Sunday, March 16, 2014

Books with a Kick: One Teacher's Take on Using YA Lit in the Classroom

For many years I was a high school English teacher, but I confess that I never shared Young Adult books with my students. This was a combination of my ignorance about the breadth and scope and general awesome-ness of YA lit and my sense that I must dutifully follow the book list that had been in place forever --ie. books like The Scarlet Letter. Which I am not knocking. I read the book 25 times and would gladly continue to teach it, but-- there is something to be said for throwing a contemporary book into the mix every now and then, one that features teen characters and therefore might be a tad more accessible to teens. 


My book Thin Space, I thought, might be such a book. The main character is a grief-stricken boy who walks around barefoot searching for a thin space, a place where the veil between our world and the other world is thinner...  And I was so excited last fall to find that several English teachers at Upper Arlington High School in Upper Arlington, Ohio had put the book on their required reading lists. 

Instead of writing about how those teachers used the book, I decided to ask one, Laura Moore, if she would mind throwing a little something together about the experience, and she wowed me with her post. 

"Books with a Kick: One Teacher's Take on Using YA Lit in the Classroom"

by Laura Moore


“Did you feel the baby kick yet?”

Someone asked me this daily, without fail, in every one of my ninth grade classes. And for three weeks, I followed their eager eyes as they moved in slow motion, traveling from my baby bump up to my face. The entire time they waited for my response, I desperately hoped my little munchkin would wind up and smack me square in the gut.

He never did.

“No, not yet,” I’d say, acutely aware of the fact my students were almost as concerned with my moment of quickening as I was. I wanted proof that the baby was still alive; they wanted to know where I was when I felt the baby kick just in case the "thin space" phenomenon happened to be real.

After three weeks of disappointing reports, on October 4, as I was drifting off to sleep, my baby unleashed a fusillade of flutters.  Following his attack, I spent the first twenty minutes relishing the moment; I spent the next ten imagining my students’ reactions when I finally gave them the answer they wanted to hear.

The next day, the questions came pouring from around the room: “Did you feel…” But before any of them could finish the sentence, a beam of light washed across my face.

“Where?” three or four kids asked in unison.

“In my room,” I explained. “Last night.”

“Really? Where specifically?”

“In your bed?”

“By your dresser?”

“By the window?”

“Do you think a thin space will develop there?”

“I hope not..." I said. "You do remember that the person has to die in the same spot their mother felt them kick, don't you?”

Of course this led to a few awkward laughs, but it also paved the way for a discussion that moved beyond the simple logistics of whether or not a thin space would appear in my bedroom, and into a dialogue that explored deeper questions about identity, guilt, and truth.

At that moment I realized that the book I'd asked my students to read had become more than an additional object in their backpack and a line item in their planner.  That book had actually engaged them.

While my job as a public educator requires me to focus on Common Core Standards, common assessments, Student Learning Objectives and required curriculum, my existence as a humanitarian persistently reminds me that my greatest responsibility is to help my students find their voice, and to mentor them as they learn to appreciate the voices of others. Of course I must teach them how to answer questions on standardized tests, but to keep my sanity, I must also teach them about life. About how hard it can be, about the measures some people take to deal with it, and about the resiliency of the human spirit.  I must teach them about friendship, loyalty, and the potency of words. About redemption, honor, fear, love, and truth. About the ways in which all of those things melt onto the page and seep into our lives.

See, the most valuable part of reading is not exactly “testable.” It is experiential, transformative even. In its purest form, good reading ignites our interest in the world, it provokes us to consider new perspectives and it inspires us to question, make connections and imagine something otherwise impossible. It weaves in and out of our lives in sometimes seamless, sometimes jarring and sometimes curious ways, and it invites us to look at people, places, and things differently. It can make us wonder about barefoot boys in the middle of winter, about cool drafts in our bedroom, or even about our pregnant English teacher.

Jody Casella’s Thin Space gave my students the chance to experience reading at its best. The dialogue was authentic, Marsh’s guilt was palpable, and the truth seemed worth discovering. My suspense-seekers were hooked the moment I read the prologue aloud in class. My introspective students were drawn to Marsh’s inner struggle. My romantics were entangled in Marsh’s love life. And my impatient students wanted to know whether or not Marsh would actually find a thin space.  Some read ahead to find out.  Others looked at the last page because they couldn’t continue if they didn’t know how it would end, and still others tried to get me to tell them in a moment of weakness. When my very social, self-identified “non-reader” started sending out spoiler alerts, I knew we'd picked the right book to start the year.

A few days after we finished the text, Jody came into my class to speak.  She shared her writing journey, answered behind-the-scenes questions and gave many of my aspiring writers hope. When she finished, several kids lingered behind so they could get an autograph. A few others asked for NaNoWriMo information so they could begin scripting their masterpieces.  And one student waited until nearly every other kid disappeared. Often a quiet observer during discussions, this student approached me with purpose. Then she caught my eyes and said, “Thanks. That was really cool.”

Laura Moore
And it was. In fact, I’m pretty sure my heart fluttered as convincingly as it did when my baby kicked me that night in my bedroom.  For what more could an English teacher hope than to give her students an experience that moves them? I couldn’t wait to get home that night, so when my husband asked me about my day, he could see that same beam of light wash across my cheeks. The beam of light that said everything was right in the world, because in that instant, it was.

Thank you, Jody Casella.  Thank you for coming in to speak, for discussing your journey and for being brave enough to share the story you had kicking around inside.


(I guess I don't need to mention what an amazing teacher and person Laura is... If all of this weren't enough, she and another teacher at Upper Arlington High School, Alison McPherson, got together last summer and created a teacher's guide for the book.)

Can you spot the Barefoot Boy in the classroom?


7 comments:

  1. Laura, this is beautifully written. Love it, and you, and Jody.

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  2. So true, this is what English teachers live for, and librarians, too. I've been both. Real literature engages kids. Jody's book is great.

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  3. How cool, Jody! Those kids'll never forget "thin spaces."

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  4. Thank you, Kathy. I'm amazed and honored to think something I wrote might have that effect in a classroom.

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  5. Such a terrific post, and so awesome that your book lent itself to such discussion!!

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