The Young Adult Literature Course: Young Readers Teach Prospective Teachers about Reading Interests and Reader ResponseMarjorie Kaiser
In this age of reform of teacher education programs with its emphasis on collaboration and site-based learning and its insistence on reflection as a natural part of teaching, teacher educators, too, are examining their course design and teaching practice. We're asking questions we might not have asked before, questions about our roles and the value of the content we offer prospective teachers in their development as professionals. While some of these questions cause us discomfort, asking them and seeking answers is proving rewarding in sometimes startling ways. This article tells the story of my own questioning and reflection about two problems related to the young adult literature course and a collaborative project that came about because of such questioning.
Problem #1: Understanding the Power of Reading Interests
Like most college instructors of young adult literature courses, I include in my course a focus on young adult reading interests. I encourage our prospective middle and high school language arts teachers to be aware of the variety and range of young adult reading interests through careful selection of young adult books for class readings, through sharing of multiple bibliographies, through an occasional lecture and regular class discussions, through text readings and reviews of research, and through testimonials from experienced teachers participating in the class. In addition, I recommend that students choose their independent reading for the course so as to begin developing background in various young adult genres and types, including those not to their own personal tastes. Outside my course, the students spend considerable time through the planned field experiences integrated into their other course work, observing real young adult readers and having opportunities to know first-hand about the range and degree of their reading interests.
Despite these experiences and my best efforts, many students, lovers of literature themselves, begin teaching filled with expectations that students in their classes will excitedly read any literature they present if only they themselves are enthusiastic enough about it. Often they have returned to share their disappointment with me. Being faced daily with readers who have very particular and restricted tastes or those who only go through the motions and are genuinely interested in "nothing at all" puts quite a damper on their enthusiasm. The unusual student who is open to reading any book, especially if it comes recommended by a peer, shocks them equally. Such variety is hard for beginners to deal with, in part, because it means that selecting works for whole-class reading is often next to impossible and, in part, because they feel short-changed, suggesting that their course with me has paid insufficient attention to reading interests.
Problem #2: Skill in Designing Response Strategies
With equal zest I teach my course with a reader-response approach. With young adult works that we read in common, I engage the class in various response strategies. I encourage my students to notice how I elicit their responses to their reading and to use my approach as a model for their own teaching in their field work practice and once they are certified teachers. I call upon them to create and share a variety of different response strategies to accompany their independent reading.
Nevertheless, as students enter their own classrooms as teachers, they often choose to rely on available publishers' guides and textbook manuals for facilitating student response to literature. Often these are comprehensive questions that invite efferent rather than aesthetic reading. Consequently, many students respond to reading with superficial, brief answers to questions or prompts, indicating little personal involvement or association and rarely any genuine exploration or evaluation of the artistic values of the literature. As beginning teachers, my students feel frustrated.
Listening to them talk and observing them in their classrooms, I have grown more and more uncomfortable about this second dimension of my course. How, I have worried, can I prepare my students with a firmer grasp of how to design and use a variety of response strategies and help them gain sufficient confidence to avoid depending on pre-packaged and impersonal questions and generic guides?
Groping Toward a Solution
The avenue I felt I had to take in approaching these two related problems was through establishing more formalized connections between the activities of the university class and actual middle or high school students and their literature program in a local school. Not officially a part of our field-based sequence of teacher education courses, my course, nevertheless, needed to be more closely tied to real adolescent readers. I needed to select a classroom teacher who herself was seeking new approaches to teaching literature with an extremely diverse student population. I needed to collaborate with a strong yet reflective and flexible teacher who would be interested in improving both her secondary literature program and our preparation of future teachers.
The University of Louisville is surrounded by a large school district fairly bubbling with the excitement of educational innovation. Finding a teacher to team up with was not difficult, and after minimal initial planning, Sandy, a high school English teacher, and I agreed to try something on a small scale in the spring of 1991 to get our feet wet collaborating. Simultaneously, we would work through our ideas for a more elaborate project for the next spring, a project for which we would seek support through a university/school district funding source.
That first semester, Sandy and I randomly matched up my students with those in one of her eleventh-grade classes as pen pals. Through several letter exchanges, my prospective teachers tried to learn about their partners' academic and social lives, their general interests and goals, and especially their reading interests, attitudes, and experiences. Based on everything they learned from their partners and using resources they were accumulating in my course, my students individually selected and purchased a young adult book for their counterparts and designed a response guide to accompany it (see spring 1991 list). Sandy scheduled class time for reading and writing, so her students could enjoy this assignment for their "secret" pals at the university who were learning how to be teachers.
