old mother of two children. Determined to make money for college so she can escape the project in which she lives, LaVaughn answers an ad Jolly places for a baby-sitter. LaVaughn quickly finds herself immersed in the family's lives; her usually high grades slip, and she even agrees to sit for free during a period of unemployment for Jolly. Eventually LaVaughn is able to convince Jolly to return to school in the MomsUp program for teenage parents. The book ends with a tense emergency situation that is sure to engage teenage readers. The old saying, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," provides the inspiration for the title, and that message is made concrete by LaVaughn's planting lemon seeds with Jolly's son, Jeremy.
Cindy's visits were powerful because of a unique combination of text and personality. Her insights and experiences illuminated Make Lemonade in a very special way, but the text in and of itself is a special one. Cindy herself says it best: "I think Make Lemonade is one of the best written accounts of teen pregnancy/parenting/relationships I have read. The way it is written in an almost poetic form makes it smooth and easy to read. There are no pretenses to the story. Adolescents are spoken to in a timeless and real way."
Make Lemonade offers numerous benefits in the English classroom. Because of its unusual format, the text provides students with some good experience with open verse and figurative language. In the first 20 pages, LaVaughn uses nine metaphors or extended similes to describe her neighborhood, her mother, and her new job with Jolly, and the rest of the book keeps apace. Teachers can use these examples as a bridge to help students understand more conventional poetry. A second advantage of the format is the quickness with which students can read the book. As the short chapters fly by, poor readers get their confidence boosted.
Another strength of this text is the rich character development. In particular, LaVaughn is an appealing protagonist for teenagers. They can relate to her struggles to save money for college, to her relationship with her protective parent, and to her desire to help Jolly. This example from a student's journal, which echoes LaVaughn's own sentiments, shows how much kids were able to identify with the text: "I think that this book is really good, it relates to my life in the fact of always baby-sitting and the feeling I get when I feel like I did it for nothing, but I'm so attached to the kids that I don't mind." Students got so attached to the characters in Make Lemonade that they speculated -- and sometimes argued in their book groups -- on what would happen to them in the future, after the book ended: Would LaVaughn make it to college? Would Jolly get a high school diploma? One usually mild-mannered student got so invested in Jolly's predicament that he yelled at her directly in his journal: "What a buncha bull," he responded to her excuses about not being able to go back to school. He wanted her to be able to succeed, and he knew her excuses about school covered up her very real fear. Any text that can evoke such raw, caring responses from students is one worth including in the curriculum.
Finally, Make Lemonade is unflinchingly realistic. Its portrayal of teenage parenting tells it like it is: tough. Jolly struggles to make enough money to buy necessities like diapers; she feels uncomfortable about returning to high school; and she is sexually harassed by her boss at her low-level job. Girls in our school are sometimes seduced by the attention and recognition of maturity they think they will receive if they become a mother. Both Cindy and I agree that Wolff's portrayal of the stresses and hardships of Jolly's life counteracts this mythical unreality quite well.
Nor does Wolff provide a candy-coated ending. When the story closes, Jolly and LaVaughn have drifted apart. LaVaughn says that "It's all completely different now./I been broken off/like part of her bad past./I was the one knew the saddest parts of Jolly" (p. 198). Yet the ending is not all sadness: the lemon plant, which Jeremy has awaited so patiently, has sprouted. It's a tangible symbol of hope and the power of perseverance that my students, cynical as they might like to appear, celebrated in their journals. For example, one group member wrote,
"Is that lemon tree ever going to grow?" I don't know how many times I asked myself that question, but every time I asked it I believed that it would. I wanted it to grow not for the sake of having a plant or so that LaVaughn would feel she did something good. I wanted it to grow for the sake of Jeremy. The person who was persistant [sic] enough to talk to every seed that lived in the dirt of that pot. Who started to lose heart but held on because he trusted a person's word... .
It is this balance -- the sourness of lemons, the sweetness of lemonade; the harshness of poverty, the kindness of friendship -- that makes this book so valuable to adolescents exploring their world. Negotiating these complexities and seeming contradictions is easier, though, for adolescents when they have an opportunity to discuss the text with each other and a knowledgeable adult, which is where Cindy came in.
During the second semester, Cindy met with three different groups of girls in my English 10 classes.2 As she explains: "They were, in my opinion, a good cross section in terms of academic achievement, personality, and popularity. Each girl brought out of their own experience something related to their own situation. The issue of teen pregnancy came up [in all groups] but the conversation flew in many directions. I merely posed questions and listened."
Having Cindy as a participant in the Make Lemonade groups provided the best of both worlds for me. Because she was an adult, she helped the students to stay focused, discouraging by her very presence the deterioration of the discussion into gossip sessions about weekend plans. At the same time, she was not an English teacher, so students didn't feel compelled to discuss only the "literary features" of the text. They were free to discuss the book from several perspectives, to bring in their own experiences, and to examine it in the light of what they knew about the world around them. This last task was where Cindy was invaluable. Her wealth of experience with adolescents, with poverty, and with parenting gave her credibility in the eyes of the students and allowed her to ask pointed, relevant questions that helped them to think more deeply.
Although students' discussions almost always began with teen pregnancy, Make Lemonade raised a diverse slate of other issues as well. Cindy calls the book a "paradox of simplicity and complexities, much like the everyday life of the adolescents I often see." She remembers a moment from the book when Jolly, needing money for shoes and cough medicine for Jeremy and Jilly, is forced to ask LaVaughn for some of her baby-sitting money. Cindy describes the students' reaction to the incident in this way:
Simple needs, complex problems. This one part of the book spawned a thoughtful discussion about welfare and social services. The students admitted they never really thought about where the money came from for welfare. They were astounded to learn it was the monies of real people and not some ever fruitful government money tree.
