This is the husband. I have been asked to contribute a guest post this week, and because I am a supporting husband I will do my best to help out and not to destroy all of the pedagogical credibility that my wife has sought to establish on this site.
Full disclosure: I am not an expert in YA lit, and beyond the Harry Potter series I have read very little of it. My wife is possibly scraping from the bottom of the barrel by resorting to my contributions, but she does always remind me that my sense of humor is exactly the same as that of her freshmen boys. And then she rolls her eyes.
I do teach, though, so I’ve got that going for me. We spent the early years of our marriage teaching high school together (I teach Spanish, she: English). A decade, two continents, three states, and five houses later (and graduate school for both of us somewhere in there) I am now teaching at a small liberal arts college and amassing an impressive array of cardigans and corduroy jackets with elbow patches. You can always judge the erudition of a person by their sweaters and elbow patches. At least that’s what I tell myself.
So, qualifications established, I shall commence my contribution to this blog.
I primarily teach Spanish classes in our World Languages & Cultures department, but one of my favorite courses to teach is our First Year Seminar course for entering students. My course is generically titled “An Intro to Critical Thinking through Chican@ Literature,” and we cover a variety of topics pertinent to the liberal arts all through the lens of Chican@ writings. My students are predominantly white, from the surrounding area, and very often first generation college students. For many, this is their first exposure to Chican@ history and readings, and I have been very pleased with our discussions and interactions in class this fall. I am impressed with how quickly the students have been able to move from relative ignorance on the issue to embracing it as another aspect of the American experience that is unique but not so different from their own lives.
Currently I am teaching Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), the groundbreaking Chican@ novel that has received significant critical and cultural acclaim in the 40+ years since its first publication. I would like to say that I have some incredibly creative lesson plans that I executed perfectly and I received a standing ovation from my students after each class. That is not the case. What has impressed me has been my students’ insights and discussions.
Since the First Year Seminar course is designed for first semester students at our institution, it is a course that lays much groundwork for the students as to what to expect from their college classes and what is expected of them. With these parameters in mind, I have made it a priority in my class to make students feel comfortable contributing to, participating in, and leading class discussions. I believe that if they can become comfortable with contributing to in-class conversations on a regular basis, then they will be able to get the most out of their college courses. We all know that these are not skills that are limited to a college classroom - they are desired for any level classroom, and are essentially desirable skills for community/civic participation and involvement.
To accomplish these goals of classroom interaction, I have modeled throughout the semester how to approach a text: What are some textual elements we are looking at?; What questions arise?; What questions are you left with?; How does this relate back to our lives? I got us started by leading discussion on the first few chapters and then I passed it over to small groups. They were responsible for creating the questions we would discuss in class and for guiding our approach to that chapter/section. Many times the groups have hit the same points that I would have. Quite often, I have been surprised by their insight into a point that I overlooked. Each time, I feel like the group has taken ownership of the discussion and genuinely wanted the rest of the class to understand the importance of their selected chapters.
This approach may well not work with younger high-school students. I am dealing with 18 year olds and they do have (some) more maturity than 13 year olds. But the moral of the story comes from the fact that I tend to be a control freak in the classroom. I like to micromanage every minute and make sure that I have plenty of activities to fill the class-time; however, I have learned that when I am able to release that desire to control and direct each component of class discussions, and when I hand that responsibility over to my students, I am often amazed by their responses and participation.
So, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful book to teach. There was a film adaptation made that just came out on DVD this fall and offers some great text-to-film comparisons. One of the greatest resources is the National Endowment for the Humanities' “The Big Read” pages. It comes complete with a teacher’s guide with sample lesson plans, discussion questions, and useful handouts. There is also a reader’s guide that offers history and context to the novel, and there is an audio guide and short documentary to accompany the novel. All wonderful resources.
Our class has approached the novel through the themes that it raises. Bless Me, Ultima lends itself well to discussions of myths, symbols, place, maturity, religion, critical thinking, and others. We spent a day talking about the place of myths in society and how they function for good and bad within our culture. Place is always a topic that my students can relate to, even though the hills of the Shenandoah Valley are quite different than the Llano of New Mexico. My students often feel very tied to their hometown and so can relate very well to the importance of setting and place in the novel.
Most importantly, I have found that Antonio’s coming-of-age narration is an excellent starting point for discussions on critical thinking and the process of learning. For these reasons, I think that it is an excellent book for students at a transition point in their lives, such as starting or finishing high school or college. Antonio must incorporate new knowledge into his understanding of the world, and this process is one that models critical reflection and intellectual growth.
So, when my wife discovers how I have tarnished the good name of her blog through my own lackluster writing, I may never be invited back to write a guest post again. I hope that the damage done is not irreparable. I promise, your regularly scheduled blogger will be back very soon! In the meantime, give Bless Me, Ultima a look.
