First Time Contributor toThe ALAN Review
The Young Adult Literature Course: Facilitating the Integration of Young Adult Literature into the High School English Classroom
B. Joyce Stallworth
High School Teachers and Librarians: Entering New Territory
Most of the participants in my young adult literature course each semester are in-service English teachers and librarians. There are always some among the group who are initially very skeptical about using young adult literature in the high school English classroom. Some question its usefulness and literary merit; others equate it with less serious juvenile series books of old; and many upper high school teachers want an explanation of how such literature could possibly be used to address the objectives in our state's 11th or 12th grade course of study. For example, Stella, who has a degree in English literature, stated early in one recent semester, "These books may be o.k. for recreational reading, but I don't see much educational value." However, at the end of that semester, she submitted for her final project a wonderful thematic unit on identity that included Cormier's The Chocolate War as the primary novel. Many of the teachers come to the course with initial misgivings; however, they always leave with energy and excitement about integrating into their curricula many of the books we have shared and discussed during the course. In my experiences, I have had to do very little to change their attitudes. Facilitating their reading, sharing, disagreeing, critiquing, and reflecting allows them to discover for themselves the richness in high-quality contemporary young adult literature. Below, I will describe my course, share recent titles of excellent young adult novels studied in the course, describe several students' ideas for and about integrating contemporary young adult literature into the secondary English classroom, and discuss ways to dismantle several barriers to including young adult literature in the English curriculum.
The course, "Teaching Young Adult Literature," is designed to be an opportunity for pre-service and in-service teachers and librarians to accomplish three goals: a) study and respond to the rationales, goals, and objectives for using young adult literature in the secondary English language arts classroom; b) read and respond to many high-quality contemporary young adult novels; and c) engage in developing theories and practices that will help them integrate quality young adult literature into the middle and high school English language arts curriculum. I begin the course with some basic definitions and discussions of the characteristics of young adult literature that make it especially appealing to adolescents. For example, Donelson and Nilsen's (1997) definition is particularly useful because it emphasizes the point that young adult literature is reading which readers between the ages of 12 and 20 choose to read instead of what they may be forced to read for class assignments. This definition suggests to English teachers that we must consider what students like to read as we make decisions about the curriculum. Young people are more likely to view reading as pleasurable and become life-long readers if they are introduced to literature containing plots consistent with their experiences, themes of interest to them, main characters who are young adults, and language that corresponds to their own language (Bushman & Bushman, 1997). Students are motivated to read when they see characters and situations reflecting their own experiences.
We also consider perspectives such as Hipple's (1997) opinion- "the THAT of teenaged reading is more important than the WHAT". Many course participants usually disagree with this statement, arguing quality over quantity. But Kris, who teaches 9th grade English and creative writing, concluded one recent class discussion based on this perspective by remarking, "Hipple is just suggesting that English teachers cannot become so preoccupied with covering only what teachers consider quality. Teachers must use literature which excites students about reading and engages them" -- a perfect statement to summarize that discussion.
As we begin reading novels for the course, I challenge the course participants to consider how young adult literature might facilitate the improvement of their students' reading abilities and draw their students into literacy communities. If students are actually reading, comprehending, and responding to good literature that they enjoy, they are developing and practicing literacy skills. Research which supports this position includes Reed's (1994) conclusions that the young adult novel specifically:
- helps improve the reading skills of adolescents and allows all readers to read good books;
- allows adolescents to interact with books as equals, thereby developing both reading skills and critical and creative thinking abilities;
- encourages adolescents to read more books, thereby improving their abilities to read;
- allows teachers to incorporate more books of interest to adolescents into the curriculum, thereby avoiding the non-reading curriculum or workbooks and lectures;
- allows teachers to organize classrooms into reading workshops in which students respond to, experience, and share books; and
- facilitates the development of an inclusive curriculum in which a variety of books on a variety of themes and in a variety of genres introduce students to themselves, their world, and the worlds of other cultures.
Secondary school students can read works that provide mirrors through which they can read about situations that resemble their own worlds, discover the richness of differences in cultures other than their own, and learn to appreciate those differences. Gradually, course participants begin to understand that young adult literature has a significant place in the secondary English classroom.