The high school students all made the effort to complete their books and their responses even though Sandy and I had decided that they would not be graded for their performance. They were especially delighted that when the assignments were completed we were able to arrange a field trip to the university campus for ice cream and a chance to meet and spend time with their partners. Informal feedback from the eleventh graders suggested how they had appreciated the individual attention they had received through the series of letters, the gift of the book, and the campus visit included in this informal project.
In reports describing their experiences, my students all expressed great pleasure in getting to know an individual student in this way and considerable satisfaction with the knowledge they gained about how individual students read and respond. To some extent they learned which kinds of response prompts tended to elicit fuller written exploration from readers, and, more importantly, how idiosyncratic reading and responding processes are. Further, they felt that their understanding of the range and degree of reading interests among adolescents had been connected to reality and thereby strengthened.
While this first collaborative experience was a good beginning, Sandy and I quickly turned to evaluating and refining the project for a future semester. We set about writing a proposal and started planning for the next spring.
The Second Time Around
A careful review of our first effort revealed that, because each of my teachers-to-be had selected an individual book to suit one high school student, Sandy's class as a whole could not really discuss the books beyond reporting and recommending. As a result, the time devoted to this project in Sandy's class was spent essentially in quiet independent work rather than in the collaborative creation of a community of readers. Also, because Sandy and I had thought it unwise to grade her students on their effort in this project, some failed to take the work as seriously as they did their other assignments.
In addition, some of my students felt they had insufficient backgrounds in young adult literature to make excellent choices for their partners. They were, of course, too naive to know that one never feels one's background is sufficient; there is just too much to be read. Both my students and I learned, too, that some of them needed more elaborate and direct instruction on designing their response guidelines. I had given the students a great deal of freedom and had not asked for these to be submitted to me before they were delivered to the high school students.
In this group's review of the project, one student wrote, "My long list of questions was not a response guide at all. I only thought it was. Seeing how my 11th grader reacted to it was a good way for me to learn." Another confessed that she "...needed to learn more about designing a guide for response to evoke the fullest possible connecting ... to facilitate that spark between the student and the novel." Discovering that their prompts were ineffective was, naturally, very instructive in the long run, but the experience led to some frustration on both sides.
After the first project, most of my students felt they wanted to know their partners better than they did before recommending a book. Sandy and I had intended to stress the use of writing skills for this purpose, work on-site being next to impossible to work out with a university course meeting only once a week between 4 and 7 p.m. and most of my students being full-time students as well as full- or part-time employees on- or off-campus. Still, we thought we could increase the number of letters and make some other refinements to help in this regard.
For the second effort in the Spring of 1992, we decided to initiate the pen-pal exchange with videotaped introductions of each group to the other, including both instructors. Again, we would randomly match our students, and we would increase the number of letters exchanged and alter the way my students selected books and designed their response guides. Sandy felt that her students, who had grown quite accustomed to working in writing response groups, would prefer participating in small groups, each of which would respond to a single book.
We also thought that a culminating activity or exhibition demonstrating for my students a group's response to its novel might enhance the university visit. We decided to increase the length of time the eleventh graders were on campus, and with funding we would provide a luncheon to follow the celebration of the students' presentation of skits, art work, etc.
Because we were able to "hit the ground running" this time, students at the university felt they knew enough about their partners by mid-semester so that we could group them by reading interests into sets of three-to-five individuals. Then my students formed into groups according to where their partners were placed and worked together pooling their developing backgrounds in young adult literature and consulting me and many other resources for titles that might be suitable for their student groups. Each group read avidly and with a purpose, debated vociferously, and finally reached agreement on a novel (for final choices of books, see spring 1992 list).
Their next task was to design a response guide that would include suggestions for the culminating activity. Sandy came to the university class to share a variety of response guides she had used with whole-class readings, and, using categories described by both Probst (1992) and Beach and Marshall (1991), I carefully led the class through the construction of effective and varied prompts, illustrating with samples from other teachers and my own that they, themselves, had used in responding to our whole-class readings. Then in their groups they completed the guides for their group of readers/responders. The books and guides were delivered to the high school students who then had about two and one half weeks to complete their work.
