Posts Tagged ‘YA Literature’

So, I’ve been thinking about class activities recently. In particular, I’ve been thinking about activities that are not class discussions about the reading.

I try to mix it up in my English class. We might have several days of general discussion, some passage analysis, but I also try to have actual activities. Recently, we have worked on several webbing activities. I wrote about this the other day. For complicated information, I think showing the interconnections of characters, ideas, themes, really has to be done in a visual way. Plus, it’s the kind of thing that is hard to take notes on when it is just discussed and not created in the course of the discussion. Therefore, the web or chart or diagram serves the additional purpose of being a note-taking model as well.

Another thing I am trying to do is give more responsibility to the students in terms of leading class. (Student responsibility and independence was the topic of #NCTEChat on Sunday 3/19. Great chat. Check the archive for details.) So, earlier in this semester, pairs of students led class. Although they had options, all chose to lead discussions. These discussions went well, mostly. However, I wanted the students to branch out and think about other class activities that would be valuable, that would help the group think more deeply about the writing, the time period, the characters, etc. Having students think about what type of activity would best support deepening their learning about particular ideas seems to be an important step in taking responsibility and ownership of their learning. To move this process along, I decided to put some more parameters on what ‘leading class’ could look like for round two. This time, students had to plan an activity for their group (small groups) that was anything except a straightforward discussion.

In advance, we brainstormed a list of some possibilities. I didn’t just throw them out there with no support. Many of the options were things I had done with the students at some point during the semester. The plan was for each individual to be in charge of one 15 minute activity for his or her group. We were on a tight schedule, but had enough days for all activities. Then, we had a snow day, which messed up our schedule a bit, but was oh so lovely.

One of the students planned for the group to make a web with the four main characters. She had her small group at the board. Two of them wrote and all (mostly) participated. They made a web and had some time to consider what it looked like. I came around to the group a few times. Within about 12-15 minutes they had this.

Web created by students reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys


At that point, I joined the conversation and asked some questions to push their thinking beyond creation of the web to analysis of the web. We noticed that the character who, at that point, was trying to distance himself the most, seemed in some ways the center, or at least to have the most linkages. This was interesting to consider.

In another group, a student planned for them to make a Venn diagram of two presidents/characters. These two are part of the story, but not the main protagonists. Making the diagram was an interesting way to compare two seemingly very different people who had the same position and were faced with similar decisions. Here’s what they did.

Student venn diagram for Presidents Johnson and Nixon in relation to Vietnam War in  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.

Although there’s not a lot of detail there, what I do notice is that they have really gotten to some key big ideas that I would say are the point. These students are big idea people and history guys. And, while I think if I had asked them about the similarities and differences, they could have gotten there, I am glad that they found a way to get there on their own and thought that this was worth investigating.

What I see in both of these examples is not so much the web itself, but the thinking that the web enabled. There is nothing super impressive about the individual bits of information in either diagram. What is there is the potential to see a bigger picture and a roadmap to get there.

Public domain image. This is my idea of a reasonable serving of ginger snaps.

CCO Public domain image.
This is my idea of a reasonable serving of ginger snaps.

So, I’ve been thinking about winter break. What will I read, write, see, make? Students were finished school on Friday 16th, but I was in on Monday and Tuesday for some catch up type things.

In the lead up to the break, I was scoping out the library at school, making mental lists of what books I was going to check out. It turns out I am not the only one who had her eye on a few titles, but I am the one who waited too long. No problem, my list is long. I have at least half a dozen books (some young adult, some not) in my reading pile; I signed up for 2 Coursera courses through MoMA, and have plans to work on a few in-process art/craft projects. This seems like a lot for a break that also includes a major family heavy holiday and a set of papers to grade. To date I have read 3 books–2 young adult (Bone Gap and No Laughter Here) 1 graphic novel (Creature Tech)– and finished a week or so in each Coursera course (turns out there is significant overlap in the classes, so a lot less work than 2 unique courses). I do not think I have ignored my family either; we have done family stuff together, but you would have to ask them.