Finally, early in the semester, I model booktalks of some of my most favorite young adult novels. This is an important activity because course participants need to quickly develop frameworks for their own explorations. ). The booktalk is a short, lively, and entertaining presentation from a book comparable to a movie preview or teaser that introduces characters and a hint of the plot (Donelson & Nilsen, 1997). Most participants in the course have no idea who Myers, Voigt, Crutcher, or Wolff are when the semester begins, yet I present booktalks as soon as they have begun to explore the genre. By introducing books that have worked well for adolescents, providing a carefully developed reading list with many options, and highlighting prominent authors early in the semester, I attempt to lead them into reading what for so many of them is new territory. After they watch and discuss my booktalks, students present booktalks from the novels they read throughout the semester (they are required to read at least ten novels). One of the books most recently presented is Crutcher's Ironman. Janet, the librarian who presented this booktalk, experienced the novel as an audiobook, a wonderful option for "reading" a book. Ironman, a poignant journey into the life of teen tri-athlete Bo Brewster, is enhanced through rich voice and sound via four unabridged audiotapes. Many others have become hooked on audiobooks because they are options for experiencing books in a way that fits hectic schedules. Janet's annotation of Ironman is located in the appendix.
Exploring New Territories
One of my goals for constructing the various activities and assignments is to facilitate the course participants' abilities to use literature that helps their students grow as independent and critical readers. An activity that has proven to be very successful in helping course participants know their students and understand their students' interests and preferences is interviewing a young adult reader. For example, asking students what they enjoy reading, why they enjoy various topics, subjects, and genres, and how they feel about school reading informs the teachers' and librarians' abilities to rethink their classroom reading requirements and selections. Some of the questions the course participants asked during their interviews of young adult readers include the following:
- How often do you read for pleasure?
- What do you read for pleasure? (e.g., magazines, newspapers, etc.)
- What do the adults around you read for pleasure? (e.g., magazines, newspapers, etc.)
- Do you like to read in school? Why/why not?
- What books have you most enjoyed reading in school?
- What are your favorite novels or short stories?
- What kinds of reading materials do you have at home?
- What kinds of subjects or topics do you like to read about?
- Do you consider reading important? Why/why not?
- How often are you assigned reading tasks in school? In what courses?
Listening to students is one way that teachers and librarians include them in the curriculum development and book selection processes. The adolescents may feel validated, and they may become more enthusiastic about participating as members of the classroom learning community.
As we explore, we share several high-quality contemporary young adult novels that will interest secondary students and help them internalize literary elements such as tone, characterization, plot, setting, and symbolism -- the same elements found in The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or other staples in the English curriculum. Course participants become well versed in suggesting excellent young adult novels for colleagues back at their school sites through reading, sharing, and debating. They also develop rationales for including young adult books by constructing annotations, which is another major activity in the course. In order to become more confident in our abilities to construct annotations and recommend novels for use in English classrooms, we engage in studying research in addition to experiencing young adult novels. We also study guidelines for evaluating novels from scholars in the field, including those offered by Donelson and Nilsen (1997) and Lukens and Cline (1995), and review critiques and resources from various sources, including Web Sites like ALA's Young Adult Library Services Association at http://www.ala.org/yalsa/. These activities, combined with lively class discussions, inform our abilities to construct enlightened and informative annotations. The annotations that are created by the students include basic information on genre, plot, and characters; they also include response activities, such as writing alternative endings and author's chair, that teachers can use to fully engage their students in reading.
Some of our most recent suggestions have included wonderful novels like Ironman, Make Lemonade, Slam!, Like Sisters on the Homefront, The Giver, When She Hollers, Scorpions, Children of the River, Hatchet, and Dicey's Song. Through the use of excellent characterization, plot, setting and other literary elements, these books challenge young adults, entertain them, and pose important moral and ethical questions and situations without being overly didactic. For example, Garcia's Like Sisters on the Homefront details the life of Gayle, a 14-year old mother of one who has just had her second unborn child aborted. This novel speaks to the hopelessness felt by teens whose lives are spiraling out of control because of problems associated with sex, drugs, violence, poverty, and a plethora of other serious social and economic circumstances. Gayle eventually transforms her life, learns responsibility, and develops a positive self-image through her relationship with her extended family, especially her great-grandmother. The participants in the class realize that response activities like role-playing or journal writing could be very useful in facilitating students' reading and learning from this novel. Like Sisters on the Homefront and the other young adult novels that we read and study reflect Reed's (1994) reasons for using young adult literature. Two sample annotations are presented in Figure One; others can be found at www.bamaed.ua.edu/~jstallwo/, the course Web Site.
