ALAN v24n2 - Methods Students Write about Young Adult Literature with a Tenth-Grade Learning Strategies Class

Volume 24, Number 2
Winter 1997
Methods Students Write about Young Adult Literature with a Tenth-Grade Learning Strategies Class

Kathleen Carico

Dear Buddy,

I was so happy to get your letter in the mail yesterday. How has your week been? Did you and your girlfriend smooth things over? I have had a long week, but it has been good. I am hoping that we will get snow tonight.

I am glad to hear that you are still reading Hatchet . How is Brian surviving after the plane crash? What is happening to him at the lake? Don't tell me too much because I am going to get the book this weekend and start reading it, so just give me hints... Take care, Mara

Dear Mara,

How have you been? I've been ok. Hatchet has been going pretty well. I told you that in e-mail. He is surviving well. Made a bow and using his shoe string for a bow string. He is making out ok but it's still bad for him. I feel sorry for him. I mean it's just hard for him because he is from the city. He is not used to it. If it was me I would be ok.

Sincerely, Buddy

Buddy (names of all students have been changed), aged 14, avid hunter and self-proclaimed "100% redneck," was, at the time of his letter-writing, in Wendy Laughton's Learning Strategies class, a 10th grade remedial reading class. Buddy had been reading Hatchet and was writing about it (and other topics such as hunting, family concerns, and disagreements with his girlfriend) to Mara, a pre-service teacher in "Literature for the Adolescent: Materials and Methods" course. Along with their classmates, Mara and Buddy were participants in a semester-long young adult book correspondence project in which they regularly wrote letters like these. In this article I examine the impact of the project on those of us in my class who participated. (See Wendy Laughton's article for the account of her students.)

A Description of the Project

I began my work with correspondence projects two years ago with a teacher friend, Jinny Wooddall-Gainey, and her middle school language arts students. The impetus came from an article called '"Book Buddies" (Bromley, Winters, and Schlimmer, 1994) and the promise of a small grant from the Southwest Virginia Writing Project for a few books and postage. Although my work with the correspondence project has evolved since that time and I am still learning how to enhance opportunities, I remain committed to further investigating the following assumptions:

  • that responding to literature and sharing those responses with others promotes personal and cognitive growth (Rosenblatt, 1938; Probst, 1988) and, therefore, is a vital part of the language arts curriculum;
  • that students in methods classes ought to study and work with actual classroom students, that they benefit from the guided interaction with students (Vygotsky, 1962), and that the children benefit from their association with more knowledgable others (Rogoff, 1991);
  • that reading young adult literature is a legitimate academic pursuit (Monseau, 1996), that it provides students meaningful experiences with books (Allen, 1995), and that it may change attitudes about reading as a legitimate personal pursuit (though the academic and the personal cannot be neatly compartmentalized: they are synergistic);
  • that students in classrooms benefit from a broader community of learners and teachers than the one the schools are called upon to provide and that interested other adults who support the work of kids in schools can increase their chances for successful endeavors;
  • that teachers benefit from broader learning communities themselves and that experiences in which teachers can share ideas, interact, or work together with other teachers across grade levels, schools and cultures increase the possibility for more satisfying and fruitful labors.
With the support of an ALAN grant, I continued the project during the fall semester of 1995, this time with a ninth-grade general English class and their teacher, Edrie Bays. During that semester, Wendy Laughton was a master's student in my class and spoke often of her tenth-grade remedial English class and the research she was doing on a co-creative curriculum (Stern, 1995). Wendy was hopeful that, by inviting her students to participate with her in the design of her course, they would become more self-directed, more motivated, and more empowered than they appeared to be, ultimately giving them access to the world that literacy provides. As the spring semester neared I realized that I would have more students in my spring class than Edrie had in hers; so I approached Wendy about working with her group of ten students in addition to Edrie's. In keeping with her promise to share decision-making, Wendy proposed the idea to them; they enthusiastically consented; and so it was that our classes began writing back and forth each week about their reading and about their lives.