My point is not to list books read, courses taken etc. I am interested in 2 things here. First, what is it about a break from work that makes me think I have 36 hours in my days that I should fill? Second, what is it about doing all these things that is rejuvenating for me?

First of all, I think it’s the temporary freedom from a scheduled work time that makes me think I am superwoman. If I had an unending number of free days ahead of me, I would not feel the same urgency to read, make, etc. And, let’s be honest, I also excel at sitting on the couch and eating cookies. I am not actually going to do all that, but I like thinking about the options. This is connected to my second question. Just the thought of planning what to read and do is exciting to me. It’s really just another form of brainstorming, WHICH I LOVE. Brainstorming combines so many things that appeal to me–collecting ideas, connecting pieces of information, making odd leaps of ideas, taking notes, more planning. I feel more energized just writing this down (note: I am on still on the couch).

I think that if a break is to enable one to return to something feeling more rested and ready, then making my clearly unrealistic lists does the job almost by itself, as long as I can eat some cookies at the same time. However, just in case I need to do more than just imagine doing all this, I’m planning some art time later today.

So, I’ve been thinking about the power of the pile, that stuff that accumulates and starts to matter. I first was thinking about student reflection adding up. Another thing that I think about piling up in this way is the sexual violence in the novels we have students read in English class. I am a regular broken record on the topic.

I’m against any kind of violence in real life. And, I understand that books include violence in many forms and for many reasons. But, as I said in my first power of the pile post‘, one is just one, two makes a line and any more than that and we have a pattern forming. But what pattern do we have? What I worry about is the pattern about relationships that we normalize when so many of the relationships we read about revolve around sexual violence against women. We’re not spreading the violence around. Would that even be better? It’s pretty well concentrated and aimed at women by men. I know we as teachers can say that this is unhealthy, that this is not what we should tolerate in our own lives. And we do that. And then, kids go on and hear or don’t hear that message and go on a read or don’t read the book.

The pile grows.

What other piles need to be ready to provide another point of view? No one book in the curriculum is an issue; it’s the pile. Do we have enough works that have other stories, other relationship patterns? As I spoke with a few colleagues about this the other day, it was this idea that we could all agree on–the idea that we can’t put a single story out there, over and over, so that it piles up and makes the only pile. Having these conversations with my colleagues, when the bell isn’t about to ring, is such a gift. The discussion helped me think a little differently, with more complexity, about the issues, let me practice making my point and refining it, and allowed me to gain perspective. Just another time that reaffirmed for me the awesomeness of the people with whom I work.

Back to the topic.

I also wonder: Does the pile start to say this is what real literature is about or this is what you need to be a grown up book or this is what contemporary works are or that these are the kind of relationships that are exciting to read about? Ultimately, does this become not only normal but to be expected?

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 10.15.09 PMPart of what makes me worry about this is an experience I had last year in my YA literature class with seniors. We read Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. This is an award-winning YA novel that centers around characters and their relationships most of which fall into the gender and sexual diversity category. There is nothing graphic about the situations or relationships that are described. There is kissing. There is a wandering hand or two. There is a lot of hand holding. There are bodies close together. Everyone keeps their clothes on, all the time. And yet, more than one student used the word graphic to describe the book. However, these same students think the rape of a female character in another book was graphic. That was a ‘relationship’ they were familiar with in literature.

I have passed this book around to get some other reactions to it. Maybe I am missing something. Nope. I’m not. It was recommended to me in good faith and was awarded prizes for good reason.

So, this coming year in my YA class, I’m adding this book to the ‘everyone reads it’ book group, rather than a choice book. I will of course help students think about their reactions to the book, its characters, and relationships. Time to add to a different pile.

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about YA literature all year. My second semester senior elective focused on YA literature. Part of the goal of the coarse was to read enough to think about YA literature and how it is similar to and also different from a lot of the literature they normally read in class.

The final assignment asked them to read “Against YA: Read What you want, but you should be Embarrassed to read what was written for Children” by Ruth Graham which appeared in Slate in June of 2014. I also collected several responses which we looked at as examples of various ways to engage in a debate of ideas. Students then had to weigh in on their own. (see my description below.)

You have now read a number of YA novels and heard about even more. In addition you have read the Ruth Graham article and several responses. It is now your turn to enter into the YA debate. You should write your own response to Graham’s article.

Your response will:

  • Be 1200+ words
  • Have an opinion as to the value or lack thereof of YA literature.
  • Define what “having value” or whatever criteria you use to evaluate YA literature means.
  • Defend that opinion in a way that allows the reader to understand your thought process.
  • Reference and cite specific points by Graham and at least one other article.
  • Reference with specifics at least two book that you read in the course to support your idea.
  • Be engaging


  • First, read and digest the articles. Determine what criteria Graham has used to reject YA literature and the criteria others have used to support it.
  • Decide where your opinion falls in the debate.
  • Determine what criteria you think are most important and how you will define them.
  • Determine which points are most important for you to refute or confirm. Find evidence for this.
  • Choose several books from the course that you will reference in your response.
  • Draft several paragraphs (there is nothing magical about 5) by Tuesday, May 3rd
  • Share this beginning with peers in class on Tuesday.
  • Complete a draft by Thursday, May 5th. Required. (could be completed earlier)
  • Review feedback.
  • Complete final draft by Wednesday, May 11th. Required. (could be extended to Friday 13th)

There was a lot of complaining about the 1200+ words. To hear some of them, you would have thought I had asked them to climb to the moon. Since I was not going to budge on it, so we did not discuss. What I said in class was that yes it would be possible to toss off a quick 300-400 word superficial answer, but that one of our critiques of Ms. Graham’s article included its generalities and lack of specifics. I stressed over and over that carefully analyzing her particular points was important. She may state her big point in the title of the article, but she has particular points that are much more specific. I’m not sure I was convincing.

Anyway, I thought I should maybe write my own article to see if my word count was in fact way off. Um, no. It was not. I sat down and just scratched the surface of what I wanted to say with 700 words. I know, I’m not a high school student (just had a big reunion to prove it), but I’m confident that the task does in fact warrant some words.

The next day students came in more ready to work. I arranged the room so that everyone was looking away from each other as much as possible and so that I could see screens. A number of students came in and went back to the Graham article, which is what they needed to do. So, I’m feeling decent about that. Also, midway through class an impromptu discussion broke out about some of the points she makes in the article. About half the group joined in for a bit. I am feeling somewhat optimistic about this.

Update: I made sure to set the rough draft due date before prom weekend, but I did not get all drafts. Ugh! The ones I got were solid, so there’s that.

So, I’ve been thinking about the assessments I give my students. My students have been thinking about the assessments too, mostly in a could-we-not-do-that kind of way.

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Earlier in the month I announced it was time to write a book review of the novel we had just finished reading. Wild applause. Groans all around. These are second semester seniors. Please can we do something else. Can we do a presentation? Can we work in groups? I made no promises, but went home and thought about it. I thought about my goals for the assignment, our remaining time, and the final project, which is not changing. I also went to a talk by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott. Now, I do not currently watch a lot of movies because if my husband and I go out, I prefer to eat and talk, all without cooking or cleaning. We are now just in the no-babysitter-needed phase, but before that, if I was going to pay for a babysitter and sit in silence, the movie had to be awfully good. So, not a lot of movies got watched. Anyhow, a colleague asked if I wanted to go hear A. O. Scott at a local movie theater, and I said sure.