Because students have options for their final projects, course participants can learn many new ideas and strategies from each other. For instance, some choose to read additional titles and prepare annotations; others choose to conduct author studies; and each semester, several choose action research projects, such as administering reading inventories and surveys to their students and composing lists of novels, short stories, and poems that match their students' reading interests. For instance, Debbie, a librarian, administered an inventory which included the General Interest Inventory (Readence, Bean, and Baldwin, 1998) to 100 students in her school for her final course project,. Debbie, who admitted that she had never really listened to her students' voices as she made decisions about her school's library collection, stated, "A whole new world opened up to me as I discovered what the students at my school really liked to read. I plan to feature one author each month in the library from the novels I have gathered as a result of what I learned about their favorite genres and their tastes."
Course Participants' Reflections on the New Territory
The last activity in the course is an opportunity for us to reflect on our discussions, critique additional titles and teaching ideas, and share what we have learned as a result of studying and reading young adult literature. This step is necessary, because on-going inquiry is vital to professional growth. Sample reflections from course participants are presented below under the categories "discoveries" and "applications."
Many course participants shared how they planned to transform their new knowledge into practice in their classrooms. Diana stated the following:
Students are not reading because they have not been introduced to novels that capture their interests. If they are introduced to works by Voigt, Cooney, Crutcher, Lipsyte, or Myers, it is virtually impossible for them not to become active readers and life-long readers. Therefore, one of my goals is to become an advocate in my school. For example, I have already given my librarian a list of titles to add to our collection. I have also made several suggestions to my students for their summer reading, and I will use the summer to develop units using more contemporary young adult titles.
Ann discussed the importance of choices: "Now I have a number of books I can recommend to my 7th grade students. I can present booktalks to interest them in the stories. Further, I can offer them choices in their reading assignments and hopefully appeal to more of my students' interests."
Angie, a teacher of senior English, echoed Ann's view that offering more choices will increase interest: "As I develop my classroom library, I can allow students to read different titles individually or in small groups that fit a certain unit instead of making all of them read the same thing. This will allow for differences while still maintaining organization." Angie's idea reflects to some degree Atwell's (1998) reading workshop approach to teaching English language arts. Angie concluded that young adult literature is appropriate even at the 12th grade level:
Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy are books I can use to introduce my Arthurian Legend unit. We end the unit by role-playing a "Feast of the Court." These young adult books would help my students understand daily life in Medieval England, prepare them for more complex reading, and help them in their role-playing.
Janice, who was a doctoral student on leave from her school in Bogota, Colombia, admitted that she had used her "gut instinct" to choose the books for her students:
None of my studies in the Colombian university I attended prepared me for the curricular decisions I had to make. I used the standard anthology, and we [English teachers at her school] drew up what seemed to us to be a good curriculum based on what we remembered from our schooling experiences. I know now that our choices could have been more informed. After reading new titles and sharing with my colleagues here, I have the tools to be informed, critical, reflective, and proficient in a topic that is important to my professional career.
Considering our current practices, experiencing alternative content and ways to deliver instruction, evaluating, and reflecting are processes that can guide teachers in making informed decisions and improving the teaching and learning process (Stallworth, 1998). Certainly, these teachers' comments reflect this on-going and systematic approach to curriculum improvement.
Course participants commented about the usefulness of young adult literature on various levels, and discussed many topics such as the evolution of the genre, resources to support the use of young adult literature, censorship, and the use of young adult literature in all content areas. For example, Gene stated that he had never used a contemporary young adult title in his 8 years of teaching. He explained his discovery:
The young adult genre has expanded and become so much more than just a little corner in the bookstore. These books are wonderful. I will began the new school term, for instance, with my 9th graders reading Lipsyte's The Contender because I like to begin the year by reading novels that teach students about integrity, hard work, and perseverance. This book is perfect for that.
