The library, lit and buzzing with activity well after the rest of the school is closed, suddenly stands in tense silence. Groups of students huddle around tables decorated with paper bags containing handwritten team names: #bookswag; Page 394; The Fellowship; Order of the Phoenix. Every pair of eyes is trained on the host who, dressed as The Hunger Games’s Caesar Flickerman, stands at a podium in the front of the room about to read the next question. “Name, in order, the seven Defense against the Dark Arts teachers in the Harry Potter series.” A burst of activity ensues as teammates whisper back and forth, careful not to be overheard but very aware of the 45-second time limit. Amidst sounds of shushing and frantic scribbling, scraps of folded paper are handed hastily to proctors, also dressed as characters from The Hunger Games. The answers are brought to the front of the room, and students wait anxiously to hear the correct answer, crossing fingers and clasping hands. Only one team, comprised of sixth-grade boys sitting in the far back of the fray, manages all seven in order. The boys cheer, while their competitors groan. The noises slowly quiet as the scores are updated and the next question is cued up, and once again the library is quiet; all eyes are on the host.
This opening vignette describes our most recent Book Battle, a trivia contest in which contestants answer questions based on popular young adult fiction. This culminating event is part of a service-learning partnership that brings together teen readers, students enrolled in a university young adult literature course, a library’s outreach program, and preservice teachers engaged in field experiences. For this issue of The ALAN Review, editors Glenn, Ginsberg, and King (2015) encouraged authors “to share collaborative efforts involving students, colleagues, and communities in creating spaces for YA literature to flourish.” Coauthored by a team of four authors (an English educator; a middle/high school librarian; a former preservice teacher, now middle school teacher; and a high school student), the purpose of this article is to explore what happened when university students enrolled in a young adult literature course provided service in a location intimately connected with what young adults are reading—the school library. What we found is that each shareholder benefitted in different ways from the experience, thus contributing to our philosophy of the power of young adult literature to foster a community of readers.
To broaden the study of young adult literature (YAL) beyond the bounds of the English language arts (ELA) classroom, undergraduates enrolled in Jackie’s YAL course organized and hosted a book-themed trivia competition at the middle/high school library of the university’s laboratory school (Lab School). The competition, called the Book Battle, is a contest in which teams of up to six teen readers compete to answer trivia questions about popular books. The Lab School has a strong community of readers, with students in grades 6–12 who were thrilled to have the chance to show off their knowledge of favorite book series.
For the first two years of this partnership, all Lab School students in grades 6–12 were invited to participate in the Book Battle. Undergraduate university students enrolled in a YAL course handled the logistics: planning and hosting the event; making promotional visits to the ELA classrooms at the Lab School; composing questions on each book series; creating a slide show of those questions for display during the Battle; decorating the school library; dressing up as literary characters; reading questions and tallying correct answers; and providing refreshments and prizes for the winning teams. By year three, 2014, Lab School students, many of whom attended the first Book Battle, ran the event.
In the first part of this article, we consider the philosophical and practical implications of service learning. The next four sections contain reflections on the course, each written by a constituent in the service learning partnership. We conclude with ideas of how to replicate this experience in readers’ own communities.
While The ALAN Review has published several articles that highlight powerful collaborative partnerships, such as Bauer’s work in a juvenile detention center (2011, we have yet to read one that employs service learning as a way to organize a YAL course. Our understanding of a service-learning course is guided by Bringle and Hatcher’s (1995) definition:
Service learning brings students into the field (Ostrow, 2004) and, in the case of preservice teachers, often challenges their notions of middle and high school students (Hallman & Burdick, 2011). At the heart of service learning is the meeting of all parties’ needs and interests: the students’ learning and application of course content, the community partner’s programming, and the instructor’s objectives for the course.
Two recently published books that bring service learning into direct contact with the work being done in literacy education can serve as guides for those of us in the field of young adult literature. In The Activist Learner, Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry (2014) argue that service learning can bring about change; they provide valuable insight into the benefits of service learning for the field of literacy. In Service Learning in Literacy Education, Kinloch and Smagorinsky (2014) bring together a group of literacy educators whose members share their service-learning programs and how those partnerships further their courses’ literacy goals. The contributors’ pieces are guided by the notion that service learning involves a reciprocal relationship in which all partners benefit through building and sustaining partnerships and through frequent and ongoing reflection. Both of these texts were useful to us in composing this article as they enabled us to articulate how we built and sustained our relationship and how our approaches support the work in literacy education. In the next four sections, we each share our changing roles with the Book Battle and reflect on the challenges, tensions, and rewards we encountered over the years.
