Embracing the grey area

September 24th, 2012 | Filed under: teaching

Last year I started my first international school teaching job here in The Netherlands at a school implementing the Middle Years Programme. I was so excited! Concept based curriculum, theme-based units, opportunities to incorporate all sorts of texts and assessments, no mandates or state standards to worry about! Just a framework within which I was expected to bring students to a general set of objectives in the subjects I teach, which are English and technology.

Now, there are few “MYP textbooks” out there. And if you talk to most teachers working in the program, many just use their own resources, gather materials from a selection of books, use the Internet, etc. It’s great to be able to do that. Last year I decided not to order any textbooks and instead focus on getting short stories online or from anthologies, use our sister school’s library, etc. 

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

In short, it was exhausting. I’ve been trying to think about why this was so hard for me and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. There is no curriculum – I’m writing it. This freedom is both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. Everything was an option, which sometimes froze me in my tracks. 

  2. I haven’t been teaching that long. Veteran teachers have that expert knowledge that comes from years of experience – they know what texts are great for which age group and can work from those experiences. I have a few of those I’m coming from, but not nearly enough to make planning a breeze. It’s still a big learning curve for me.

  3. Scouring the Internet for resources isn’t as easy and relaxing as it seems. In addition to planning MYP units (very labor intensive for those new to it), crafting assessments and task-specific rubrics, marking and starting up the school, searching for resources online late at night to fit my unit question was painful. It wasn’t enjoyable.

So this year I made a decision to purchase some textbooks. A selection of literature textbooks to add to the resources I purchased last year (short story collections, a few novels) and the resources we have at our neighboring school library. For a second I cringed as I made the order – am I failing in a way? Am I taking the easy way out?

I think most of the negativity towards textbooks comes from the fact that they try to sum up an entire course in one book and we know, as teachers of our subject, that’s just not possible. Who do they think they are? Really?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by textbookrebellion

And don’t get me started on the corporate nature of textbook companies, the up-selling, the price of these things, etc. There are a lot of reasons to talk trash about textbooks. But, just like timed writing and test preparation, I’m finding they have their place. 

So, I’m sitting here on a rare Friday off, sipping some tea and flipping through a collection of myths and folktales in one of the textbooks. During my student teaching, myths and folktales was one of the first units I taught and I loved it. My MYP 1 students (6th graders) are studying oral traditions and storytelling before they compose their own myths to read to our primary students. I’m enjoying what I’m finding in the textbook. There are a few activity ideas I hadn’t thought of and some great guiding questions I could use in discussion with my students. That doesn’t mean I’m going to assign the question list for homework or anything like that, but I’m picking and choosing. And not feeling dirty about it. These textbooks are for me – to the students, nothing much has changed. 

As new teachers we’re confronted with a lot of issues and controversies about which we’re supposed to make an opinion, right there and then. Just by scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m confronted with hot button issues, words I’m supposed to stop using, new euphemisms to embrace. I had a lot of strong opinions about what is supposed to happen in a classroom and how a teacher is supposed to do things. That was before I actually worked in a classroom. I’m realizing, somewhat begrudgingly, that there’s a lot of grey area in what we do.

So here I am, flipping through a textbook, and loving it. It’s not the answer. It’s not replacing my planning. It’s not my easy way out. But it is a part of what I do and I’m not going to feel bad about it. In fact, I kind of regret not ordering them sooner. 

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My first taste of YA lit

December 29th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

I’ve never been one to get into arguments over whether we should be teaching the classics exclusively in schools or if we should let some young adult fiction jump into the curriculum mix. It always seemed like a no-brainer and a waste of our time to argue the point, because to me if a student is reading she’s already in the game. I’m focused on getting kids to pick up a book in the first place. Once that happens, then I’ll tackle getting them to delve into Shakespeare or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But, even though I’ve said these things and learned a great deal about the use of YA lit successfully in classrooms (my methods teacher during my licensure program was a big proponent of using YA lit), I’ve never really read any of it on my own. I’m not sure what was keeping me from cracking open one of these quick and often fulfilling reads, but I never had before this week. I taught a bit of Lawrence Yep to some sixth graders while working as a long-term substitute – we were reading Dragonwings – and Monster by Walter Dean Myers for my methods class, but that’s about it. My knowledge of YA lit was limited to big names like Laurie Halse Anderson and of course Harry Potter and Twilight. Then there was the mountain of YA titles. If I decided to read something, where would I even start?

A group of teachers I follow on Twitter instituted a #bookaday hashtag on Twitter where they would tackle reading, as you guessed, a book a day during their holiday breaks. I’m a slow reader and didn’t want to dedicate myself to a book a day since I would be planted on the couch for half of each day. Sure, I already do that sometimes since I’m not working (yet), but I try to avoid it.