As the semester drew to a close, excitement grew about the campus performances and the luncheon. When the high school students stepped off their bus outside the Education Building, my students scurried to spot their partners. Some couples greeted each other as if they were old friends while others seemed polite but a little awkward, but all the pairs quickly connected. Sandy and I took lots of snapshots with my students sporting Iroquois High caps that the eleventh graders had bestowed, the Iroquois students proudly displaying their U. of L. key chains.
Inside, the high school students presented their response journals to my students and performed their skits, read new final chapters to novels, and exhibited their posters and other art projects. After much applause and congratulation, the group strolled in pairs to the Student Activities Center, chatting all the way, not only about the novel they had read but about reading and school in general, about college life, and about life itself. Pizza (specifically requested by the Iroquois students) provided the centerpiece for more intense conversation that continued after lunch as the pairs took walks around the campus before the eleventh graders re-boarded their bus. Upon bidding good-byes, numerous couples vowed to keep in touch.
After the visit, my students had a week to review the student journals and the visit and to reflect on what they had learned from their limited relationship with one student and from the entire experience. At the following class meeting, they met in their groups to compare reflections and insights on what they had learned about reading interests and response strategies. Part of their final grade in my course was based on their individual formal reports of their learning in the Iroquois Project.
This second version of the Iroquois Project more fully met the goals that Sandy and I had set for the collaboration. All groups involved gained and grew. Her students became acquainted with new titles and response strategies, made connections at the university, and enjoyed more individual adult attention than is typical in their English program.
Sandy's background in young adult literature was expanded as was her repertory of response strategies. Through our collaboration, she has sorted out her thoughts about re-designing her English classes with more emphasis on a reading-workshop format and about including much more student choice in book selection. Most importantly, Sandy came to recognize, as never before, the motivating power of individual interest in reading enjoyment and achievement.
I was able to find some solutions to the problems that I outlined earlier in this article. In addition, my regular interaction with a classroom teacher and her students enhanced my teaching and grounded the course content in the reality of adolescent readers. While students in my course have typically been turned on by young adult literature itself, now they were also inspired by those who read it. The enthusiasm they brought to our class meetings in turn excited me.
But those who profited most from the Iroquois experience were the prospective teachers, who came away from the experience richer in many ways. To a person, my students felt they had had their eyes opened through this aspect of the course. One student pinpointed what she saw as chief value of the experience:
The interaction we had with the Iroquois students allowed us to get into the heads of REAL students, to learn something about their interests and observations, to empathize with their problems, and to be exposed to their reading interests and abilities.Another pointed out a professional goal she had begun to establish for herself:
I must, as a professional teacher, keep current in my reading of young adult literature so that I will have a wide assortment of novels to recommend to my students.Still another prospective teacher learned through experience a totally new way of working with literature in the classroom:
My idea of what a high school English class can and should be has changed dramatically after the Iroquois Project. Specifically, the use of the response journal, a strategy that was foreign to me as a high school or college student, really seems to allow for a more productive connection between the student and the text than the use of daily literary explications such as I have been subjected to.And finally one student comment addressed most of what I was after for these prospective teachers:
The Iroquois Project provided us with an opportunity that Education classes often lack -- the chance to practice the selection of content and classroom strategies we're learning in a real situation. I found this project to be the most rewarding part of the course. I also found that young adult readers will embrace reading material that coincides with their needs and interests.Conclusion
Lest my account of these collaborative projects seem too glowing, it's fair to point out the additional time and effort required by both instructors. Sandy and I devoted many extra hours planning, organizing details, scheduling activities, purchasing books, exchanging mail, following up on absentees, arranging for a bus and the luncheon, and evaluating our efforts. For both of us, it would have been far less demanding to close our doors and teach our classes without this kind of working together.
Further, because of class time required to conduct some of the activities of these projects, some topics I normally schedule time for in my course had to be condensed or eliminated. Sandy had to make similar adjustments. Such course revision, in the balance, paid off in the variety of ways enumerated above. As we teacher educators strive to help beginners enter the teaching profession as reflective practitioners who see themselves as learners, so must we be willing to reflect on our teaching and course design to enhance the education of those about to join us as professional teachers.
I gratefully express my appreciation to Ms. Sandra Harris, the Iroquois High School English teacher who collaborated with me in both projects described in this article. The University of Louisville/Jefferson County Public Schools Coordinating Committee, which is dedicated to supporting collaborative efforts between school district and university faculties, provided the funds for our second semester project.
The projects described in this article formed the basis of presentations given at the 1992 Kentucky Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts and at the 1992 November NCTE Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
Marjorie Kaiser teaches English Education and Literature for Adolescents at the University of Louisville.