“So it’s you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.” (Haymitch from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, 2008, p. 382)
I (Jackie) teach a YAL course at a land-grant university located in the state capital with approximately 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. When I teach the course, it is cross-listed in the English department and the Education department, indicating to students that the course will contain a balance between pedagogy and content. Any undergraduate is eligible to take the course, and I often have students from Business, Psychology, and Foreign Language sitting among English majors and those seeking teacher certification. The course is mandatory for teacher certification in English Education, and about 60% of my students are enrolled in that program.
All of my students at times generalize the adolescent reader—either assuming all readers want to read what they wanted to read as teenagers or basing their knowledge of contemporary trends in young adult literature on whatever is currently popular (which changes from year to year). Reading their responses to course assignments reveals some very broad assumptions: students don’t read; the young adult section of a library or bookstore holds nothing of interest; canonical texts like Shakespeare’s King Lear can be considered young adult literature if kids choose to read them on their own. I cannot speak for the contemporary adolescent reader, which is why I sometimes identify with Katniss: it’s me, with a syringe against a room full of students who do not really know what contemporary teenagers like to read. I needed a Haymitch, a mentor, to help me make our course objectives relevant and applicable.
Our university offers a service-learning scholar’s program for faculty interested in service learning. I participated with hopes of constructing learning experiences that would put my university students in the field. When I was preparing my application for the program, I thought I would place the students in my YAL course with classroom English language arts teachers who had strong independent reading programs. After beginning my service-learning program, I realized that there were many more potential partners in addition to middle and high school English language arts teachers who could help meet the varied interests and needs of my students.
Since not all the university students who are enrolled in my course are necessarily interested in the pedagogical implications of YAL, finding a service-learning placement that was not strictly confined to a classroom environment became important to me. Because my primary objective in this course was for students to interact with and learn about the contemporary young adult reader, I thought of the relationships I had built with school librarians. A placement in a school library appealed to me because I felt the less restrictive, more informal setting would provide a way for my students to actually interact with readers. I reached out to our Lab School’s middle/high school librarian with a request, and she agreed to be one of my first community partners.
For my course, the service-learning component is mandatory, and I do my best to make sure that the nature of the placement provides multiple ways for students to be involved. For example, one student who may have a conflict during the hours a group plans to meet might be put in charge of publicity and work when his or her schedule allows. The service-learning component counts as 30% of the course grade and requires students to spend at least 10 hours in the placement site (please see Figure 1 for an excerpt from my course syllabus). All partners (the student, the librarian, and me as the instructor) must sign a contract outlining our rights and responsibilities as members of the partnership. Service-learning events resulting from this work have included the creation of digital book trailers for the state’s Teen Readers’ Choice Award, facilitation of book clubs, creation of displays on particular themes, and surveys and interviews involving library patrons. But the Book Battle, which I was introduced to through a partnership with a librarian at a local public library, is my favorite.
This partnership with librarians has enabled me to put my students in contact with adolescents who read young adult literature. Who better than the readers themselves to share the current and lasting trends in young adult literature? While my students and I may think we know what “the kids are reading,” we may not know how they talk about what they are reading. Service-learning partnerships like this one fulfill my desire to create an educational experience that meets my students’ diverse needs and interests (Sulentic-Dowell & Bach, 2012), but because of our department’s teaching needs, I am only allowed to teach this course occasionally. When I was no longer able to teach the course, I became worried about how to sustain what had turned into a successful annual event for all of the involved partners. My syringe was not going to be enough.
Figure 1. Service-learning excerpt from course syllabus
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” (Albus Dumbledore from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, film version only, 2004)
In a time of schooling filled with debate about national education standards and a seemingly single-minded focus on testing and accountability, it can sometimes be hard to find the fun in education. One of my (Charity’s) favorite aspects of school librarianship is the opportunity to find this fun by focusing on and nurturing the joy of leisure reading. At the Lab School, I am the middle and high school librarian; I serve approximately 750 students in grades 6–12. Our library draws a strong contingent of avid and enthusiastic readers, and a large part of our mission is to create a sense of community around books and reading. In the past, we have hosted a number of programs, such as a sorting ceremony for our school’s Quidditch team, a movie release party for The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008), monthly book clubs for both middle and high school students, and family book discussion evenings, all designed to bring students together in celebration of literature. When Jackie approached me about partnering with her undergraduate young adult literature course, I was thrilled about the prospect of bringing another special event to our library program. Capitalizing on our students’ encyclopedic knowledge of their favorite book series (and their love of showing off that expertise), we decided that a Book Battle would be just the thing to create a sense of healthy book-themed competition.
