This class will offer instructional support for high school and middle school teachers to incorporate adolescent literature in their classrooms. The motivation for creating this class was from my experience as a special education teacher witnessing my special needs students and at-risk students struggling to become engaged in general education English classes. By focusing on adolescent literature that features marginalized populations within the school I hoped to inspire my students to include these novels in their classrooms and thus create a more inclusive environment. There currently is a movement in middle and high school education to offer a learning experience that is “transformative and liberatory” (Miller,2008) and it is my intention to make this a focal point of my course through the use of such publications as Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Joy and Justice.
Crowe (1998) defines Young Adult Literature (YAL) as “all genres of literature published since 1967 that are written for and marketed to young adults” and a young adult is defined as “a person old enough to be in junior high or high school, usually grades seven through twelve” (p. 121). The definition of adolescent literature or YAL that I will be using to choose my canon will include one more criteria; my novels will feature a protagonist that is a young adult.
After World War II, the director of the School of Library Science at Simmons College recognized that there was “a special kind of library client whose needs could not linger be adequately met, served either as a child or as an adult reader (Cart, 1996). This led to the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). At meetings of the YALSA spanning in 1975, 1983, 1988, and 1994 they discussed the “best of the best” in young adult literature published between 1967 and 1992 and there were only five books that earned the distinction of appearing on all four lists. Those that earned this distinction were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1970, Rosa Guy’s The Friends (1973), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1971), Glendon Swarthout’s Bless the Beast and Children (1970) and Robb White Deathwatch (1972).
Western Michigan University’s (WMU) Adolescent Literature course, English 3840, taught by Dr. Gwen Tarbox has used the following texts: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Forever, Naomi and Ely’s no Kiss List, Twilight, How I Live Now, The Complete Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and The Book Thief. Elizabeth Amidan also teaches the course at WMU and has used the following texts: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part- Time Indian by Alexie, Hunger Games by Collins, Boy Meets Boy by Levithan, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, Stitches by Small, Make Lemonade by Wolff and I am a Messenger by Zusak. The topics covered in these novels include bullying, homosexuality, physical disabilities such as seizure disorders and hydrocephalia, child abuse, racism, violence, teenage pregnancy, and teen marginalization from poverty, race, and social status. Based on the novels included and excluded the goals of this course seem to be to introduce controversial issues that teens are faced with on a daily basis. It also includes literature that represents teens transformation and transition into adulthood and their loss of innocence. In researching courses of this type at other universities I saw many overlaps and some new titles. So the novels I chose for this course turned out to be a combination of all the college courses I researched embellished with novels recommended by our local public library’s youth librarian. I wanted there be diversity not only in the topics covered but in the reading levels.
One of the challenges to evolving the canon are parental and administrative disapproval. Books such as Catcher in the Rye have been on the top ten list of most controversial or banned books for decades. In Rethinking schools publication it is mentioned that in Chicago, Washington D.C. and California, veteran teachers and administrators are being fired without cause through obscure loop-holes in their contract with no union support or defense. The likelihood of this type of “censoring” is increased if a teacher is controversial. This may hinder or discourage teachers from using these types of novels in their classroom for fear of making them vulnerable to these scare tactics.
Other challenges to evolving the cannon relate to the general attitude toward adolescent literature as inferior to classical literature and as potentially “dumbing down” the curriculum. Also the perception by teachers, administrators and students is that it will not adequately prepare them for college and the state standardize tests. This perception that only the classics are able to supply the substance and rigor may be difficult to overcome. Bean (2003) acknowledged this “common elitist attitude toward the study of the classics over contemporary literature.” Gallo (2010) mentions that in the 1970s many teachers refused to teach YAL because they did not view the genre as true literature but “inferior reading material suitable only for remedial readers who were unable to handle the required classics”.
An additional challenge for high school teachers and middle school teachers would be their own discomfort with the subject matter. It would be essential for a teacher to at least be willing to withstand the discomfort of discussing controversial issues. Gallo (2010) considers that perhaps what is likely to continue to discourage the use of adolescent literature is the “unease many educators have of sensitive material frequently addressed in YAL”. One solution mentioned in an article by Bean (2003) was to invite guest speakers to address these sensitive issues and to support discussion. Having students use the internet to research these topics may also be helpful so the teacher is not considered the expert on the issues. It is also necessary to prepare teachers with adequate research supporting adolescent literature so they can adequately address parents and administrators questions, concerns, and perhaps reprimands.
My research has uncovered many advantages to using adolescent literature in the middle and high school classroom. It is a common conception that classical literature can be “alienating” and causes readers to “disengage” (Crowe, 2000). Crowe also states that young adult literature “engage[s] the young reader in such a way that opens their imagination and …may be the best texts to hook students on reading”. Others see YAL as a means to “bridge” YAL and canonical texts.
In 1972, Kenneth Donelson published Adolescent Literature, Adolescent Reading, and the English Class in the Arizona English Journal and in 1980 published the first textbook that is still considered “the bible” of YAL” (Soter et al., 2008, p.17).
I would anticipate this canon evolving as new literature is published. I decided to include multicultural literature to address marginalized populations in the world community. With more research I may find other topics of interest and concern for teens that are not represented in the courses I researched.
Opportunities to evolving the canon include choosing novels that can be tied into other content areas. For example Bean (2003) suggested using The Other Side of Truth to help students understand opportunity cost in economics. In Beans article he referenced Rosenblatt who cautions that when efferent reading, which strives to gain information, is paired with aesthetic reading which is to derive enjoyment and pleasure, “there is a danger the novel will be read from a text-book stance.” Bean counters this with a reference by Golden and Liang who state that this is less problematic for middle and high school students. Other books noted by Bean are Hush by Jacqueline Woodson (2002) that could be tied to social studies issues as it follows the struggles of a family that has been placed in a witness protection program. Bean also mentions Buried Onion by Gary Soto as a choice for discussion of “racism, cultural capital, economic opportunity, stereotyping, and the status-conscious dimensions of our society”.
This course has evolved to include teaching for social justice. Bush (2008) mentions that “teaching social justice through children’s literature is not an initiation that needs a special day or month but rather should be naturally integrated into every lesson, every library collection,every display, every recommended reading list and read aloud program”. Using publications such as Rethinking Schools or A People’s History or Teaching for Joy and Justice could be used to support discussion and background on these issues. Miller (2008) suggests literature that is “transformative and liberatory”. She offers the hope and the inspiration that “teaching can help people act on and transform the world around them”.
Bean, T.W. Using Young-Adult Literature to enhance comprehension in the content areas. Curriculum and Instruction Department, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. December 2003.
Bush, G. One Indivisible Day: Teaching for Social Justice through Literature. School of Library Media Activities Monthly. Baltimore: Apr 2008. Vol. 24, Iss. 8; pg 24, 4 pgs.
Cart, M. (1996). From romance to realism: 50 years of growth and change in young adult literature. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Crowe, C. (2000). Young adult literature: Using YA books to teach students to love what we love. The English Journal, 89(6), 138-141. Retrieved April 20, 2010 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/821289
Franzak, J. On the Margins in a High performing High School: Policy and the struggling Reader.
Soter, A. O. , Faust, M.A., & Rogers, T. (2008). Interpretive play: Using critical perspectives to teach young adult literature. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon.