Friday, November 30, 2012

YA Love

For the past 8 years, I have taught high school English. I became a high school English teacher in my early 30s and my initial enthusiasm for YA can be credited to Dr. Linda Hanrahan. Dr. Hanrahan, who is now Associate Professor and Chair Graduate Program at Ithaca College, was my English methods course professor at George Mason when I was seeking my initial teaching license.

I have always been surrounded by books, but didn't spend a lot of time with YA. Though I had read voraciously as a young adult myself, I gravitated toward adult fantasy and some science fiction. Sure, I had devoured A Wrinkle in Time as a young girl. I had spent time with Menoly of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong, too. But I hadn't really read anything that might be considered YA since the early 1980s because I had my brothers and my mom as reading mentors, and they were reading the "adult" stuff.

I preferred those other worlds to the realistic fiction and classics of the classroom, though I dutifully read or tried to read those, too. I was a strong enough reader I could do well in English, which allowed me the opportunities to read my own choices while others struggled through their work. Rarely, even in high school, was I not reading something beyond the assigned texts. Because I was good at the school stuff, my teachers mostly looked the other way when i pulled out my own paperbacks during down time. but they never really asked me about my reading or ma any links between my books and theirs.

As a result of Dr. Hanrahan's intro methods course, I understood more teachers were using choice and sustained silent reading (never an option given to me as a student) to help kids love literature and improve their reading skills. I realized the genres I love wouldn't necessarily be the ones my students would love, so I thought it would be a good idea to explore what YA was to find books to hook all of my students.

During the summer of 2004, Dr. Hanrahan taught EDCI 597: Young Adult Literature in Multicultural Settings. Some of my classmates from methods (many of whom were already classroom teachers) had signed up, so I had a feel for what the class dynamic might be. Then I discovered that most of the course was online, with only 6 face to face meetings. I got to read and I didn't have to spend my entire summer in night classes while still working my corporate job? i was sold.

At the core of the class were book group discussion board posts that reviewed each of the 20-25 books each group member chose to read that summer. While I revisited Madeline L'Engle, I also added new author friends like Jerry Spinelli, Linda Oatman High, Rodrick Philbin, Gary Paulsen, and Sonya Sones (how delighted I was to watch her twirl and perform at ALAN this year!). Through the 21 books I flew through between June and August and the postings of my book group's reviews, theme studies, and author studies, I began to see what I had been missing by not reading YA. These weren't simplistic characters of teens enduring the sting of peer pressure and puppy love in saccharine, teen magazine fashion. The YA books we read and shared not only reflected the complexity of contemporary teens and elevated their stories beyond mere stereotype, they spanned genres from poetry to historical fiction, and even non-fiction. My own theme study of gender and sexual identity in YA revealed a broadening array of gay, lesbian, questioning, and even transgendered characters, thanks to works by Julie Ann Peters, Alex Sanchez, and Nancy Garden. These books were nothing like those "children's" books I expected.

Even though it has taken me quite a while to begin the explore the balance between choice and whole class reading, the foundation of and love for young adult literature I developed in Dr. Hanrahan's summer class continues. From the first day I finally entered the classroom in January 2005, I had those authors and stories with me to help match kids and books. While I'm still working on getting the breadth of book knowledge held by my choice reading heroes (readers and lead learners like Donalyn Miller, Paul Hankins, Penny Kittle and Teri Lesesne), I have added 114 ya books to my GoodReads YA shelf since I started more seriously tracking and logging my reading in 2010.

My class library now occupies almost 3 full-sized book shelves, books I bought, gathered, or was given. Works I acquired at, and are finally arriving in the mail from, the 2012 NCTE Annual Conference and the Assembly on Adolescent Literature-NCTE (ALAN) workshop will likely fill 3-4 more shelves. I know I have many to replace because they have walked off with readers over the years, and for as long as I teach, I will replace and buy many more. But I will continue to spend my energy, time, and money to seek advanced reader copies, talk books with my online and in person friends, comb thrift stores and bargain sales, and develop relationships with booksellers to have even more choices for the young readers in my classroom.

Why? Because YA makes reading contagious and easy to pass to kids who don't see themselves as readers. Reading and falling in love with YA gives me and my students a chance to look into ourselves and slip into the lives of others. As along the way, we become better students, better citizens, and better readers.

Thanks, Linda, for starting me on this path.

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