Category Archives: Literature

Reaching Toward a More Accepting and Equitable Society: The Work of the Language Arts in These Times

This post is written by members Wanda Brooks, Jonda C. McNair, and Kelly Wissman.

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In September of 2016, we published the first issue of Language Arts under our editorship. In this open-themed issue, we included an article exploring various genres of talk in writers workshop conferences and a reflective piece on the potential of Twitter in the classroom. Our November issue, “Diverse Books,” welcomed a range of voices advocating for more inclusive texts, including an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop, one of the field’s most widely cited children’s literature scholars, and a carefully argued take on research and policy related to diverse books by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.  Our third issue, “Tweens,” featured artwork by and an interview with beloved author for tweens Tom Angleberger. Celebrated author Rita Williams-Garcia’s reflection on her trilogy for tweens also graced the pages, alongside renowned researchers Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston who wrote about the importance of choice and high-interest literature to promote classrooms as engaged reading communities. Our recently published “Viewpoints and Visions” issue includes articles on culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies across grade levels and contexts.

As Co-editors, we are honored to serve in this capacity and to maintain the longstanding tradition of publishing high quality scholarship focusing on language arts teaching and learning related to children of preschool through middle school age.   Within these times marked by profound political unrest and widening inequalities, we believe that the language arts have a central role to play by helping us reach toward a more accepting and equitable society.

Our collective vision for the journal entails three main goals. First, we emphasize children’s literature in a number of ways such as routinely featuring art from picturebooks and novels on the cover of the journal, publishing interviews with notable children’s book authors and illustrators, and having one themed issue annually devoted to some aspect of literature for youth. Second, we try to make even more central the words, experiences, and insights of children as they use language and literacy to navigate, make sense of, and leave their marks on the world.  For example, in classrooms and homes today, young learners are harnessing the tools of digital media to navigate the realm of popular culture while creating their own multimedia productions.  As editors, we embrace these deeply creative and increasingly complex practices of literacy by highlighting the literary, artistic, and analytic work taking place across multiple modalities and contexts. We also prioritize children’s voices and the written and multimodal artifacts young people create. Third, we aim to embed issues related to diversity and social justice throughout the journal. We also feature in the journal perspectives and research that explore the challenges and possibilities of envisioning and enacting “education as the practice of freedom” (hooks, 1994) and the vital role that the language arts may play in this endeavor.  From schools to community sites, from homes to homeless shelters, from street demonstrations to prisons, literacies can profoundly mediate and transform experiences and our understandings of them.

It is our hope that as you engage with the pages of Language Arts that the ideas contained within will inspire you, open up new avenues of thought, and perhaps even provoke a change in a classroom practice or plant the seeds for a fresh way of thinking about literacy, assessment, young children, and the possible role of the language arts to help us realize the democratic promise of education. We invite you to correspond with us on the direction and vision of the journal and to support us in our efforts to make more central the voices and perspectives of students and their teachers as they engage in this important work of the language arts.

We also invite you to write for Language Arts! Please consider adding your voice and perspectives by writing a Feature Article emerging from research you have conducted in school, family, or community settings. You might also consider writing a shorter, more conversational, piece for our Perspectives on Practice column. Visit our website for a description of upcoming calls for manuscripts, including, Reimagining Writers and Writing; Changes in Children’s Literature; Youth Culture(s) and Childhood; Life Lessons: Autobiographies, Biographies, and Memoirs.  Click here for the full calls: http://www.ncte.org/journals/la/call and here for manuscript submission guidelines: http://www.ncte.org/journals/la/write

Reference

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY:                   Routledge.

wandabrooksWanda Brooks is an associate professor of Literacy Education in the College of Education at Temple University.  She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses related to reading theories and literacy instruction.  Her research examines the literary understandings of diverse middle school youth who read African American children’s literature. 

 

jonda_mcnair_photoJonda C. McNair, a former primary grade teacher, is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. She specializes in literature intended for youth with an emphasis on books written by and about African Americans.

 

kelly-wissman_headshot-6Kelly Wissman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Literacy Teaching and Learning at the University at Albany-SUNY. Across her scholarship and teaching she explores how children’s literature, writing, and the arts can create more humanizing and equitable educational spaces. 