The first task for all of us involved in planning the Battle was to decide which books would be included. For our first event, we selected series we knew were popular with teen readers at our school [Harry Potter (Rowling, 1997–2007); Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954–1955/2012); The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008–2010); Percy Jackson (Riordan, 2005–2009); and Artemis Fowl (Colfer, 2001-2012]), while our subsequent annual events allowed the teens to vote on the series to be included in the Battle. Teens voted back several series for a second year of inclusion—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games—and added the Unwind Dystology (Shusterman, 2007–2014) and the Divergent trilogy (Roth, 2011–2013). In year three, I invited a team of high school students who had participated as competitors in previous years to be the planners of the Book Battle, with middle schoolers as the contestants. Therefore, the book series included in year three had a more middle-school focus; Harry Potter made it back (of course!) and was joined by Michael Vey (Evans, 2011–2014), The Shadow Children (Haddix, 1998–2006), the Divergent trilogy (Roth, 2011–2013), The Maze Runner (Dashner, 2009–2011), and The Lorien Legacies (Lore, 2010–2014).
While the teams of YAL undergrads and high school students planned and organized the Book Battles on their end, I worked with my middle and high school students and teachers to drum up excitement about the event in our school. Sign-up forms were placed in the library, where I could help match up those who wanted to participate to form teams of 5 to 6 students. As the goal for each team was to have at least one expert on each of the included book series, team creation was an important component of success.
Unfortunately for our dedicated team of high school planners in the most recent Battle, I also got in their way on one occasion. In the spirit of efficiency, I like to create contact lists in my email for groups like the Book Battle Planning Committee, the Middle School Book Club, and the High School Book Club. As the Book Battle drew near, planning team members emailed their lists of questions to me for compilation into a single document and for review at our final organizational meeting. Working too quickly one day, I sent out that compiled list—with answers!—not to the Planning Committee, but to the Middle School Book Club, the very people who would be the competitors. Oops! Like the dedicated people they are, the planners took it in stride and made up some new questions, but I’m not sure I forgave myself as quickly as they forgave me.
On the evening of the event, the participants showed up ready for battle, with some even dressed in costume as their favorite book characters. The Book Battle gave these enthusiastic teen readers a space to get together and celebrate books and reading, an occasion where their knowledge was valued. The excitement of competing over the books they love and have read time and again highlighted the joys of leisure reading for these young adults, and the annual event continues to strengthen the community of readers that is the cornerstone of our school library program. The partnership with university service-learning students in earlier Battles helped prepare our high school students to take a leadership role as the event evolved. Having these capable teams in charge of the event each year makes my participation in the Book Battle— while not completely stress-free—a much more enjoyable task than the pressure of single-handed planning would allow.
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937/2012, p. 69)
I (Jay) have had the absolute privilege to participate in and help run two Book Battles at the Lab School. As a college student studying YAL in my first Battle and a graduate student becoming a teacher in the second year, I had a unique chance to learn about students and test my hand in the field of education. For two years, I was able to create questions and facilitate a celebration of learning. I went into the Book Battle with a purpose that may have been quite different from that of my counterparts, and I came away feeling a little like Bilbo in that what I found was not quite what I was looking for. That purpose was to observe students. As a future teacher, I wanted to see the reality of how students could feel about literature. I wanted to know what I was getting myself into, and I wanted to see if there was anything I could take away with me to my own classroom.
Through this experience, I have learned many things that I have kept in mind while entering the field of education. Foremost would be the importance of planning. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to participate in this event twice, and there was a stark difference between the experiences. My first time participating in the Book Battle was through the completion of a service-learning project for my class. As one might expect from stereotypical college students, we did not put a lot of thought into the matter. As such, we were still unsure of how to proceed on the night of the Battle. We made it through, but it was a nerve-racking experience that did not meet the potential for effectiveness. With that in mind, I approached my second year with a more thoughtful attitude. I made sure that my team did not slack on the planning, and as a result, the competition ran much more smoothly, and I was able to enjoy it that much more.
Now, it would do injustice to my experience to say that I enjoyed the Book Battles. I simply loved my time with the students. I was truly jubilant about the fact that, despite what some may think, there are students who still truly love and appreciate books. Remember, the Book Battle is not a mandatory event; rather, it is an optional night that requires students to give up their own time to attend. Both years, I was stunned (and very pleased) by the turnout. Students of multiple ages came out to show off their book knowledge. Each and every one of those students came in with such enthusiasm and pure love for books that it was hard to maintain a dry eye. These Battles taught me that as long as there are students with this passion, I’ll always want to teach.