Bonus: Below is the trailer for the 2013 film adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima.
"Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed,but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.' Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars." ~page 111
I realized recently that I did not have a book review of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars on this site, and I instantly thought, "How is that POSSIBLE?!?" I eventually came to the conclusion that I had read the book shortly before beginning this blog, which probably explains the oversight.
Anyway, I'll begin this with a long overdue review of the novel. I should start by admitting that I had ABSOLUTELY NO desire to read this book. I hadn't read John Green at all at that point (a sad oversight that I've been working on since that time), but even if I had known what a great writer he was, I still would have been reluctant to read this particular story. Everyone at school who was raving about the book would sum it up by saying that it was an amazing love story of two kids who had cancer, and that it was heartbreaking. Yuck. I was repulsed for a couple of major reasons: (1) I HATE feeling manipulated by authors, and this (very BRIEF and INADEQUATE) summary sounded like the perfect recipe for profound reader manipulation. (2) My mother died of cancer nine years ago, and while I thought (at the time) that it would be enlightening for some people to read about what cancer is like, I had my own life experience all too fresh in my memory and did not feel that I needed any help understanding it.
But then the faculty book club at school selected the novel, and I found myself reading it despite my objections. I'm SO GLAD I did.
It's true that it's a book about two teens who have cancer--but really it's a book about two brilliant, hilarious, painfully teenager-y kids who are trying to figure out life just like everyone else. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are two phenomenal young people, and they remind me so much of some of the amazing teenagers I've had the chance to know and work with over the past ten years--infinitely intelligent, snarky and optimistic, frighteningly unaware of the larger world. Hazel and Gus also have an obsession with an author, which leads them on all kinds of adventures. They are complex but loveable, and they live and love and discover so much that we, the readers, can't help but experience their adventures and suffering with them. Both Hazel and Gus suffer, but it is precisely their understanding of their illness that makes them such kindred spirits:
"Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile." (Green 213-14)
John Green does a phenomenal job of showing the inglorious nature of illness--the way that it strips people of even the honor of dying with dignity. He shows the profound impact sickness has on relationships, and the way that people (especially children) who are sick are isolated from the rest of the world by imaginary lines they can neither entirely understand nor control. But what I love most about this novel is that Green does not write a story about cancer; he writes a story about two teenagers who fall in love. It's a remarkable journey, and amazingly uplifting. More than my own testimony, I judge the success of this novel by the innumerable students who have read and passed along the single copy I own. As a testament to the well-loved nature of the book, notice the tattered edges of the cover in the image above. They all love it; lots of them are counting down to the release of the film in this coming June.
Reasons to teach this novel (and activities you might want to do with it):
"You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect." ~page 112
It's here again! The celebratory opening event happened yesterday, and we, along with thousands of other Valley residents as well as visitors from other areas, rushed to the location out in the middle of corn and cow pastures to search the entire warehouse before everything new and popular had disappeared.
Yes, all of you from the Valley already probably guessed it--it is yet again time for the Green Valley Book Fair. (Thanks to Richmond Magazine for the photo, which shows just how amazing of an experience this event is.) For those of you who have not been fortunate enough to experience this extravaganza firsthand, let me just say that this event happens six times a year, and it is a gigantic warehouse full of books that have been reduced to 60%-90% of the original price. There are two huge floors with over 500,000 books, and they cover every genre you could possible imagine. It is a book event unlike anything I have experienced prior to moving here. Sound too great to pass up? It's open through October 20th! Can't make it by there this month? Don't worry, there's still one more opening this year from November 29th through December 15th.
This time, we actually made it out there on the first day of the sale, which means that I was able to pick up a new set of the Beautiful Creatures series for myself and a friend as well as a box set of The Lord of the Rings plus the Hobbit. When I first started going, I had virtually no idea what was popular in the young adult literature world, and I was overwhelmed. Each time I go, I learn more about what's popular, as well as the range of Young Adult literature now available to our students. By now, I'm starting to feel like a trained professional going in there ready to peruse the thousands of books with a keen eye, able to discern which purchases would best serve the students and enhance my classroom library.
Among this weekend's finds was The Shining, which I'm glad to provide since the long-awaited sequel by Stephen King, Dr. Sleep, has now come out. Last time I went, they had several of Cassandra Clare's books, including the first of her Infernal Devices series. This time, there were a couple more of the Mortal Instruments series, which I'm glad to add to my collection. I was also thrilled to find A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, which I heard about on NPR. I was glad to find more by Lisa McMann since I have several students currently completely obsessed with her books. After hearing Phyllis Renolds Naylor at the National Book Fair, I was glad to pick up one of the books in her Alice series. I was also thrilled to find more of Matt de la Peña's work, and I was glad to pick up books by Jenny Han and Kristin Cast, since several students have been talking about both of those authors. I'm still anxious to get a hold of copies of Lauren Oliver's books, which I loved and which have been a raging success with students. I'm also on the look out for Matt Quick's work after seeing him speak in DC at the National Book Fair.