There I am listening to Mr. Scott, Tony it turns out, be interviewed. Super interesting. He talked about opinion writing and critique in general as “an exercise in explaining your thought process.” He spoke about the various and particular objectives and tactics one can employ in writing a review. One that stood out to me was the idea that a review might aim to introduce a work to an audience who would not guess the work would be of interest. In addition there was some fascinating discussion of which movies stand the test of time and make you want to watch them again. It was interesting to hear about movies that were audience and critical favorites that just faded away and those that were panned in their day, yet are now considered classics. It was totally energizing. I scribbled notes on whatever paper I could find in my purse. Then, I thought about which ideas I could use for my class.

The next day I combined part of an old idea from 5th grade with some A. O. Scott inspiration and some feedback from another colleague; I had a plan. (Once again, I would like to say how much I value talking to my colleagues and getting to bounce ideas off them. I do not know if they appreciate my bounciness, but I love it.) I decided that I wanted the students to consider evaluating the books we have read in comparison to each other across several categories. So, I made 3 groups; each group had someone who had read each book. Then I finalized my five categories: complex characters, quality writing, read again, effective message (we are reading YA literature so message is big), combination of narrative structure and story.

Here is my very quickly written description:

For this task, your group will determine the winner and runners-up (book or character) in each category. So you need a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place finisher. Your group should first review each book across each category. Not all group members will have read all the books, but each group should have someone who read each book. In order to make your choices, you will need to decide how you will define the categories. Then, apply that definition to the books to determine the winner and runners-up.

In class, a representative from your group will present your decision and explain the group’s reasoning. Quotations or page/chapter references are expected. Each group member must present at least one category. We will then evaluate the choices and the reasoning behind the choices. The group should also have a visual to support the decision. There may be prizes.

I set the groups working, “working”  maybe. Once again, I cannot claim that everyone was engaged, but as I went from group to group, there was solid conversation comparing the books, which was what I wanted to happen. This review and comparison work was certainly more significant work and better at addressing the essential questions of the course than a single book review. Plus, it served as a good lead up to the final writing assignment that will ask them to consider a number of titles. The day before the presentations someone asked what the prizes would be. I may have forgotten about that part, but luckily I had some left over prizes from bribing my personal kids to do things. I brought those in the next day. (I have written before about seniors being like 5th graders. This is true in prize preference too, since I said money was not an option.)

The presentations were totally solid. Sometimes it’s because the individual is good at winging it, but even the wingers had done the prep and were therefore able to be convincing and articulate. I certainly got a better sense of what they were thinking about and the type of considerations they were making than I would have from a book review or even a comparison paper. They do have to write and learn to write effectively, but that is not the only way to present a position. We spent an entire long block and then some to get through everything.

My Reflections:

There are definitely tweaks to be made to this. I evaluated on the spot and gave prizes to the entire team of the winning presenter for each category. This added a little tension which was not a bad thing for the group. However, I’d like the students to do more of the evaluating next time. Also, I’d include reflection the next class period to explain what separated good from very good. Mostly it came down to having and applying a specific definition for the category. Everyone had a definition and pretty good reasons why they chose the order they chose, but for some groups either the definition was very bland or they had a definition but then did not use it as their measure against which to determine the winners.

Also, I noticed that most of the winning books were the books that I taught rather than books they read in the literature circle groupsThe Phantom Tollbooth was the big winner with one student saying, “it’s basically the perfect book.” So, did I choose the best books to teach myself? Or, did they get a lot less out of the books they read more independently? I have a lot to think about with these two questions before I can answer them.

This is definitely an assessment strategy to keep polishing.

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about my senior English elective, YA Literature, and what is interesting and engaging for the students. I don’t mind working, but I do mind doing all the work and harassing students to do their part of the work.