The second time around, I felt there was only one true challenge—the creation of better questions that could not be easily contested or misconstrued. However, we met that challenge more easily than I could have imagined. The group of graduate students I worked with formed a PLC (professional learning community) and delegated the work among ourselves. We made sure not only to prepare our own work but to provide questions on the work of others. This turned out to be incredibly effective as we were able to spot problems before they arose. Rather than dealing with an issue during the Battle, we were able to work it out ahead of time. Learning the importance of collaboration has certainly carried into my professional work.
All in all, I was honored to be a part of what I hope will always be a Lab School tradition. Participation in the Book Battle is not only a powerful learning tool for college students, but a wonderful celebration of knowledge for its participants. I will never forget the skills that I, myself, have learned because of this event, and I will always cherish the joy that was found.
“We decided . . . we’d give it another try.” (Annabeth from Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, 2005, p. 374)
The Lab School is home to a community of enthusiastic young readers. Sadly, while there is no shortage of athletic activities and clubs available for middle and high school students, it is rare to see activities geared specifically toward these young readers. Thus, events like the Book Battle become important. Students with a passion for reading look forward to the Book Battle as an opportunity to celebrate and discuss popular books in a community setting, a rare experience outside of classrooms and the odd book club. However, there are also plenty of students at the Lab School who do not read recreationally. Many of these students rarely discuss books outside of class, let alone find books they genuinely enjoy. In light of this, one of the main ideas behind the Book Battle was bringing together students from a wide range of ages and interest levels and getting them invested in a group of books known to be well liked among young adults. By adding a competitive aspect to popular literature and testing the students’ comprehension rather than reading speed, the event encourages students to experience new books and to discuss them with their friends and teammates. The Book Battle gives students who love reading an opportunity to share and celebrate their knowledge and provides the same feelings of competition and recognition that are usually confined to athletic events.
Being a student at the Lab School, I (Kylie) have had the privilege to be both a participant and organizer of the Book Battle. As participants, my friends and I used to prepare weeks in advance for the Book Battle. We each specialized in a book or two that we found interesting, then met at lunch to talk about possible questions and interpretations. Two years after our first Book Battle, Charity approached a few of us who had been part of the original group and were now in high school. She asked if we wanted to take a turn running the event. Like Annabeth in The Lightning Thief (Riordan, 2005), I decided to “give it another try.”
Being involved with the organization of the Book Battle was a remarkably similar experience. While most students had additional duties like advertising or hosting, every student involved in the planning of the Book Battle had to read one or more books and come up with questions of varying difficulty. In the process of screening potential questions, we put as much thought and discussion into the selected books as the students who would be competing. This was especially obvious when I talked to my younger brother Michael, an eighth grader who was competing in the same Book Battle I was organizing. He was reading Divergent (Roth, 2011) for his team at the same time that I was writing the questions for a later book in the same series, Allegiant (Roth, 2013). Michael would often ask similar questions to the ones I came up with and sought me out to discuss characters or plot developments that had him confused. It was clear through the parallels between the experience of hosting and competing in the Book Battle that the basic roles of an organizer and competitor are essentially the same: read and ponder a good book. Having filled both roles has given me the perspective to say that regardless of one’s part in the competition, being involved in a community of passionate readers inevitably leads to thought-provoking discussion.
The true value of the Book Battle lies in cultivating a love of reading. The Book Battle brings in students who read through most of their free time, students who happen to love a certain series, and even students who simply love a good competition. The Book Battle is therefore able to reach across age groups and interest levels and essentially create one massive conversation about a select group of popular books. This environment cultivates and celebrates a love of reading, evidenced in part by the teams that return every year to compete. It is truly incredible to watch college students, teachers, librarians, and students ranging from middle school to high school all come together to enjoy and discuss popular books. This sense of community is what makes the Book Battle such a unique experience for everyone involved and what fosters a sense of genuine excitement in readers of every age.
We’ve explained our journey with service learning, one we still adjust every year. Like the arenas in the Hunger Games series, our landscapes and participants continually change. To generate this next section, the four of us sat down and discussed the past three Book Battles; we engaged in the reflective work that is at the center of service learning and asked each other the question, “How do we know if the event has been a success?” We realized that that was a question that brought us to an even more important question, “Did each partner benefit from the collaboration?”