As far as this weekend's finds, I'm already halfway through Love is the Higher Law by David Lavithan, and I'm loving it. Next up (after I finish the other 2 books I'm currently reading), Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories collection Interpreter of Maladies followed by A Long Walk to Water and the next book in the Cassandra Clare series. I also need to read OCD Love Story next week, which we're discussing in our faculty book club soon. So many books--so little time! My list keeps growing.
Here's a full list (in addition to Beautiful Creatures and the Tolkien box set) of what I bought for my classroom library this time:
Atwater-Rhodes, Amelia Persistence of Memory
Atwater-Rhodes, Amelia The Den of Shadows Quartet
Bissinger, H. G. Friday Night Lights
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Chosen
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Betrayed
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Marked
Chbosky, Stephen The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Clare, Cassandra City of Ashes (The Immortal Instruments: Book 2)
Clare, Cassandra City of Lost Souls (The Immortal Instruments: Book 5)
de la Peña, Matt Mexican White Boy
de la Peña, Matt We Were Here
Han, Jenny It's Not Summer Without You
Han, Jenny The Summer I Turned Pretty
King, Stephen The Shining
Lahiri, Jhumpa Interpreter of Maladies
Levithan, David Love is the Higher Law
McMann, Lisa Dead to You
Mitchard, Jacqueline Look Both Ways
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds Incredibly Alice
Park, Linda Sue A Long Walk to Water
Walls, Jeannette The Glass Castle
Woods, Elizabeth Choker
Almost all of these books were selected because of student recommendations or because I had read and loved other books by the authors. For more information about good young adult literature for the classroom, check out the other YA lit posts. Coming soon, there will be a page on the site with all of the books that I have in my classroom library as well as a list of those that I have read and taught. I can't wait to get these new books onto the shelves and into the hands of students!
Also, as another factor that makes the Book Fair amazing, they are now selling copies of the Broadway High School 2013 literary magazine! We have some copies left over, so they are willing to give selling them a try. If it goes well, we can order more next year with the intent of partnering with them to sell to the wider community! For more information about the literary magazine, see this post. The distribution of the magazine to a wider audience, along with the students' web pages (which can be accessed through the class web page), is really teaching them about writing to a real audience and it's giving them exposure to the publication process.
I met Joyce Carol Oates. In real life. I actually spoke to her. And, even more miraculous, she spoke to me. It happened unexpectedly--because of the extra hour it took us to find a place to park, we'd missed her speaking. We (Jen Moyers, another English teacher, and I) watched D. T. Max speak about his experiences with David Foster Wallace as he wrote Wallace's biography and then wandered over to the food trucks on the far end of the National Mall only to discover on our way there that Oates' line for signatures was disgracefully short. We jumped right in line, and before we knew it, we were there in her presence, giddy and bumbling as we tried to convey the phenomenal impact that she has had on our lives and the lives of our students. She was gracious and kind and she asked us where we were from and we rambled on about books and stories that we'd loved. It was a glorious moment.
Later that afternoon, I had the privilege of seeing Khaled Hosseini speak. He was interviewed by one of NPR's Fresh Air hosts, and he talked about his latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, as well as about his experiences in general, his novels, and his perspective on the world. He was a phenomenal speaker and it was such an honor to stand with thousands of other people who were there to show support and to listen to his wisdom and brilliance. When asked about his characters and morality, Hosseini said, "He's a good guy. He's a bad guy. To me, that's not interesting. It's the coexistence of those two entities within a person that is interesting." Hosseini talked about moral ambiguity and about the quest to do what is right. He spoke of how his works have evolved into more complex explorations of people who are neither all good nor all bad, but who are capable of both.
When asked about his writing process, Hosseini spoke about the images that come to him and the way that those images spark stories. For example, he said that Kite Runner came from the image of two boys participating in a kite running competition. Someone asked him about those images and how long he lets them simmer or resonate before acting on them. As he reflected on the writing process, Hosseini said, "It's more an act of discovery than an act of creation. It's as if the story is already there, waiting to be discovered." He spoke about the hopes that he has for a world where people better understand each other, and he commented with humility and grace on the honor he has had to speak on behalf of the Afgani people who are so poorly understood and frequently exploited by the western world. His words were powerful and they resonated with authenticity and sincerity. I cannot wait to read his latest novel!
