Advocating for More #YALit by Oona Marie Abrams
You’ve just finished a new YA novel. Wow, you think to yourself. This book is awesome. It totally reminds me of …. But, since you are a literacy teacher, of course, you think far beyond this. You start to think about how and why this book can and should have a home beyond just your classroom library.
Unfortunately, this is often where the conversation or the speculation about potential curricular changes might end for some teachers. But I’m going to use Brendan Kiely’s novel The Last True Love Story as an example of how we can gradually and practically introduce new texts into the curriculum over time. Note that the options below are ideally intended to build upon each other.
Option A: Pay out of pocket or use those gift cards you got for the holidays to purchase 3-5 copies of the book for your classroom library. The only way to make sure that the book gets into the right hands is first to buy it, and you know one copy isn’t going to be enough.
Option B: Book talk it during an appropriate moment in an instructional unit. As I read The Last True Love Story, I was reminded of a plethora of classic texts that I have studied, taught or plan to teach. These include but are not limited to: The Odyssey, The Iliad, Death of a Salesman, King Lear, Into the Wild, The Bean Trees, The Things They Carried, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Grapes of Wrath. At any point during instruction, I could select a passage from the novel that parallels another passage in their current study and frame a book talk around that comparable theme, character or conflict.
Option C: Recommend it as a read-around for independent reading. As I read Kiely’s novel, my mind webbed out to my students, who have read or are currently reading the following titles: Every Exquisite Thing, Hour of the Bees, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, The Sun is Also a Star, The Memory of Light, The Tender Bar, We Are Not Ourselves and Still Alice. Use the reading conferences you hold with students to pick their brains about the book and connections they’re making.
Option D: Pilot it during literature circles. During a recent narrative journalism unit, a group of my students loved the choice I gave to purchase their own copies of Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer. They made their own book club out of it, even though the class runs as a reading workshop. The same recommending phenomenon is happening now as students are reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. That is a prime indicator to me that it’s a book worthy of purchase by my school.
Option E: Get approval to purchase several class sets and assign it as a “satellite” read during a unit. Imagine that you’re studying King Lear or Death of a Salesman in class. From start to finish, it might take you three to five weeks, and while students are doing some work for class at home, including writing, what are they likely reading during this time? Why not assign a satellite text that is engaging, relevant and thematically connected to the work you’re doing on a text in class? This would also enrich discussions and synthesis skills.
Option F: Make it a whole-class novel study, but ditch the traditional required literary essay at the end. Use the novel as a mentor text to teach students a different facet of writing. As I read Kiely’s novel about two aspiring young poets, I thought of poems I would definitely have students read as they studied the novel. These include but are certainly not limited to:
“Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden,
“I Am Offering this Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca,
“Facing It” by Yusef Kominyakaa.
In addition to serving as mentor texts, the poems could be a springboard for small and large group discussion of the novel. It would make sense, then, to design a final assessment for writers that provided opportunities to develop their poetic voices. This might be an anthology of poems, or a chapter of an original novel in verse. But it’s not going to be a five paragraph essay. (I think it’s pretty fair to say that not many young adult authors pen their narratives so that young readers can fill out a graphic organizer with a thesis statement and quotes.)
Our passion for reading new books can take us farther than we might at first predict. Innovating “inside the box” must happen if we want to give students access to timely and relevant literature. Along with their wonderful smell, new books bring promise and energy into our classrooms, but only if we do the work necessary to convince those with purchasing influence that the money will be an investment and not an expense. Happy reading and happy advocating!
Oona Marie Abrams is a graduate of The College of Mount Saint Vincent and Manhattanville College. An English teacher since 1996 and an active member of NCTE and the Council on English Leadership, Abrams served as editor of English Leadership Quarterly from 2014 until 2018. She lives with her husband and four sons in northern New Jersey, and she teaches at Chatham High School, where she is one of the organizers of #NerdCampNJ.