We believe we did, as each partner was able to interact with a world outside of his/her own. As Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry (2014) note, “The service learning process should result in some kind of contribution to ongoing disciplinary and real-world conversations and activity about how to make meaning, apply learning, and be in the world” (p. 4). For Jay, that world contained students outside of the English language arts classroom. For Jackie, it was the library and learning more about how young adult literature and its readers function in that space. For Kylie, it was an apprenticeship of sorts as the group of high school students planned, publicized, and ran the event. And, for Charity, the event became a staple of her annual programming. Furthermore, this experience extended beyond partners’ needs and encouraged and valued the enthusiasm teenagers have for reading. We all agree that the point of the Book Battle is to encourage an approach to reading that might be different from an “academic approach.” Purposeful, enthusiastic returns to well-known narratives can foster deeper understandings and engagement with books. Another one of our goals is to remind students of the pleasure of leisure reading and the escape into a book.
Setting up and completing a successful servicelearning partnership can be challenging, and we hope that Figures 2 and 3 will help others understand the need for timelines, clear communication systems, and a responsible accountability system. All parties involved in the Book Battle experienced some initial tensions that accompanied meeting someone for the first time, engaging in course assignments in spaces other than the classroom, and working in groups. There were also simple details to pay attention to—from sending respectful, professional emails to showing up on time prepared to contribute. We mitigated these tensions by reminding all parties involved to return to the spirit of service learning, which we discussed at our first meetings in the classroom and in the library. As Kinloch and Smagorinsky (2014) and Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry (2014) remind us, the tenets of service learning include benefitting all involved, taking the time for frequent reflection, and acknowledging the possibility for change.
Despite the success of our efforts, we continue to have several concerns for the future. The first involves how partners decide to sustain or let go of one another, especially when the partnership is so successful. When I (Jackie) created my first servicelearning course, I worked with four different community partners to give my students the opportunity to see teenagers in diverse settings and discuss those experiences in class with each other. As an instructor, I found working with four placements to be too demanding. In the end, I narrowed the placements from four to two. Then the problem became that my department needed me to cover courses essential to the program, and I would no longer be allowed to teach the Young Adult Literature course. I worried about how to sustain the successful events without a ready-made set of university students. The second year, we managed through the use of student volunteers who came on their own time to make arrangements. And the third year, we were able to shift responsibility to the high school students.
Jay is now a middle school teacher and has been thinking about how he can bring this excitement for reading into his classroom. He has found that certain elements from the Book Battle structure can enliven his classroom, such as the ongoing teamwork and rivalry (for example, team #bookswag came back the next year as #bookswag 2.0 and the next as #bookswag 3.0), the informal environment, the appealing popular literature, and the ways in which enthusiastic engagement with YA books can support the development of higher-level analysis and deep reading skills.
Finally, Charity wonders how to keep the event fresh. The challenge to renew and revive is where the students, both at the secondary and university levels, come in. They continually provide several ideas on how to modify the Book Battle, including ideas on how to include different types of challenges (such as a maze challenge based on The Maze Runner).
In the end, to sustain, to expand, and to refresh, we’ll all need one another as partners.
|Partner||Activity||When to Accomplish It|
|University partner||Find out your university’s policy and support for service-learning courses. Get your course designated as a service-learning course, if you can, and advertise it as such.||The semester before the course is offered|
|University partner, Community partner||Discuss details (ideas for projects and important information for university and community partner students), and allow time to gather resources. There are probably several small grants available to support service learning in the university setting.||One month before start of semester|
|University partner, Community partner, University students||Have the university instructor arrange for the university students to meet with the community partner to determine due dates for publicity and sign-ups, duties, and the date of the event.||First month of semester|
|University students with Community partner as needed||Enact a plan of action. Potential committees include publicity, refreshments, and preparation for event (read books, write questions, make slides, etc.).||Next two months|
|University partner, Community partner, University students, Middle/High school students||Hold event.||Try to tie it into a theme, either a holiday or a book. Take lots of pictures (get permission to use them), and publicize your event’s success.|
Figure 2. Suggested timeline for organizing a Book Battle
Figure 3. Recommendations for those interested in adding a service-learning component to their young adult literature course
Jacqueline Bach is the Elena and Albert LeBlanc Professor of Education at Louisiana State University and a former high school English teacher.
Charity Cantey is the middle and high school librarian at the Louisiana State University Laboratory School. She earned a PhD from LSU in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on young adult literature.
Jay LeSaicherre is a 6th-grade ELA teacher at Gonzales Middle School. He earned a Master’s in the Art of Teaching from Louisiana State University with a certification in English and Speech.
Kylie Morris is a 10th-grade student at LSU Lab School. She is an aspiring med student (either a pediatrician or a veterinarian) and currently has little time to read for leisure because of exams. She is a member of the school’s show choir, and Harry Potter remains her favorite book series.
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