This all occurred on Sunday of the book festival, on Saturday, we took 18 students from our high school to participate in the book fair. They were excited to be in DC and to see famous authors, but most of them were primarily there to see Veronica Roth. We all read Divergent by Roth as our school read last year, and it was well-received by the students, many of whom plowed through that novel at light speed and then read Insurgent as quickly as they could get their hands on a copy of it. To read more about how I used Divergent in class, see this post. The students waited over 2 hours in line without a single complaint to get Veronica Roth's autograph. They were thrilled to meet her and said that she was kind and personable.
We all went over to the teen tent (amid a torrential downpour) to see Roth speak. Her tent was packed to the brim. As she came on stage, the kids screamed and screamed like she was a rock star. Students chanted and shouted things like, "We love you, Veronica!" It was such a joy to see how much admiration and love teenagers could have for an author.
Roth spoke about the way that Tris, her main character, grew as she herself grew as a writer. She talked about her process, and how she wrote the scenes with Tris and Four first because she knew that the story was one that would be told through them together. She gave the kids lots of good advice about writing, including telling them to choose carefully to whom they gave their precious creative work, so that they would find people who would support and encourage them while also ensuring that they could grow.
Prior to our Divergent adventures, my group got to listen to Matthew Quick speak. I haven't had a chance to read his work yet, but after listening to him speak, I can't wait to read his latest works. He talked about being a voice-driven writer, and he talked about the way that he discovered the story by listening to the voice of his narrator. He also talked about Silver Linings Playbook, and how while he would have described the book in many ways, he would never have said that it was a book about mental health. However, he said, he was so happy that his novel had brought about some open and honest discussions about mental health and the way that our society is unwilling to confront it.
Both days were so inspirational, and it was one of the many times that I counted myself lucky and thrilled to be living so close to DC. It was an awesome experience that neither I nor our students will soon forget. (Photos and links to the Library of Congress video recordings coming soon!)
“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
From the first moment that I heard about the novel Warm Bodies, I was intrigued. To me, the premise is fascinating. Isaac Marion takes two major writing tropes (zombie apocalypse AND star-crossed lovers) and marries them, producing a riveting new kind of fiction. I love novels that are both gritty and tender--ones that delve into complex characters and explore all sides of them (and we all know that I love works focusing on apocalyptic scenarios). While I've read/watched lots of zombie tales, I had never read one prior to this novel that explored the psyche of the zombie, or that presented the zombie as emotional and complex. I love the way that Marion explores issues of identity, memory, alienation, loneliness, and grief. The best part? "R," the main character, has a wry sense of humor that is deadly. The first line of the novel demonstrates his wit: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it."
R often addresses the audience directly when he talks, which creates an interesting effect. Right away, R reflects on names as he talks to the reader: "I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries..." R goes on to reflect on the significance of names as part of identity and culture: "But it does make me sad that we've forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else's, because I'd like to love them, but I don't know who they are."
R's stunning eloquence as a narrator is juxtaposed with his utter inability to articulate his thoughts verbally. He struggles to say simple words and phrases. After trying to communicate with Julie, who is human, R states his frustration: "Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.” What I love about Marion's prose is the captivating beauty with which he expresses the conundrum of communication. While R's struggles have to do with his undead state, he also articulates what so many people (perhaps teenagers most especially) experience when they try to share their thoughts with others. I want to change my punctuation. Ah, if that isn't beautiful, self-reflexive language, I don't know what is.
Despite my love of the novel, I was quite skeptical that my students would enjoy it. The text is much more difficult than many YA novels (in fact, it would probably not be classified as YA, though many people pushed it since the movie is definitely geared toward teens). The plot (despite the whole zombie thing) moves rather slowly. Additionally, the end, while functional, raises lots of questions. However, as with all novels I read and want to share, I put it to the test by placing it in the classroom library, and I found it to be a wild success. There was a waiting list for it, and I could never keep it on the shelf. Students who aren't crazy about reading seemed to handle it relatively well, and they enjoyed it.
If you're considering teaching a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel, this one might be a good choice for a variety of reasons. First, the syntax and style of the novel beg closer study. Additionally, Marion provokes thought about complex issues of identity, alienation, and the determination to live despite horrifying circumstances. I would consider teaching Warm Bodies in advanced upper level classes (such as AP Lang or AP Lit) because of the syntactical structure as well as the complex questions that it raises about what makes life valuable. It would also be a great text to study along side of the film because the film version made some drastic changes (including sparing the life of a major character). You could explore the way that audience impacts storytelling and consider why Hollywood producers might soften the grittier parts of a novel for a teen movie audience. Additionally, Marion creates parallels between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and his own novel (which I discussed here), and that paired reading would be fun to explore as well.
“Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.”
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.