For the university students, the correspondence project involved several on-going tasks, supported throughout the semester with the various readings, discussions, and projects. Students collected artifacts of these tasks in a sectioned portfolio: novel journals in which students wrote their responses to each week's choice of novel; process logs to record happenings, impressions, notes, questions about the project, pen pal's letters and copies of letters written; and, eventually, a reflective paper. It was in the reflective paper that I read accounts of their own development, their pen pals' development, and their ideas/concerns for the future. Reading these portfolios, observing the students, and listening to their discussions has given me an understanding of the personal and professional impact of the project on my students. It has also given me insights about my own teaching and what I must consider as I continue.

The Methods Students: Recollections, New Strides, Considering the Future

As I read the students' accounts, it seemed to me that it was often with surprise that they would make note of the changes in their perspectives. They would cite, for example, their sudden leap back into pleasure reading and their amazement that young adult literature would still - in some cases, for the first time - evoke strong responses. They noted changes in taste, improvement in fluency, and an evolving understanding of literacy. It was clear that my students were influenced by their experiences with reading and writing about young adult literature and, to a great extent, by their adolescent pals.

Recollections: A Return to Delight

I loved this book and tell everyone I know who reads for pleasure to read this. I haven't gotten into a book like that since I read The Indian in the Cupboard in sixth grade.
This sentiment, expressed in this case by Kim after reading The Giver , was noted numerous times in other students' novel journals. The frequency with which it appears reveals a somewhat disturbing phenomenon apparent in previous literature methods classes as well: for a number of my students the move out of elementary school signalled a decrease in pleasure reading. The busyness of adolescent life might be one factor in this decline, but students in my classes often cite another - the emphasis in middle and high school on analysis of literature. As students are pushed toward a primarily efferent stance (Rosenblatt, 1978), they seem to get out of the habit of enjoying books. Rachel remarked,
...[I]t's very relaxing to be able to simply express how the book makes you feel for a change. It not only allows the reader to be in touch with the book but also with themselves. ...
My students begin reflecting on their reading pasts during the first class of the semester, when I borrow Rief's (1993) idea of the "Memorable Reading Events" chart for in-school and out-of school reading experiences. In the Out-of-School column Darlene wrote, "1st - 4th grade: Read a lot - Anything and everything" and listed a few favorites. Then beside 5th grade she wrote, "Stopped reading for pleasure," and the literature she listed beside 5th through 12th grades in school included only magazines such as Seventeen and Sassy . She explained that she stopped after 4th grade as an act of resistance when, because she was considered an "advanced" reader, she was required to do twice as much work in reading as the other students. Now a master's student working on a reading specialist degree, Darlene talked about what she called her "transformation" in her portfolio:
This project made me give reading a second chance. I really enjoyed some of the books I read this semester. I felt like I might have cheated myself in some way by refusing to read all those years."
Making Strides

Sampling new fare. Mia, Kim, and Mara tried reading books their pen pals were reading, ones they admitted they never would have chosen on their own in middle school, high school, or even college. Mia:

When I was younger, I would only read silly romance novels. I am not sure if I ever would have considered reading a book such as The Giver or The Wave.
The broadening of reading tastes helped at least one student to make a significant personal connection. Sharon's pen pal was reading Fallen Angels , Walter Dean Myers' account of a teen-ager's tour in Vietnam. Sharon read it, too, and wrote that it "taught her a lot" about Vietnam and gave her the opportunity to talk with her stepfather about the war.