Among the themes that emerged most often in their reflections about applications were the use of young adult literature to a) teach issues of diversity and multiculturalism and b) integrate reading across the content areas. Some of their comments are presented below.
Diversity. Stella explained the value of multicultural literature from a global perspective while Judy considered her experiences in local school systems. Stella wrote that
The world is getting smaller everyday with the growing influence of computers, cheaper travel, and the wide range of mass media. No one is isolated in her own little homogeneous world anymore. . .The literature classroom can and must be one place where students carry on conversations about diversity and the challenges and rewards inherent in learning about differences. For example, I may never go to Japan, but when I read a book called Kitche by Yoshimoto, I caught a glimpse of Japanese culture. For a brief moment, I was able to step into the lives of these Japanese characters. Doing this allows me to appreciate their distinct qualities and to identify the common ground between my experiences and theirs.
Stella's comments are consistent with Poe's (1998) research on the importance of using literature that speaks to differences and similarities among various cultures. Such literature must be woven together in the curriculum continuously, not just during special weeks or monthly observances. Certainly students are more apt to gain insights from other cultures when they can see not only the differences but also the similarities between themselves and others.
Judy, a beginning English teacher, attended a small, rural, all white high school where very few authors of color were taught. During my class, she read Garcia's Like Sisters on the Homefront and did not particularly enjoy the reading. As she discussed her reasons, one of the two black teachers in the class that semester asked her whether she had ever experienced some of the protagonist's situations; she replied "no." At the end of the semester, Judy reflected as follows:
I had a great deal of difficulty relating to the black protagonist in Like Sisters on the Homefront, so I can imagine how difficult it would be for many minority students to read about white people all of the time. There are definitely some differences among cultures, and these differences should be celebrated, not dismissed and ridiculed. I understand that now. I fully intend to teach multicultural titles because I missed these opportunities when I was in high school. I know the addition of such titles is important to validate the experiences of all my students.
Judy came to a realization on her own that is supported in much research (e.g., Harmon, 1998; Apple & Smith, 1991) on the importance of valuing and validating the experiences of students who are often on the margins and not the mainstream.
Content Area Reading. Often, the English teachers in the course also teach other subjects, and they know well the difficulty many students have reading their content area textbooks. Many discuss the lack of interest students have in reading history or science textbooks, and they see young adult literature as one way to facilitate students' abilities to make connections to the facts contained in textbooks and to promote enthusiasm for reading across the curriculum. For instance, Katie, who also teaches science in a middle school, saw much potential for using Hatchet in a science course focusing on nature. She explained, "If students read of a young protagonist's experiences, they are more likely to make connections to the textbook's factual descriptions and explanations about those experiences. Hatchet would be great for a new 7th grade class at my school we have entitled, 'Nature Studies'."
Many young adult novels such as The Giver, Number the Stars, Friedrich, Fallen Angels, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle lend themselves to instruction in other content areas. Such books are so important because when students fall behind in reading proficiency, it becomes very difficult for them to benefit from instruction not only in English but also in other content areas. Therefore, using trade books, novels, and other authentic reading tasks "gives content instruction a focus, creates coherence across content and process, and enables students to understand what and why they are learning" (Roe, Stoodt, & Burns, 1995). All content area teachers must understand their roles in students' literacy development.
Overcoming Barriers in the New Territory
Scarce resources, crowded curriculum, and intractability regarding change are just a few of many barriers to including more young adult titles in middle and high school settings. According to the teachers and librarians in the course, lack of funding is the one most difficult barrier to creating a rich collection of young adult literature. Where are teachers to find the money to buy whole class sets of novels or individual titles for their classroom libraries in this time of diminished school funding? Used book stores are excellent and inexpensive resources for building classroom libraries. Of course various book clubs offer tremendous discounts for teachers. Teachers can also pool their resource allocations. In fact, two teachers with whom I work recently combined their state allocations to buy Slam!, Walter Dean Myers' awarding winning saga of a teen basketball star. Teachers also encourage students to purchase their own copies, read them, and then donate them to their teachers' classroom libraries. Some teachers have also had fund-raisers. Donna, one in-service teacher in my class, raised over $400 for the purchase of class sets of Voigt's Homecoming and Dicey's Song. In some counties, grant money is available for teachers who articulate their needs and goals for incorporating young adult literature into their curriculua. I have also used my resource money to purchase books for area teachers. There are no easy answers to solving funding problems, but some creative solutions do exist.