In this unit we read The Phantom Tollbooth all together (and I did a really good job with it, IMHO), and then the students went to their literature circles reading either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The discussions that the groups managed to have independently were a very mixed bag. That combined with some serious senior-itis lead to a rather disappointing end to the week. When I planned out my assessments for the semester, I had imagined a comparison paper at this point. However, as the time got closer to assigning it, I got more and more convinced that a paper was not the thing that would actually produce good thinking and a solid product. Several students happened to have mentioned presentations over the course of the semester, and I had skipped a planned presentation earlier in the semester, so I decided to think about changing my assessment to some sort of presentation.

I still wanted to maintain the goal of having students think about this type of story. We compared general plots arcs of all three books, in addition to some other similar stories that they knew, and I wanted them to wrestle with both the similarities of the big events and the wild variety in the specifics. I also realized that with my podcasting experiment not working as well as I had hoped, I could use another creative assignment. So, I put all that together and came up with an assignment that required thinking (always good), involved presentation (which the students need to practice) and was creative.

The Remix/Remake/Create project was born. Here are the particulars, as I shared with my students:

You have now read The Phantom Tollbooth and either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. You may also be familiar with the Narnia series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz.

Think about the common characteristics of these adventure tales. You will plan and present a concept for a new book in this genre. Your concept must include information about the following:

Title: title and brief plot outline. No need for a summary of all the events, but a basic outline or flowchart of events is fine.

Cover or interior image: design either a cover or image for a chapter heading or major event

Protagonist: some description of this character and background; major character traits; ways these traits will be demonstrated not just stated.

Companion(s): who will travel with the protagonist; what do we know about this character; what traits does he/she bring that are valuable and challenging; is this character from the world of the character or the new fantasy world

Fantasy world: in what sort of place does the adventure take place; in what key ways is it both similar to and different from home; who is in charge; what sort of people/animals will our protagonist meet; how is this place connected to or known, or not, by others in the real world

Mission: what brings our protagonist to this new land; what adventures do you imagine once he/she arrives

Lessons to learn: what key lessons about life; about being an adult; about being a child; about living a meaningful, purposeful, true life will the character learn

Use of Language: what symbolism might you employ; consider the literal and nonliteral use of words; pay attention to the names of people and places.

Optional-Societal issues: will your book idea be addressing any particular societal concerns of the day?


Presentation (10 minutes) that clearly and enthusiastically shares your vision for this story concept. This should include the following:

    • outlines of ideas about the topics above
    • Several paragraphs of sample text from a few key points in your proposed book: first paragraph and two consecutive paragraphs from later in the story.
    • Note: Do NOT make a Powerpoint with all the information above and simply read from it. This will be beyond boring no matter how interesting your ideas are. You should be necessary to your presentation. You must present. What and how you present is up to you.
  • Brief written explanation of your inspirations for the decisions you have made. How have you taken ideas from the books you have read and reworked them, remixed them, to create something unique and new. This should include your target audience and reasoning behind your choice. Please put your concept in the context of other works. (~600 words)

In addition, I made this evaluation form that the students and I filled out after each presentation. I shared this with them in advance.

I explained the assignment on a Friday, and the presentations were the next Wednesday and Thursday. Classtime on both Monday and Tuesday was devoted to working on the project. I checked in and had good conversations with each group each day.

What I noticed right away was the energy level and engagement in the room. This was the 4-day week (with 4 Spirit dress days!) before Spring Break, not traditionally a time of great seriousness. People were talking about their ideas immediately. And because the students had ideas, my conversations with them could be so much more specific and individualized. I wasn’t giving vague encouragement, I was able to have particular discussions about the details of the project:

  • Was a storyline veering too far into PG-13/ R rating when I had set PG (maybe PG-13) as the upper limit?
  • Yes, I was familiar with Captain Underpants and could see the appeal of bathroom humor for a certain demographic, but were there lessons to be learned?
  • How much background knowledge of today’s rappers was necessary to understand this storyline? Would it be dated instantly?
  • Yes, I get the humor in the name of the king, will other characters’ names also have double meanings?
  • Has the group thought about whether the protagonist can return to this fantasy land?