Moving toward response. Many of my students noted that their first responses were more akin to summary than reaction (something some of Wendy's students would also observe about their pen pals). The expression of a subjective response can lead to an exploration and articulation of opinions, beliefs, and values, and can, among other literary considerations, result in clarification and amplification of interpretations and provide opportunities to address the power and nuances of language, important language arts objectives. Therefore, it seemed important that my students make the shift. For some, it was easy, but for others it seemed quite difficult, and they continued to write in a genre that was closer to a critical essay than a consideration of personal meaning of text and an exploration of that meaning. Sharon wrote this in her portfolio:

From re-reading my letters to Star, I notice that as our correspondence developed, I began to write more insightfully about the books I was reading. In the beginning, I wrote about the plots of novels. Later, I wrote my own personal responses and reactions to the novels. I became personally involved with the literature and communicated that involvement to Star.
Brenda wrote about her struggle to express her responses to literature, noting in particular the personal anxieties involved in sharing those responses with others:
When I went to college, where for the first time I was asked to present and defend my own opinions regarding the meaning of a poem or another piece of literature, I found myself struggling and at a loss for ideas. Not until I became a graduate student did I gain the "courage" to express my thoughts concerning a book, and then I was still most comfortable doing so in my personal responses I knew would not have to be shared with others. Writing my own responses and reading the responses of my pen pal helped me understand that responding to a book is not easy.
I agree with Brenda. Learning to respond privately is a minor hurdle compared to the leap of faith that sharing the response with others represents - faith that what I think has enough validity to be spoken, faith that it will be received with a response I can handle, faith that it will lead to more knowledge, clearer perspective, greater insight, and, hopefully, further intelligent participation. In Literature for Democracy (1996) Gordon Pradl echoes Rosenblatt as he writes about literary conversations:
The best educational defense against the true believer, against the mechanically automated student, is a transactional program of teaching/learning, one that reinforces each individual's faith in his or her own judgments, even as these judgments remain open to question. In this way belief is prevented from degenerating into dogma .
Considerations for a Future in Teaching

It is sometimes difficult (and often quite possibly unnecessary) to separate the personal from the professional in teaching. Experiences in one dimension affect life in the other, and so it was in the correspondence project. Throughout their participation in the correspondence project the students naturally attended to the relationship of their present work to their work in the future as teachers while remaining personally invested in their work with the students. As I look back now, I see the many ways that the project helped the students prepare for their work with students - as they worked through their concerns about adolescents, as they learned to view the students with respect, as they struggled to encourage their pen pals' literate practices, and as they re-considered their notions of teacher.

"A real voice of adolescence": relating to teenagers. It was clear to me that the students faced the prospect of writing adolescents with a bit of trepidation. For example, Sharon wrote, "Remembering what it was like to be an adolescent made me wary about the type of communication Star and I would have with each other." Later, however, after several letters back and forth, she wrote how meaningful it was to have the "real voice of adolescence" to consider as she thought about young adult literature and her correspondence about it. Her experience was not unique. Others who worried at first gradually came to find a natural rhythm to their communication with their pen pals. By the end of the project, many noted how sorry they were to receive the last letter, and some planned to continue the correspondence.

Others worried, understandably, about just what was appropriate to write. Could they write about their personal lives? What if they didn't like a particular book they were reading - should they say so? What should they do if their pen pals began writing about matters that seemed too personal? A policy that Jinny and I crafted in the beginning has proven to be helpful: All letters are public - available to both teachers and might sometimes be read by pen pals other than their own. Policy, of course, does not eliminate the need for consideration, and some questions of appropriateness had to be handled on an individual basis. As the project progressed, the students found that communication became more and more natural. As to questions about admitting their honest reaction to a book, I explained that students need to see them as real people who have preferences for certain books over others.

Learning to value diverse literacies. My students were writing Wendy's remedial students because they had requested them specifically when it became clear we would need to include a class in addition to Edrie's. Even so, they weren't sure what to expect. Comments in their portfolios revealed their prior expectations and the shifts in their thinking as they communicated with their pen pals.

Darlene commented:

When we started, Ahmad said that he did not like to read. He was unmotivated to choose any books. Now, he starts a new book as soon as he (is) finished reading. He sounds like he is really getting into the books he is choosing since he is reading so fast. I never expected a remedial English student to have made this much progress in such a short amount of time. I think Ahmed is actually very intelligent.
Penny was concerned about how she would write to her pen pal Edwin because he was in a remedial class. She, like a few others, was writing to two pen pals - one in Wendy's class and one in Edrie's - as her choice for a class project. Therefore, she was able to consider her experiences from two vantage points.
Instead of writing my letters the way I thought I was going to --writing more sophisticated, using more difficult ideas and asking more difficult questions to Annette (in Edrie's class) than to Edwin (in Wendy's class)-- I basically wrote to both of them in the same way."
Brenda, also writing two pen pals, observed :
I made the typical mistake of assuming that because she was in this class she was not a reader, and if she was not a reader, then she certainly was not a writer. Twee quickly proved me wrong in this aspect and taught me an important lesson about jumping to conclusions in regard to a student's abilities based on their class placement .
The other students came to hold similar views. Kim thought the greatest need of her pen pal (also named Kim) was not remediation but motivation. Dan, whose pen pal Dwayne read and kept track of multiple characters and their actions in The Stand , was outraged that his pen pal was in the class. Dan fervently hoped that Dwayne would not "buy the bill of goods" he was being sold, that is, that he was not as "smart" as the others. Darlene thought her pen pal Ahmad's letters were better than the ones she read from her classmates' pen pals in the general class.

Through writing to her pen pal, Brenda came to understand and value not just her pen pals' literate behaviors, but her own as well:

Through this assignment I was forced to take a closer look at my own literacy. Each of my pen pals approached their reading from a different stance based on their experiences, knowledge, family history, and prior prejudices. Because of their responses, I began to more fully appreciate and realize the impact of my own experiences, knowledge, history, and prejudices.
Reaching students: Evoking, revealing and extending literate practices. It was both through carefully-planned strategies and trial and error that my students began to learn how, first, to recognize their pen pals' diverse literacies and then encourage and extend them. Common beginning strategies soon gave way to others as the students learned what was and was not working to elicit the kind of communication they desired.

It was a natural first strategy for my students to ask their pen pals questions about their reading, sometimes five or more per letter. They grew frustrated when their pen pals ignored the questions; and, after a class discussion one evening, some of them tried new approaches, Darlene, for example:

I shared a part of my response to The Giver with Ahmad. To my surprise, Ahmad responded to it even though he had not read the book. I discovered that modeling a response to a book worked better than asking Ahmad direct questions. Whenever I asked Ahmad a question to try to get some response, he did not answer it. However, he almost always responded to one of my responses .
Giving summaries was another popular, though largely unsuccessful beginning strategy. In her paper, Penny articulated this problem and her solution:
The first couple letters I wrote came close to summaries, although I was making an effort to try not to do that. I was concerned at first that I couldn't successfully talk about a certain component that pertained to my book without at first giving a quick synopsis of it. Later, however, I began to see that it really didn't matter whether or not they had read my book, or even knew what had happened in it. The important thing was that whatever I was trying to get across to them was made and understood. I didn't have to summarize the book to do that, I simply had to make my points clear and back them up extensively. These were the exact ideas I was trying to pass over to both Annette (her pen pal from the Edrie's class) and Edwin (her pen pal from Wendy's class). They didn't need to map out the book for me to understand why they liked or disliked it or how it had reminded them of something or somebody.
Through her work with Star, Sharon began to realize another important strategy, giving students a choice:
I believe that Star grew as this semester went on, not because of me and our correspondence, but because she read books until she found ones she connected with. She demonstrated that she wants to read for meaning, for personal connections with a book. Isn't that what we all want for our students? If she is reading to make connections with books, then I believe that she will continue to grow into a strong reader and will hopefully become a lifelong reader.
A student's preference cannot always be predicted, as Darlene's experience with Ahmad shows. Ahmad, who wanted nothing but "action and thin" books, became captivated by Both Sides of Time , a book that does not seem to fit into his favorite categories. He spent weeks writing about it enthusiastically, surprising us further by his attention to details of dress and manners of the 19th century. He eventually chose the book as the topic for a mini-lesson he had to teach to his class.

Brenda noted another important strategy: helping students develop meta-cognition.

