Category Archives: Intellectual Freedom

juliafranks

Save Reading, Save the Country

This post is written by member Julia Franks. 

One of my students, a high school senior on his way to Georgia Tech, told me he loved to read as a child and then, as a teenager, began to hate it. He blamed school, and the way his teachers “overanalyzed” literature. (Just to remind you: it’s not unusual for a class to read Hamlet, a four-hour play, and then spend thirty hours talking and writing about it.) Other disaffected readers blame schools’ “terrible books,” including one Stanford graduate who recalls the exact book that made him hate fiction—forever: A Tale of Two Cities.

Some give up sooner. Some have intuited that it’s not the actual reading of Dickens that matters to their grades, but rather familiarity with Dickens’s major themes. And it’s so very tempting to get that information online rather than spending twelve hours reading a book and then constructing your own meaning from it.

We know that non-readers don’t develop the same mental muscles, but there are other reasons why reading isn’t just for the nerds of the world. Our republic provides free education to its citizenry because an informed and intelligent electorate is a public good. Part of getting educated is experiencing other people’s stories. I’m not a Christian, but I identified strongly with the Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Likewise, I aspired to Pi Patel’s transcendent view of suffering in Life of Pi and was moved by Mark Beaver’s conflicted adolescent feelings about Jesus in Suburban Gospel. Because of those books, I have some tiny understanding of the very many ways there are of being a Christian. I could draw similar parallels about being a combat soldier or about being Muslim. By immersing myself in someone else’s story, I’m inhabiting his or her life a little. I’m practicing a different vantage point.

One night last summer, below a dingy Atlanta underpass, a police car pulled in front of mine and stopped, the blue lights flashing into the tunnel. An officer sprang from the car and ran forward into the blackness. Then: sounds of wrestling, moaning, a large soft mass being slammed against the car, the voice of the officer saying, “Stop moving.” He said it four times, each time sounding more as if he were begging. Moments later a tall wiry man sprinted toward my car, blood pouring from a head wound, his eyes dazed with either terror or drugs. The police officer, who was stockier and younger, tackled him, and they both slammed onto the pavement, not five feet from where I sat. The officer wrested the other man’s arms behind him and closed the handcuffs. Then he met my eye for a long moment, his gaze full of uncertainty. He looked Filipino. The man in the cuffs was White.

At first, I tried to square this incident with one of our national narratives, trying to shape my own experience to fit a story I’d already heard. Was it the brutality story? The resisting-arrest story? Racism? Which one was the bad guy?

But, life is not an action movie or a video game where good guys fight evil. There are many other stories out there. And if you’re a reader, you remember Malcolm X’s accounts of police profiling in The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the brutality in American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. But here’s the thing: sitting right there in your brain next to those stories are also Edward Conlon’s accounts of NYPD responding to the events of September 11 and Trudy Nan Boyce’s novels of a female officer navigating complicated relationships in the neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta. If you’re a reader, you have a lot more practice holding all those conflicting stories in your imagination at one time. And perhaps you’re more prepared to see nuance.

Recent data show that readers are also better at controlling their own stories, which is an integral part of constructing identity and has given rise to an entire field called bibliotherapy. Think about it. Stories are the way we make meaning. Take any personal crisis you’ve ever weathered, even something as prosaic as a break-up. When it was all over, you built a narrative around it: “First he did this, then I did that.” Cause, effect, cause, effect. You needed that narrative in order to feel as if you understood what had happened—in order to move on.

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

In my own classroom, I wanted a change, so one spring I offered my AP students a choice. They could read the books on the syllabus, or they could set up reading groups and read twice as many books selected from a list of some 300 great titles. We voted. Forty-nine students out of forty-nine chose to read twice as many books. And—surprise!—they chose door-stoppers they’d long wanted to read (Lord of the Rings! The Fountainhead!) and alternated them with shorter reads (The Road, The Bell Jar, Me Before You). By May, every kid in the class, with one exception, had read twice as many pages as I’d originally planned, and many had read four or five times as  much.