Other barriers, like cultural encapsulation, censorship concerns, and curriculum mandates exist also. There are some teachers who are afraid to risk using literature which would energize their students and create authentic learning communities in their classrooms because the titles are new to them, and they fear change. Further, some teachers are not necessarily willing to read new books and create new lesson plans. If teachers are not exposed to different ways of thinking and conceptualizing the English curriculum, change will not occur. Therefore, teacher educators must provide opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers to learn about new titles. Workshops and courses must serve as safe environments for the discussion and analysis of books beyond the traditional canon. Cathy's response illustrates this point. She teaches 12th grade; in our state, that means British literature. Like Angie, who is quoted above, she concluded that she would definitely use Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy to introduce literature from the Middle Ages because her students could relate to the narrator's style and tone. Cathy's decision reflects her realization that young adult literature can be useful in upper high school English classes. As teachers become more willing to read, research, ask questions, find and/or create teaching materials, and prepare themselves to address issues of censorship, we can make their curriculum more inclusive and more exciting for students.
Another teacher's recent use of Myers' Somewhere In The Darkness depicts one teacher's willingness to create a more inclusive curriculum. Mitch was desperate to find something his students would actually read and enjoy. This multicultural young adult novel was new to him, and none of the other English teachers at his school had ever used it. However, Mitch read the book and created some marvelous activities for his students' reading of the novel. The novel was very well received by the students, and they were pleased that their teacher was committed enough to actually use a novel which reflected their experiences and interests. In fact, one young 9th grade male student told me during one of my visits to Mitch's class, "This is the first book I have ever read all the way through." I was happy that this young man finally found a book he considered worthy of actually reading; however, I was also very troubled. He had never read a book completely -- how tragic. Teachers must work very diligently to find ways to include all of our students in reading communities. Literacy must not only be a goal; we must make it a reality.
In an extensive study of high school English curricula across the country, Applebee (1989) described excellent English programs as those where the literature program
is rich and varied, relying mainly on paperback single texts rather than anthologies. The huge bookroom is as big as some college bookstores. This list of approved texts is lengthy and expandable by individual teacher requests. They seem to stress modern and contemporary works much more than most schools.
English classrooms must be alive, inclusive, authentic, and meaningful for all students. English teachers and librarians must consider choice and variety in their selections. Making wise decisions based on students' interests and needs is essential in helping them begin to value reading and see the rich diversity in quality literature. Such decisions can increase the likelihood that students will find some pleasure and enjoyment in reading and will want to read more (Gallo, 1992).
Teacher educators occupy important positions in helping in-service and pre-service teachers create rich reading classroom communities based on reflection, ownership, shared risk, commitment, and collaboration. In my work with secondary English teachers and librarians, I attempt to facilitate their abilities to implement changes in their programs; together we find resources, develop units, share fresh teaching ideas, critique, and reflect. At the end of a recent semester, one course participant reported to me, "Although I have made some progress in making my curriculum more inclusive, I can see even more possibilities for incorporating what is available to me in my particular school to open doors of learning for all my students." There is room in the English curriculum for traditional literature, multicultural literature, contemporary literature, and most certainly, young adult literature; teachers are beginning to realize this and change their practices.