I also wanted to be sure that the presentation days felt a little different and more serious, even if students were in odd attire (Spirit Week!). In a bold move, I invited the English department chairperson before I even introduced the project to my students. I also invited the Head of Upper School, who turned out to be busy. On the days of the presentation, I rearranged the room into 2 rows of tables for those listening and a table for the presenters at the front. I am a big believer in the importance of room resign to signal what is expected. Presenters could project their presentations and speak from the table or stand. Each day there were 3 presentations (10 minutes each).

While not all groups came up with books that would be snapped up by publishers, every group had a solid plan and outline. Several of the ideas were quite complex and well-fleshed out. The students thought about the intended audience and wanted to balance life lessons with a light touch. The assignment accomplished by three stated goals of requiring serious thought, including presentation skills, and stressing creativity. All that during the week before Spring Break. There’s room for improvement, but this assessment is a keeper.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about literature circles in my senior English elective. This is a YA literature elective and we are reading a lot of books in not a lot of time. About half the time we are reading a book as a class and the other half students have some choice and read in groups. (I’ve written about my set up and addition of a new job already.)

Our second unit is well underway. The whole class read was The Phantom Tollbooth. I have to say I was curious to see how this book fared with 17 and 18 year olds in 2016. A few students had read the book when they were younger and had generally positive memories of the book. Well, I have to say it was a success, IMO. I do not have a lot of experience teaching second semester seniors, so let me tell you what I have determined to be a success (note I am saying this before grading the test):

  • People read the book.
  • People participated in discussions. We did have a few very squirrel-y days in there, but we regrouped.
  • Several students made a point to tell me how much they liked the book and our discussions. (And, no, I was not giving extra points for this)

Now we are back to literature circles for Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. (I wrote about some of the idea in this book a while ago.) Day 1 of literature circle discussions dawned with high absenteeism. Of the three book groups, two were missing discussion leaders. Not promising. Thank goodness I had checked attendance before class and could regroup. The two Haroun groups could meet together with the remaining discussion leader. The other group I thought I would tackle.

Class began. I had students record some information for their jobs on their summary sheets before the discussion started. As it turned out, the Fairyland group did not need me in the slightest (except to do a little interpreting of other possible meanings for “there will be blood.”). They were discussing who would take on leading before we even got going, were starting to talk about the book before everyone even arrived (promptness also not a big thing for this group). They made connections to The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, other movies and stories. One of the things they also did, which represented real progress, was to discuss both the big ideas and specifics. I heard them referring to specific passages in the book, or details at least, to defend their ideas. Now, this may not sound very impressive. I would expect all of this in a discussion of any sort. What was exciting was that the group was doing this independently. I sat with them some, but was in no way a leader. Since it was clear they were not in need of my help, I went on to the patched together group reading Haroun. They did need some support.

After class, I asked myself why the Fairyland group was so successful?

  • Group make up played a part for sure.
  • Everyone coming prepared was key.
  • I like to think that last week’s added direction and instruction about the parts of discussion and how to build and foster all those pieces played a part.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

One of the things about reading these YA works is that we can read and discuss them in reasonable depth in a length of time that allows for a lot of titles. A lot of titles means a lot of repeated practice of the skills I want to foster, but with new material. For each literature circle book there are three or four literature circle meetings. Students keep the same job for all the meeting around a book. So, the students are getting a lot of practice, some reasonable feedback, and a chance to see others do various jobs.

For seniors, I think this independent practice is very valuable. These students are about to head to college and beyond. Practicing not just doing a project with a group at the end of the learning, but actually doing the learning with the group is time well spent. Alternating between whole class books with discussions lead and carefully planned out by me and student led literature circles is providing a good variety for class too. Just as we may be getting tired of one format, it’s time to change to a different one.

I hope the Fairyland group continues to set such a good example for the class. (I emailed them to say what a good job they did. I know they think they are grown, but they’re kids who like you to notice when they do something well.)