One title I haven’t been able to avoid through tweets and blog posts is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I decided to read the first in the three-part series late last week and breezed through it. I felt that sense of wonder and suspense and connection to the characters, something I rarely experience in reading. The last time I felt this compelled by a book was my first time reading A Confederacy of Dunces. Something about Ignatius J. Reilly still tugs at my heart and leaves me thinking and I read the book nearly ten years ago. Sure, there are books I get into and can’t put down, but a true connection to a characters is something very rare for me in reading. I felt this with Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. I’ve only read the first book and am making myself read a “grown up” book in between this and the next part in the series. (I just started White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which given its nearly 500 pages of luscious wordsmithery means it will probably be a little while before I allow myself to tackle the second Hunger Games book Catching Fire.)

I don’t know why I feel this way, but even though Collins’ book is full of serious and teachable themes, such as the influence of reality television on our lives, poverty, and class struggles to name a few, I felt a little tinge of guilt in reading the book. I enjoyed it so much and it falls under that addictive category of young adult fantasy lit that I suppose I felt guilty about not challenging myself with a tougher read. But why do I feel this way? I can’t help but think this comes from years of education where the classics were elevated to royal status and only those that read them could feel proud and “well-read.” Beach reads, chick lit, fantasy, sci-fi, those were never considered “literature.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I definitely see a difference between The Devil Wears Prada and Ulysses – not everything is literature. But I hate the shame that has been tacked onto understanding the difference. If I feel this way, even after leaving high school nearly 10 years ago, how do our students feel?

There was a lively debate on The English Companion Ning recently about “kids reading junk,” and the junk being things like Harry Potter and Twilight. Sure, Harry Potter may not be comparable to 100 Years of Solitude, but shame on the person that sees thousands of children picking up and reading 400+ page books as a bad thing. Reading begets reading and results in learning. We all have our different avenues we ventured down that brought us to avid reading and very rarely were we pre-teens flipping through Dante’s Inferno. I got into serious reading (meaning I did it every day) when I started picking up R.L. Stine books. They were quick, thrilling reads and my 11-year-old self felt quite accomplished as I counted the number of “whole books” I’d read. From there, as I got older, I wanted to pick up “the classics” and read them. I purchased an old copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and read “As You Like It.” I didn’t really understand all of it, but I was 15 and trying my best. Then I went on to Catcher in the Rye, considered one of the first YA books. I was mesmerized that this could be considered a classic – something with the same compelling characters I’d learned to love in all of that other “junk” I’d read as a kid. Holden Caulfield wasn’t battling an old ghost sent to kill the cheerleading theme, as was the case with many R.L. Stine books, but he was battling real things that I felt, like worrying about my younger sibling as I grew into role-model status and dealing with adolescent angst. I was hooked into how reading could allow me to escape and relate with characters while working through my own issues and it only grew from there.

I’m intrigued by the idea of teaching The Hunger Games. Eric T. MacKnight, an international teacher I follow on Twitter (@ericmacknight), has his students *read books independently and blog their reactions and analyses. One student’s response to The Hunger Games generated an interesting comments discussion. Check out the  student’s blog response to the book and the ensuing discussion in the comments to see what I mean. There are so many avenues one could take, using the books as a jump-off point for projects and discussions. Communist regimes, poverty, class struggles, the increasingly public nature of our private lives, reality TV, even feminism. Katniss Everdeen is, by societal standards, quite a “tomboy.” How does her portrayal differ from female protagonists in other novels? What makes her strong? I appreciated that Collins wrote Katniss in this way because even though I am happy to see kids reading, even if it is Twilight, I can’t help but have a distaste for the boy-crazy damsel in distress portrayed by Bella in Stephanie Myers’s series.

I’m quite the novice when it comes to YA lit, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how these titles can be used as gateways to life-long reading and learning in the classroom and beyond. Thanks to my network on Twitter, I have a great resource of people well-read in YA lit I can turn to for recommendations, but a wonderful resource is the blog YA Lit – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly written by Sara Fuller (@yagoodbadugly). I’ve also been checking out the Goodreads shelves of Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks), author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, which is still high on my to-read list.

If you’re a YA noob like myself, I encourage you to give it a spin and consider how you might work such a title into your curriculum. It’s not much of a stretch. I did a lesson in my methods class tying an Edgar Allen Poe short story to Monster through the concept of unreliable narrators and their effects on readers. It’s easy and you might just snag some of those reluctant readers.

* My apologies to Eric! I thought he taught the book in class, but it turns out one student just read it as an independent reading assignment and blogged her reactions.

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