OpEd: Young Adult Lit and the Classroom

A few years back I was asked by a dear friend if I teach the classics and I answered with an young adultemphatic “No!” He scrunched up his face, tilted his head to the side and replied “Why not?” I sighed and then prepared myself for explaining why I feel like some of the writings of dead white men end up alienating many students of color and why, if I want my students to learn to enjoy reading, I teach using mostly YA books.

In his article titled “Young Adult Literature in the Classroom – Or is it?” for the English Journal, author John H. Bushman argues that teachers give students a watered down version of many classical texts (specifically in the middle school setting) so that students can understand the novel, yet do not encourage students to read for pleasure after they are done teaching. The students read the books, some may enjoy them, and choose books they think their teachers will approve of for book reports, but often do not read for their own pleasure. Bushman contends that teachers do not instill a love of reading in their students to become lifelong readers. Instead, teachers share a literary heritage and that’s where reading stops.

I happen to agree with Bushman as I felt the situation he described was my reading experience in middle and high school. If I wasn’t a reader before those formative years, then I probably wouldn’t be a reader now. Many times I would read the required number of pages per night and then spend hours reading a book I wanted to read. I was lucky, in that my parents supported my reading habit. When I decided to become a teacher, I wanted the opposite reading experience for my students.

I currently teach in a low socio-economic area and many of my students do not have books at home, whether it is because reading is not encouraged in the home, or the parents can’t afford the books. Either way, my goal in the classroom is to find books that the students can connect to, is not a watered down version, and books that will hopefully lead my students to become lifelong readers. I chose books that are culturally diverse as well as try to change up genders so my students are exposed to a wide variety of authors and novels. Will all my students enjoy every single book I chose? Of course not, but through my book list, I hope they will find an author, genre, or style that they like and on their own time choose to find similar works.

Teens are hungry for well-written books and with the explosion of YA literature, there is literally no end to the options for teens to read. My students enjoy sharing their books with me (I read the entire Percy Jackson series at the request of students) and they want to talk about their interests with adults. Often times they can’t talk to their parents, but talking with a teacher who loves books too and is willing to read/accepting of YA literature? They love it. This is how lifelong readers are created and this is my goal in the classroom.

To that end, here is my book list for my 8th grade English/Language Arts class: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan as we study the mono-myth; Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson as they study the American Revolution in their history class and discuss the concept of freedom and fighting for their rights in ELA; Romeo & Juliet and Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper, as the students will compare the themes of the play and the book to understand why Shakespeare is so timeless; Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as they start to think about behaviors they will be exposed to in high school, and The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, which jumps off of the previous topic. My Honors class will also read Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Acorn People by Ron Jones.

If you kept count, my Honors students will be reading eight books and my regular students will be reading six books. In actuality it will be nine books for the Honors students and seven for my regular students as I’m starting out the school year with a bit of an experiment, that actually is going very well. The first book the students are reading this year is their choice. They are studying the elements of fiction and I thought it would be interesting for each student to read and study a novel they are interested in. This experiment has created some scared students, but mostly excited students. Students who are already eager to read their books. Students who have been able to share what they’re interested in with me and with their classmates. Students who don’t feel like they have to read a certain type of book to please their teacher. Students who are excited to read.

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