Twee's responses reaffirmed for me not only the need for reader response, but the need for adolescents to understand the important role they play in reader response .
Brenda clearly began to understand that what is important is not simply learning the tricks to teaching, but the tricks to empowering students by letting them see how they figure in their own learning and what they can do to keep learning (Allen, 1995).

Another issue of critical importance arises every semester (as it did this one), that is, looking beyond the surface features of student writing to make sense of what the students are saying. Each semester my students are initially dismayed by their pen pals' lack of attention to conventions such as spelling and grammar. It usually helps when I remind them that most of the letters are first-draft; nevertheless, it takes time for them to adjust their eyes for depth perception and, while not dismissing errors as unimportant, to learn to see them differently (Moffett and Wagner, 1992; Shaughnessy, 1977). The motivation to communicate often creates the attention to conventions for which teachers push, prod, bully, and cajole, (Atwell, 1988; Allen, 1995); but the improper emphasis of form over meaning may result - and often has - in a far more serious consequence, that is, loss of voice and loss of confidence in having something worthwhile to say.

Gradually, my students began to become aware that what they were observing and experiencing was reading theory in action, an awareness they began to articulate in their logs and, finally, in their reflection papers. Penny began her paper by stating what she had learned throughout the semester and then added,

The most beneficial and enlightening part of this class, however, besides all the theories and the books we read, was the opportunity I had to apply what we were learning in this class to a real student through letters .
Becoming a student of teaching. Most students of teaching come to their professional education after 12 years of observing professionals in action. Thus, after that amount of time, it is easy to see how notions of teacher can become firmly entrenched. One of the tasks of teacher educators is to challenge students' to re-consider those notions. An opportunity came early in the project's history. It became obvious that Jinny and I needed to decide what stance my students would take toward their correspondence with Jinny's students: apprentice teacher or pen pal. We chose pen pal deliberately for two reasons. First, this experience was, we hoped, one that would help the students consider, perhaps for the first time since their own graduation from high school, their assumptions of the role of teacher. Asking them to correspond as teachers would, we believed, not allow them the freedom to consider what it means to be a teacher first by investigating what children do, what resources children bring with them to the experience - not just to see what's there, but to value it - and to look upon each child as a sort of partner as well as student (Allen, 1995; Stern, 1995). Second, because the project is not, for the most part, conducted on site, in concert with teacher and parent and supervisor, it has been important to us that the classroom teacher remain in charge.

For the methods students, it was an apprenticeship of sorts, but the ability to work without the constraints of teaching every day, for some, have the effect of getting them off on a more independent footing. It was, of course, one of my goals that they see reader response in action, but they saw so much more. Some began to see literacy in a broader context than they had heretofore considered. Most were able to see their pen pals, not as remedial students, but as delightful, diverse young people, with much to say and much to offer them. They had an advantage that most teachers do not - seeing the students individually.

Lessons for My Own Teaching: Reality Checks, New Directions, Continued Practices

There are many things I learn each semester, and this time with Wendy has been no exception. Working with her on this project has kept me in touch with the realities of life in schools and allowed me to continue learning from adolescents. Reading about my students' work with her students has given me some new insights and encourages me to continue.

Reality Checks: Back in School

The correspondence project has allowed me to become more engaged in the work of the classroom than my regular duties permit - through visits and talks with the kids, through talks and e-mails with Wendy, through discussions with my students about their pen pals, and through reading the pen pals' writing myself. I became aware again of the struggles the teachers have because of kids' varying needs and the pressure of preparing them for a fulfilling future. I was alerted once again to the constraints teachers live with that make it difficult to create a curriculum based on the needs of the kids. And when I went to the surprise going-away party the class gave Wendy in June and saw the videotape on which they recorded heartfelt messages thanking Wendy for teaching them about reading and writing, I was reminded of the potential a teacher has to create a positive space for kids; and, underneath their gratitude, I saw their yearning for accessible, meaningful, tasks.

