You Want Me to Do What?
Getting student readers to engage with social issues is not beyond the scope of teaching, but it may not be possible to do well. Stover, Bach, and Carver demonstrate how YA literature can easily be paired with social justice issues and why such a pairing should be part of the English language arts curriculum. Students who read about social injustice and then have a means by which to act then experience a “transformative power that surpasses the mere reading of these texts” (177). Creating action from reading allows students to “latch onto … [an] abstract issue” (178). In addition, “listening to the stories of others … is the first step in building empathy … tolerance … [and] … appreciation for, the diversity” of our world (182). The authors even include three general lesson plans to engage students in reading and activism. In addition Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the danger of the single narrative and how reading a variety of perspectives can help readers better understand the real world. The idea of multiple narratives is the plan that Stover, Bach, and Carver advocate.
Unfortunately, while all scholarship shows that such an authentic approach to reading results in positive short and long term results, such as increasing student motivation to read and engagement with the text and social justice issues, I cannot endorse this practice until teachers have the time they need to plan lessons on their own and with others, and I most certainly cannot endorse this approach until legislators realize that teaching and learning are part of a different set of benchmarks that cannot necessarily be measured through a schedule of rigorous testing that makes students AND teachers hate school.
If I had more courage, I would have done what my former colleague and good friend did. I would have ignored what the district office said and continued to teach with engaging texts, spending money to ensure I had the books for my students and ignoring all mandates regarding the curriculum I was supposed to teach to English language learners. She was able, by ignoring the district requirements, to get almost all of her low scoring students to pass the state exams. She used YA lit, scaffolded lessons, and interesting lessons (such as using Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans) to engage all students in, if not becoming life long readers, then at least becoming readers while in her class.
Until the district office wardens walked into her classroom a year or so ago, saw she was not using the approved curriculum of computers and readers, and determined that she had better use the program or be reprimanded.
If I had more courage, time, and money, I would have used books to create a reading community in my classroom. Sadly, the only thing the district seems to care about is test scores, and the district wardens and legislators fail to understand that to create a community of readers one requires time, energy, and money dedicated to getting books and giving teachers more planning and fewer students so they can create cross-curricular units that engage and motivate students to explore challenging issues.
If I had more courage, I would have led a revolution. Instead, I left. I became a college professor, and now I see how pay for performance is slowly penetrating the state university system. My college was going to lose $6 million of its BASE operating budget because it was not graduating students within three years; it takes our students five years because many work multiple jobs while supporting a family and going to school, but they do graduate. With much lobbying we lost ONLY $2 million of our base budget and considered ourselves lucky.
I am preaching to the choir, as we say in the South. The research is clear, the lessons are available for development, teachers and students desperately want an end to high stakes testing, and everyone wants our citizens to be lifelong readers and learners. Books have power. Unfortunately, those in charge have forgotten that it is the books that change lives, not the endless testing cycles they have created.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedTalk, 7 Oct. 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.
Stover, Lois T., Jacqueline Back, and C. J. Carver. “Activism, Service-Learning, Social Awareness, and Young Adult Literature.” Teaching Young Adult Literature Today: Insights, Considerations and Perspectives for the Classroom Teacher, second edition, edited by Judith A. Hayn, Jeffrey S. Kaplan, and Karina R. Clemmons, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, pp. 175-190.