Diversifying Our Professional Literature

This post is written by member Rose Peterson. 

rosepetersonI cracked the cover of the school’s grammar textbook, frantically hoping to find something I could salvage for the next day’s required weekly grammar lesson. I located the section on capitalization, a skill that had proven to be a struggle for my students. I was stunned by the answers to Section 12:

  1. Arctic
  2. Irish, Norse
  3. Scandinavian, Celtic
  4. Icelandic, pro-Norwegian

Textbook bias was no longer a distant problem when I looked from the brown faces of my students down to the whitewashed answers in my grammar textbook. In today’s public schools, black students represent approximately 26 percent of students, 50 percent of students here in Milwaukee, and 99 percent of students in my classes, but the majority of curricular materials continue to cater to white audiences. I firmly closed the cover, and thus began my journey of creating meaningful work for my kids from scratch.

The next logical step on this journey was turning to professional literature. While there is something to be gained from everything read, I find reading professional literature to be stickier now that I am teaching in an urban setting. I get excited about what teachers elsewhere are doing with their kids, and I leap to implement those ideas in my own classroom, forgetting that my kids are still learning how to “do school,” to write one-paragraph journals in 10 minutes, to be quiet for longer than 15 seconds at a time. Everything requires serious adaptation. It is exhausting enough to be an urban educator at all—to remain patient in the face of serious behavioral issues, to attend countless IEP meetings and expulsion hearings, to withstand district pressure about failure rates—but creating, or at least adapting, appropriate curriculum on top of the unique everyday strain is the added weight that drives urban teachers back into the comprehension questions in textbooks.

Nonetheless, my frustration is just a glimpse of the reality my kids experience daily when they try to reconcile their experiences in black communities with the white world that dominates the media. They, too, must adapt everything. Nothing is ready-made for young black kids other than the way of the streets.

As the critically conscious, culturally compassionate NCTE members we are, we have done a great job of advocating for adding diverse texts to our classroom libraries, for offering kids alternative realities to those the world may project. What we sometimes forget, though, is that while we fill gaps in young adult literature, many cultural gaps are ever widening in professional literature. We have authors like Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson bringing diverse experiences to classroom libraries across the country. Where are equivalent champions of diversity in the realm of professional literature? There are no Penny Kittles or Kelly Gallaghers or Jeff Wilhelms or Donalyn Millers of the hood.

There may be the occasional book—For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, or classics by authors like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—but other than that, the genre is sparsely populated. We see a handful of rotated lessons, the most popular of which relies upon Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. While the album is truly brilliant, this heavily used lesson concept is not enough. First, as any other teacher, urban teachers have dozens of weeks to fill, and a single album is not enough material to engage students for an entire school year. We need more ideas and inspiration for relevant, culturally responsive curriculum than a single album. Secondly, while this lesson is intended to be relevant to urban students’ lives, my kids do not even listen to Kendrick Lamar. They listen to Lud Foe and Bless Team and Lil Boosie. Well-intentioned as it may be, this “social justice lesson plan” ends up being yet another thing urban teachers have to adapt.

I am not in search of a copy-and-paste curriculum; I am in search of inspiration and ideas that come from a place of understanding about black urban students to help me teach them in ways that help them reach their potential instead of assuming they’re already there.

I want to know it can happen. I want to know I am not crazy for believing in my kids. I want to believe that independent reading and writing workshop and multigenre research projects and self-guided learning can work with my urban, black kids. I want to know I am not the only one struggling to figure out how. In order for this to happen, we must diversify our professional literature just as we have diversified our classroom libraries to reflect the experiences of teachers in diverse environments.

Black kids already know that this world is not kind to them. As their teachers, the least we can do is ensure that our professional literature helps us make our English classrooms welcoming and relevant to their lives.

Rose Peterson is a first-year English teacher at an urban high school in Milwaukee. Follow her @therosepeterson.

Making a Deep Connection

This post is written by member Aaron McNabb. 

aaronmcnabbAs an educator, selecting a book to read for class can be a difficult task. There are so many questions to answer: is it a good fit for my students? What themes do I want to teach? Will my students connect with the story? This barely scratches the surface, and of course there are many other questions that a special education teacher must ask.

Getting struggling readers interested is challenge number one. I wanted a book that students would connect with, that has a strong protagonist, and that is ultimately an interesting story. Fortunately, I found a book that meets many of the criteria I had in mind: The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir by Farah Ahmedi.