Cindy, who has spent countless hours trying to track down social services for students who need them, was the perfect person to challenge students' assumptions and misconceptions. From counseling students and contact with parents, Cindy was also familiar with the other challenges that Jolly faced in raising a family alone: "The dialog with one group turned to the plight of single women with children. How do we make dads more responsible and accountable? Why is the entire burden of family always left to the mother? Another group talked about sexual harassment. This turned into an awareness of how prevalent it was right in the halls of their high school."
Having Cindy in their book groups helped students to connect their reading to the world outside the text -- something that many adolescent readers need. She helped them to test their own hypotheses about issues raised by the text. As one girl said when I questioned her about the value of Cindy's visit, "She made it [the book] more real."
Cindy's participation with my students extended beyond a one-time visit at the beginning of their reading. In fact, one book group invited her to all their meetings. They also asked her to consult on their group project, which involved the entire class in a role-playing of LaVaughn's "steam class." With gentle prodding and astute questions, Cindy assisted the students in thinking through how "steam class," designed to build self-esteem and release stress in teenagers, should be facilitated. Seeing Cindy as an essential collaborator, the group refused to begin their final presentation until she could be in the room. Two other students conducted formal interviews with her on teenage pregnancy at Noble, and at least one other student asked her to read and respond to her literary analysis of the book. In these ways, Cindy became another "coach" for the students --another adult who could provide them with feedback, support, and constructive criticism but who did not have to grade them.
These benefits for my students are probably not surprising. What may not be quite so obvious is the benefit for Cindy herself. She and I see several of them. Because Cindy spends so much time with kids in trouble, it is sometimes hard for her to see the spectrum of the entire school population. After her visit, she wrote me, "I would do this again in a heartbeat. It gives me a whole different perspective on adolescents. Instead of seeing just the needy self-centeredness, I get to see the healthy, thoughtful, and intellectual sides of these kids." The Make Lemonade groups gave Cindy the opportunity to interact with students as learners in an academic environment. Just as classroom teachers sometimes fail to recognize children's emotional or physical needs, it is easy for health care professionals in schools to be isolated from children's cognitive development. Including these staff members more in academic activities is important. Lastly, Cindy's visits to our class helped her to feel more included in the Noble community. Not a member of a team or department, she often felt isolated and different from the rest of the staff. Working with book groups helped to alleviate that feeling, and Cindy reports that she has been enlisted by another teacher to come into classes this year as well: "I am looking forward to reading Make Lemonade with a sophomore class this winter when the curriculum focus will be on relationships."
As teachers of English, we talk a lot in conferences and journal articles about using young adult novels as a way to connect adolescents to literature. We know how important it is for them to see their world represented in print. We talk less about using young adult literature to connect adults to kids. The fertile exchange that took place when Cindy and the Make Lemonade groups talked made me think about the power of YA literature to build bridges across generations. Because young adult novels are short, averaging about 200 pages, they can be read quickly by most adults. They can be used to begin conversations between teenagers and adults about a variety of topics including peer pressure, sex, death, alcohol and drug abuse, relationships with parents, school, race relations, justice, and friendships. Adults -- including but not limited to teachers -- who find that the world has changed a great deal since they were teenagers would do well to look to YA literature like Make Lemonade for some answers about what it's become.
This experience has also made me think about using shared reading -- whether of a YA novel or any other text -- as a way for students to talk to adults about their fields of expertise. Teachers frequently invite speakers to visit class and talk about their work; in my own school, we've had a poet speak to English classes, a lawyer in social studies, and a veterinarian in biology. In most cases, students prepare for these visits by writing questions to be answered after the talk is done. They listen politely, and maybe two or three of them get to ask those questions at the end. Rarely do they have the opportunity to engage in a real discussion with guests about their fields of expertise, their interests, their lives. It seems to me that powerful learning opportunities can be created in the English classroom if staff and community members are willing -- as Cindy is -- to read with and talk with students, instead of talking to or at them.
1. For examples of other approaches to book groups, see Literature Circles (1994) by Harvey Daniels, Seeking Diversity (1992) by Linda Rief, and several chapters in Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics (1993), edited by Joan Kaywell.
2. I did have three boys read the book in a group which also included a fourth member who was female, but they finished it before Cindy's visits. All three reported liking it very much and none labeled it a "girl's book"; nonetheless, I was unable to persuade boys to select it in other classes.
Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Permanent Connections. HarperTrophy, 1987.
Carter, Alden. Up Country. Scholastic, 1989.
Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles. Stenhouse, 1994.
Kaywell, Joan, ed. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics. Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1993.
Meyer, Carolyn. White Lilacs. Gulliver/Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Namioka, Lensey. April and the Dragon Lady. Browndeer/Harcourt Brace, 1994.
Peck, Robert Newton. A Day No Pigs Would Die. Dell, 1972.
Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity. Heinemann, 1992.
Voigt, Cynthia. Orfe. Scholastic, 1992.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade. Henry Holt, 1993.
Currently a doctoral student at the University of Maine, Kelly Chandler previously taught English and Women's History at Noble High School in Berwick, Maine.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Chandler, Kelly. (1996). "Make it more real": Book Groups,Make Lemonade, and the School Nurse.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 1619.