Applebee, A. (1989). A study of book-length works taught in high school English programs (Report No. 1.2). Albany, NY: Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 309 453)
Harmon, M. (1998). Moving from the merely mentioned to the multicultural. In J. Brown and E. Stephens (Eds.), United in diversity: Using multicultural young adult literature in the classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Gallo, D. (1992). Listening to readers: Attitudes toward the young adult novel. In V. Monseau and G. Salvner (Eds.), Reading their world: The young adult novel in the classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Lukens, R. and Cline, R. (1995). A critical handbook of literature for young adults. NY: HarperCollins College. Monseau, V. and Salvner, G. (Eds.). (1997). A complete guide to young adult literature [CD-ROM]. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Ironman (Unabridged Audiotape)
Author: Chris Crutcher
Publisher: Recorded Books, Inc.
Interest Level: 12 and up
Awards: An Association for Library Services to Children Notable Recording
Setting: A fictional small town near Spokane, Washington
Mr. Nakatami (Mr. Nak)
Members of the Anger Management Group
Brief Plot:Bo Brewster, an athlete in training for the upcoming Yukon Jacks triathlon, has just been sentenced to Mr. Nak's Anger Management Group for calling Mr. Redman, his English teacher and football coach, an asshole for the second time. Although initially reluctant to attend this early morning meeting of "cut-throats and hoodlums," Bo slowly understands how his fears have directed his angry outbursts toward people who made him feel small and insignificant, especially Mr. Redman and his father. He learns so many other valuable lessons about strength, endurance, respect, determination, and love. Bo chronicles his journey through a series of fascinating and uniquely written letters to Larry King, the one person who will really listen to him.
Commentary and Classroom Uses:This is a wonderful book to use in a unit on relationships and coming of age. Bo is a typical teenager who finds himself in atypical situations. Although the book revolves around an athletic competition, all students would enjoy reading it. Because the book is realistic and offers many insights and lessons about life, it would also be very useful in a high school English class or counseling group.
My Reflections:I laughed aloud as I listened to the book as did my son. He doesn't think my husband and I are such bad parents after all! Crutcher writes compelling about young people. It was sensitive, heart-warming, sad, funny, and educational. I completely enjoyed it and recommend it to students in grades 9 - 12, parents of teenagers, and other teachers.
Other Books by Chris Crutcher:
- Athletic Shorts (short story collection)
- Chinese Handcuffs
- Running Loose
- The Crazy Horse Electric Game
- Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
Annotation by: Janet Saczawa
Like Sisters on the Homefront
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Publisher: Lodestar Books, 1995
Interest Level: 14 and up
Awards: Corretta Scott King Book Award
Setting: Queens, NY & Columbus, GA
Brief Plot:Gayle is a mother at fourteen. Seven months after the birth of her son Jose, Gayle's mother Ruth discovers that Gayle is pregnant again. Without any hesitation, Ruth marches Gayle down to the local clinic to have an abortion. Amazingly, none of this seems to affect Gayle. Gayle's mother then sends her down South to live with her uncle, Rev. Luther Gates, his wife, and their daughter, Cookie. Not only does Gayle have to take full responsibility for her son now, but she also has to adjust to living by her uncle's rules. Despite Gayle's initial dislike of her new home, she develops a special bond with her great-grandmother Abigail. It is through Great (Abigail) that Gayle realizes who she really is. She learns to love, and she develops a closeness with her relatives that instills in her a greater sense of family.
Comments and Classroom Uses:Williams-Garcia's novel is definitely realistic fiction. The author of this novel does an excellent job of representing life as it really is for many inner city teens today. Because of the possible censorship issues, I would not select this novel for an entire class to read; however, I would recommend it for individual reading. As mature as the subject matter may seem, we as teachers must realize that many teens are growing up much too fast and are becoming mothers at very young ages.
Personal Reflections:I have to admit that when I first started to read this book, I was shocked by the situations experienced by this young protagonist. But, these issues must be addressed. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I found an even greater beauty in Williams-Garcia's novel. The novel celebrates important aspects of African-American culture. It gives a vivid portrayal of the rich oral tradition in African-American culture. The novel also shows the power to the extended family through the touching closeness that Gayle develops with her southern relatives. I found the novel to be very intense, emotional, and inspirational.
Annotation by: Jamillia D. Watts
B. Jean Stallworth is an Assistant Professor of English Education at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Reference Citation: Stallworth, B. Jean. (1998). "The Young Adult Literature Course: Facilitating the Integration of YAL into the High School English Curriculum." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1, 2.