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Ahmedi experiences unimaginable challenges that many of us in the western world would never encounter. She becomes disabled after stepping on a landmine, and then lives under Taliban rule. During the war between the Mujahideen and Taliban, she loses her family in a mortar attack. To save her life she seeks refuge in Pakistan, but unfortunately, living in a United Nations refugee camp is nearly as dangerous as living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ultimately, she comes to the United States, but that brings on a host of other challenges.

I prefaced our study of the book by making sure that students in my class had a solid background on the history and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An understanding of the Taliban, Sharia law, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and UN refugee camps was going to be necessary to understand the book. To become acquainted with the setting and historical context, we read articles about these topics, looked at maps, watched video clips, and examined pictures.

It was eye opening for my students to learn about Sharia law, particularly about how women are treated under such circumstances. According to Ahmedi, after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, women were required to wear chadaris (or burqas) while in public. The students were shaken to learn that women were denied education, were not allowed to drive, and were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort.

After class one day a student expressed to me how lucky she felt to have access to an education. This wasn’t just a comment to appease me; this struck a deep nerve in her. It’s these exchanges in a classroom that make teaching so worthwhile.

While reading the book, my students marveled at Farah Ahmedi’s resilience and connected to her struggle. One student was a childhood cancer survivor who missed critical years of literacy development in kindergarten and first grade. She was a struggling reader, but Farah’s story brought out a confidence I had not yet seen. She started participating in readings and discussions for the first time all year.

On January 28, President Trump signed an executive order that banned refugees from entering the Unites States. The following Monday students came back to school and were shocked by the news. Coincidentally, we were reading about the vetting process that Farah was experiencing while trying to seek refugee status in America. We discussed how people like Farah were being barred from entering the United States. Emotions ran high in my class, but it was a pleasure watching the passion and connection these students were making between the real world and the memoir they were reading.

We finished the book several days later. Over the course of the reading, students formed a strong emotional attachment to Farah and her story. They wanted to know more and more about her and started asking me questions I could not answer. We looked her up on the Internet and found her website. Ultimately we discovered that she does motivational speeches to students across the country. This was the beginning of our effort to bring Farah to our school. We are fundraising now and getting closer to the goal.

Aaron McNabb is a seventh-grade special education teacher. He teaches English in a pull-out and inclusive model at the Amesbury Middle School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This is his ninth year working with students with disabilities.

Read Across America and Dr. Seuss Texts

raa-2017-web-ad_180x150Take part in the largest reading event in the United States on Thursday, March 2! Gather books and readers for NEA’s Read Across America Day, celebrated on or around the birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The books of Dr. Seuss are easy to integrate into the classroom:

Hop on Pop provides simple rhymes to help beginner reading, such as a character named Pat who sits on a hat, a cat, a bat and must not sit on that (which is a cactus). Through the contrast of short-vowel patterns and use of Dr. Seuss rhymes, students apply their knowledge of vowel sounds in reading and spelling new words in the lesson plan, “Teaching Short-Vowel Discrimination Using Dr. Seuss Rhymes“.

Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?: Dr. Seuss’s Book of Wonderful Noises! was written so children would be able to learn about onomatopoeia and the sounds that they hear every day. Boom! Br-r-ring! Cluck! Moo! In the lesson plan, “Dr. Seuss’s Sound Words: Playing with Phonics and Spelling” students use these sounds to write their own poems based on this book.

In Green Eggs and Ham, a character known as “Sam-I-Am” pesters an unnamed character to eat a dish of green eggs and ham. In the lesson plan, “Reading Everywhere with Dr. Seuss” young readers celebrate all the places they can read by creating a classroom book modeled after Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

The Lorax chronicles the plight of the environment and the Lorax (a mossy, bossy man-like creature resembling an emperor tamarin), who speaks for the trees against the greedy Once-ler. In “Using Picture Books to Teach Plot Development and Conflict Resolution” students explore the concepts of plot development and conflict resolution through focused experiences with picture books. A great example conflict passage comes from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax where the Lorax describes the plight of the Brown Bar-ba-loots.

In The Butter Battle Book, the conflict between the Yooks and the Zooks over which side of bread to spread butter on leads to an arms race, each competing to make bigger and nastier weapons to outdo the other, which results in the threat of mutual assured destruction. This lesson plan uses the Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book as an accessible introduction to satire. Reading, discussing, and researching this picture book paves the way for a deeper understanding of Gulliver’s Travels.

The Cat in the Hat brings his companions, Thing One and Thing Two, to a household of two young children one rainy day. Chaos ensues while the children wonder how they are going to explain what happens to their mother. This book is is used as a primer to teach students how to analyze a literary work using plot, theme, characterization, and psychoanalytical criticism in the lesson plan, “Id, Ego, and Superego in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat“.