At the end of the year, my seniors’ grades on the national exam were exactly on par with the other AP students in the school. Research data on choice reading, particularly those from linguist Stephen D. Krashen, support this anecdotal evidence.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the classics or the communal reading experience. But kids who have personal reading habits are far more likely to broaden their tastes than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to be reading ten years after graduation.

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

’Tis a far, far better thing they do.

Julia Franks is a former teacher and an award-winning novelist (Over the Plain Houses from Hub City Press). She now runs a Web application that helps schools track independent reading from grade to grade (loosecanon.com). 

Note: Did you find this post interesting? You may like to read this post by Hannah Sislo whose college project focused on ways teachers could include reading choice in the classroom.

Giving Students a Place to Choose

harrypotterlibraryNo two ways about it—students need access to books. And to be the best readers, they need to choose the books they want to read.

What better place to find books than libraries—those magical places in communities, schools, and classrooms? Imagine the library in The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotton Books) or in Jasper Fforde’s second Thursday Next mystery, Lost in a Good Book, Hogwart’s Library or your local book repository!

In 1987 NCTE passed the Resolution on Improving Library Support in the Schools,“urging legislators and school officials to provide funding for credentialed librarians in every elementary and secondary school.”

The Council followed up with the Resolution on Supporting School and Community Libraries
in 2005.

“Resource-rich school libraries and credentialed school librarians play key roles in promoting information literacy. They help students acquire critical thinking skills and increase their global awareness. Educational research demonstrates that the services of professional school librarians, well-funded collections, and rich digital resources enhance student achievement. These research studies show that, when classroom teachers collaborate with full-time, credentialed school librarians to design, implement, and assess instruction, student achievement increases significantly…”

And, the just- published Statement on Classroom Libraries recognizes

“the specific educational benefits of classroom libraries to students because they
• motivate students by encouraging voluntary and recreational reading
• help young people develop an extensive array of literacy strategies and skills
• provide access to a wide range of reading materials that reflect abilities and interests
• enhance opportunities for both assigned and casual reading
• provide choice in self-selecting reading materials for self-engagement
• strengthen and encourage authentic literate exchanges among young people and adolescents
• provide access to digitized reading materials that may help to foster the development of technological literacy skills
• facilitate opportunities to validate and promote the acceptance and inclusion of diverse students’ identities and experiences
• create opportunities to cultivate an informed citizenry”

Libraries of all sorts give your students the chance to get the book.

Learning concept on blue background

Of Choice and Challenge and Superheroes

 

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Shana Karnes writes about choice and challenge in her blog on the WVCTE affiliate’s blog site.  Shana refers to kids choosing the books they read and learning to choose challenging literature, too.

“I knew that all kids were capable of reading sophisticated texts, making complex choices about when and how and what to read, and that all readers have a hunger for a challenging, engaging read.”

Shana is right, of course, but it’s all-together too possible that “challenge” can mean something else. It can mean that the books students choose to read can be challenged by a parent or community member who doesn’t like their choices.

And that’s why schools need policies like the one described in the Students’ Right to Read  and why we need to know what those policies are.

medina_high07In her blog, Meg Medina describes a visit to a school whose educators used the school’s policy to advocate for keeping Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass available for their students to read. And they won!

Meg Medina notes,

“That’s what a school visit looks like when the students are trusted to read. They have a chance to think about who they are and what they are living. They have a chance to consider all the ways they can respond to what comes their way. It gives them one more tool that helps in this long job of growing up.”

She goes on to say,

“To the faculty and leadership at South County, and to the School Board and to the PTO parents who stepped up for my novel, I want to say thank you. It would have been so easy to give up, to choose another book and move on to the next task on your list. Thank you for having courage to stand up for students’ right to read. Thank you for giving thought to how to include kids who did opt out. Thank you for modeling how to be strong. Courage and compassion are in ample supply at your school. For all the ways your students treated me as the star, I hope they never forget that the real superheroes in this have been in their building all along.”