Working with Wendy and her class kept me realistic in other ways as well. Early in the semester I went to her room with my ALAN tote bag full of books for the kids to peruse, feeling quite a bit like Santa Claus. After distributing the books I waited for the response. Some of the students gravitated toward horror books, others to books about the Holocaust (they each had been involved in a Holocaust unit in previous classes) and some were not terribly impressed with the offerings at all. When I went to Ahmad's table and handed the precious (to me) books to his buddies and him, they looked oh-so-briefly at each one and then cast them aside. "Not that one, not that one," they said. "We want thin and action, thin and action." I tried to interest them in a book about sports, but they didn't take the bite. I went to the bookstore to find thin and action.

My contact with them also helped me to relax a bit about my students' relationships with them. When I first read Dan's letters to Dwayne, I thought he was making the mistake of trying too hard to relate. His letters usually started with "Hey, Dude, I was really stoked to get your letter." I'm glad I never said anything, especially when I discovered that Dan was a huge hit, not just with Dwayne, but with the whole class! Was I ever out of touch! When Dan went to teach a lesson to the class (his choice for his literature project), I went along to videotape and observe, and, frankly, I was a bit nervous because Wendy was out of town. I didn't need to be - the class was absolutely attentive and wrote Dan wonderfully encouraging comments afterwards.

New Directions: Sharing the Wealth

Much of what I gain from the correspondence project is a feature of my having access to all of the students' work (something I've found true in my other courses, as well). Yet my students' lack this perspective, and I often think as I read their papers, "They should be able to read each others' work." Although I try to incorporate into my plans opportunities for my students to read and discuss each other's letters and journals, it is becoming clear that more time is needed. And, since their reflection papers are their last assignment, they do not have the opportunity to learn from each other in what is, perhaps, their most reflective endeavor. Therefore, it is important for me to consider how to make room in the syllabus for the experiences that will benefit us the most. In doing so, perhaps my students will come to a better understanding of community as a way of knowing, an understanding I am not sure I have supported well. Their work hints to me that they know they learn from each other, but it is not clear that all of them see how important it is to pursue that kind of relationship.

Continuing To Collaborate: It Takes a Village

Becoming part of a community (or communities) is important to my students' lives as learners; and, as teachers, the need for community is, I believe, just as urgent. Hillary Clinton recently popularized an African saying that comes to mind when I think of the book correspondence project: It takes a whole village to raise a child. It comes to mind when I think of the lives and work of my own students, some of who are taking their first teaching jobs this fall. Soon they will be "on their own" behind the door of the classroom, faced with the awesome task of education. The saying comes to mind when I think of Wendy and her ongoing search to enhance the literate lives of her students. But perhaps it comes to mind most forcefully when I think of Wendy's students and others like them, who sometimes are placed in unfriendly and unhelpful contexts, and, like most teens, need the support of many caring adults, young and old.

In our case, I'd like to modify the statement: It takes a whole village to do the work of education. It took Wendy's active, daily support and commitment - her coordination at the classrom level saved the project from being an add-on and integrated it into the curriculum she and her students created together. In my class it took the individual readings and written responses, the oral expression of those responses in small-group and class discussions, the talk with others about the pen pals, and the projects to bring the students to some of the understandings I have related in this article. In-class lectures on reading and writing theory were important in that they allowed students to entertain ideas some of them had not previously encountered. More importantly, however, seeing the pen pals in action, reading, reflecting, writing, thinking, suddenly put those lectures and readings into a newly developing framework. When taken all together, most of the students experienced a transformation of their imbedded

assumptions into a working theory they could continue to investigate in their own classrooms.

"Reading is a profoundly complex experience, which draws us both into and out of the worlds we inhabit" (Berg, 1991). Sharing those worlds with Wendy and her class through the experience of reading young adult literature and responding to it has been profoundly rewarding.


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Kathleen Carico is Assistant Professor of English Education at Virginia Tech, where she teaches methods classes and young adult literature.

Copyright 1997, 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 copi es are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Carico, Kathleen. (1997). Methods students write about young adult literature with a tenth-grade learning strategies class. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 36-41.