The Zax” is part of The Sneetches and Other Stories in which a North-going Zax and a South-going Zax meet face to face in the Prairie of Prax. They refuse to move out of the way for one another and end up staying there. This story teaches the value of compromise. In this ReadWriteThink.org lesson plan, older students will read “The Zax” and analyze the way social issues are addressed. Students can then discuss how these issues relate to the conflicts and social issues in their own lives.

How do you plan to celebrate Dr. Seuss and Read Across America?

Teaching Resistance in Unjust Times

This post is written by NCTE Historian Jonna Perillo. 

jonnaperrilloLike many of you, I took pleasure in reading the many reports that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had risen in sales by 10,000 percent in the weeks following the election. If there was any good news to be found, knowing that many more Americans were reading Orwell’s critique of “newspeak” and authoritarian rule was it.

As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I wondered how many of those readers were teachers. 1984 has long been canonical high school reading, but even short novels often have been sacrificed in the expediency game of standardized curricula and testing. My not so secret hope is that English teachers are going off the rails, assigning Orwell’s work as a necessary act of resistance against both political “doublethink” and a mindless approach to teaching.

It would mark an important change if so. I have heard from many teachers over the last several months—some I know, many I don’t—that they strive to be apolitical in their work. They see how some of texts they teach respond to world events, but some teachers try not to entertain explicitly political conversations even so. This wasn’t always the way.

During both world wars, teachers were required to politicize their work. In a 1942 document entitled “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) outlined the ways in which English instruction should work as a tool of resistance against the enemy and a means to promote a sense of national unity.

Some of this work was ideological and restrictive. Teachers were expected to assign “patriotic literature” that “proclaimed” and “interpreted” (but did not critique or examine the limitations of) democratic life. Yet they were also expected to be more inclusive and to teach works that recognized “the rights and contributions of minorities in this country . . . and those loyal aliens who may be under suspicion at the moment because of descent from enemy nations.”[1] Textbook adoptions and district curricular plans indicate that this happened less often than it should have, but NCTE’s goal for diversity was important nevertheless.

Recently, I have heard many stories of young students who have asked their teachers why the president hates them. In communities across the nation, students suddenly feel under attack. To this, what do we say? What is the role of the English teacher in unjust times?

We live in a different historical moment from that of the mid-twentieth century, one in which politics in the classroom feels both more complex and riskier. But as the skyrocketing sales of 1984 might indicate, more and more, many find avoiding politics an untenable position to hold.

Reading another classic by Orwell, his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” offers humanities teachers a compelling tool for change. In it, Orwell dissects how language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” “Bad hombres” is not just a juvenile phrase; its linguistic carelessness captures the laziness of the totalizing and inaccurate assumptions it describes.

Orwell shows that language is often used in a “curiously dishonest way” to produce “a reduced state of consciousness . . . [and] political conformity.” Say the phrase “alternative facts” often enough, he would argue, and people just might believe such a thing could exist. Readers and listeners must always be on guard for flat metaphors and empty, recycled phrases that are purposely devoid of meaning. All discourage real thought.

In contrast, Orwell positions the language-conscious writer as a “rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’” Ours is an especially important time for students to read a rich tradition of rebellious writing in this country—fiction and nonfiction—and to see how both the ideas and the expression of those ideas differ from the status quo.

Orwell implicitly challenges the kind of easy, patriotic sentiment that was central to the politicization of teaching during World War II. But it also reminds of us why NCTE’s push toward inclusion, at a time concurrent with Jim Crow laws and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, was a meaningful statement of resistance. What might such meaningful statements look like now? And to whom should our students be addressing them?

I suspect the return to 1984 is a sign of Americans’ search for a resistance handbook. Teachers, especially, have needed such a thing for a long time. If our current political climate is useful for anything, it might compel us to consider just how much has been lost in a laser focus on standardization that has asked teachers to conform to expedient, simplistic ideas about language, reading, and writing.

No student should feel like their president hates them. But all students should feel like their teachers are their allies. The most important way we can do this is to enable our students to become more adept and aware thinkers and people. Teaching English is all the more meaningful a pursuit in these unjust times.

[1] National Council of Teachers of English Planning Commission, “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” box 1, record series 15/73/803, NCTE Archives, Urbana, IL.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.