13+ Answers to 13 Reasons Why

NCTE Facebook has been ablaze with discussion of an article from The Atlantic.

The Netflix series of Jay Asher’s book 13 Reasons Why is causing a stir and everyone has an opinion. As of April 21, there were over 11 million tweets about the show.

Some are worried that the series “promotes suicide” while others laud the series for making real the pressures young adults feel, keep quiet, and that, often out of ignorance, adults pooh-pooh.

Others, like Tammy from the Juggling ELA blog, say the series does not promote suicide and wonder if the series were Romeo and Juliet would the complaints be so loud.

Steve Bickmore introduces Michelle M. Falter’s  post on his YA Wednesday blog this way,

“Both the posts by Susan and Michelle have me thinking about Joan Kaywell who reminds us that books save lives. They do but as educators we need to help lead the way.

Falter reminds us that,

“We need to be brave. Braver than we ever have been. Brave because our students are braver than us, and are ready to talk about these things. Kids will be watching this Netflix series with or without their parents. They will. And we can either ignore this, or we can acknowledge it. As parents, as teachers, as friends, we can and MUST have these conversations about the topics this book/series presents. Parent, educator, filmmaker, and social worker, Nina Rabhan, offers 13 insightful questions, in her review, as a starting place for this dialogue.”

She adds,

“Okay, so now that I have acknowledged this, let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why and why we should not just dismiss this book or TV series. While I certainly will not dismiss the real concern that psychologists and mental health professionals have issued around the graphic nature and potential for the series to trigger people (as I think this is a valid concern), I will push back on the idea that because of this we (parents, children, teenagers, schools, teachers, students, etc.) should not watch it or read it. I think this would be a huge mistake and waste.”

Most seem to agree that the series touches very real issues for teens—bullying and suicide—and that these issues are worth talking about so we can do something about them.

Many advocate for parents to either view the series before letting their children view it or watch it with them.

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Author Jay Asher made three important points at the Twin Cities Teen Lit Convention  in Minnesota last Saturday.

  1. He noted the novel is a cautionary tale, not a story glorifying suicide.
  2. He pointed out that, “Every scene in the book that one person has contacted me saying they have a problem with, or that they thought was irresponsible, I’ve had dozens of people say that was the part they connected with.”
  3. He noted, “I guarantee there’s nothing in that show or the book that hasn’t happened to teens. Sometimes it hasn’t happened very often, but it does happen. When we hear adults saying ‘adults wouldn’t react that way,’ I can guarantee, I’ve heard from teens who said that’s what happened when they reached out.”

What seems to be missing in most of what people are saying is the important notion that while the series may not be right for them or their children, it could be very right for someone else and their children. What’s missing from nearly all conversations are the real and poignant reactions of the young adults who’ve watched the series. Here are a few from Common Sense Media.

100,000 Forbidden Books and Counting

“Books are the maker of culture, ” notes Argentinian artist Marta Minujín, who is promising that her performance art installation, The Parthenon of Books, will be one of the top ten moments of 2017.

Built into The Parthenon of Books will be books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. See the long list or the short list, both of which are lacking in many commonly challenged books here in the U.S., and donate your favorites that aren’t yet on the list.

This Parthenon will be a visible, participatory structure that encompasses the Athenian ideals of the first democracy and symbolizes “resistance to any banning of writings and the persecution of their authors.”  That the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, “reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature” is not lost on the project which will be constructed in Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, where “on May 19, 1933, some 2,000 books were burned by the Nazis during the so-called ‘Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist’ (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit).”

“A symbol of resistence to political oppression,” the finished Parthenon will actually move, as Minujín’s 1983 Argentinian version did, with the help of cranes;  and two-three times a day people will be allowed to enter and to take home a “forbidden book.”