Our students come back on Tuesday! We've had meetings since last Tuesday, so at this point, the thought of having class, and of getting into the normal routine, seems exceedingly blissful. I intended to post about back to school/ first day activities today, but after staring at my screen for a while, I decided that is a post for the near future. Today, I'd like to reflect on young adult literature that I discovered during summer reading this year.
This is the list of what I read from YA Lit this summer:
I couldn't say that I didn't enjoy any of these. They were all excellent novels. In fact, I was beginning to worry that I would reduce my credibility on Goodreads with my recent high ratings. I've given pretty much everything I've read this summer four or five stars. However, I realized eventually that the seemingly inflated ratings come from the fact that all of those books were recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste.
That brings me around to recommendations. I've discovered in the past year that talking with kids about books is the number one way to get them to read. I read things and tell my students about them; the next thing I know, they are reading them for themselves. They make their own judgments--I particularly enjoy it when a student plows through a book that I loved and then tells me that s/he did or did not particularly like specific things about it.
My thoughts about the books from this summer:
Lauren Oliver is brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed discovering her writing this summer. Her narrators are complex and challenging, and she moves forward at a riveting speed that leaves the reader breathless. I think (despite my initial doubts during the first 100 or so pages) I ultimately liked Before I Fall better than the Delirium series, but both were amazing reads that have been enjoyed by my students as well as me.
Saenz is a phenomenal writer and his story poignantly and directly attacks the struggles that teenage boys encounter when they discover that they are a bit different from their peers. It's a story of loneliness, self-discovery, and compassion, and I loved every minute of it.
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a hilarious, insightful story with a brilliant narrative voice. It moves quickly and is a great read for teens navigating the complex pathways of social networks in high school, as well as those who are struggling with the illness of a friend or family member. It's honest and sheds an authentic light on the hilarity and absurdity of life as well as the complexities of the human experience.
I just finished Bitterblue, and I can't say enough about how much I love the world that Kristin Cashore created. She thoroughly engrosses her reader in the fantasy world of seven kingdoms (with another world accessible only through tunnels). What I particularly like about those books is the continuity of progressive thinking and strong female narrators throughout each of the novels. I also love the way that the novels complement one another while telling unique, fascinating stories. Though I loved all three novels, I found Bitterblue the most powerful as Cashore reveals through that novel the long lasting impact of a devastating tyrant and the challenges that people face in the aftermath of such a horrible experience.
John Green's novel was brilliant--funny, moving, and perfect for teen readers who are feeling alone and learning to relate to the world and their friends. This is an awesome story about the unlikely meeting of two very different teenage boys who discover that they have some things in common. It's an excellent book for teenagers who are dealing with relationship issues, loneliness, sexuality issues, or depression. It's simply a great novel for readers who are looking for a fun read about the struggles of "normal" teenage life.
Marie Lu's series is AWESOME! I love the alternating narrators and the way that their lives intertwine. The story itself is compelling, and Lu unveils her post-apocalyptic, dystopian world bit by bit in a way that keeps the story ever suspenseful and intriguing. They are excellent reads and are among the best of the genre that I've read so far.
I loved, loved, loved Hold Still. It was raw and honest about the devastation that people experience in the wake of suicide. However, what makes it remarkable is the way that LaCour shows with candor and authenticity how art and love and reflection can bring about healing and remembrance. It is a story of bravery and hope, and it addresses mental illness and self harm in a way that is approachable for teen readers as well as adults.
Finally, I will end with the book that began my summer. The Dog Stars is a phenomenal book. It took me quite a while to get into that one, but it was well worth the wait. It is a brilliant book that shows the desire to keep living in a post-apocalyptic world where virtually nothing is left. The narration is powerful with curt, broken syntax and sharp realities depicted in single word phrases. “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.” This is a remarkable story, and it would be a good one to teach in an advanced or AP class.
Well, this has turned out to be longer than I anticipated... I loved the novels I read this summer (almost as much as I loved the summer itself), and I can't wait to share them with the students this coming week. Best wishes to all of you fellow teachers as you settle in to a new year with your students.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Thank you so much for all of the emails and comments regarding this post and the materials I created. As of 9/4/14, the materials are now available on TeachersPayTeachers at my (newly created) store, Teaching the Apocalypse. Please check it out and download the materials from there (you'll have to create an account to download the materials). If they are useful to you, please RATE THEM on this page, and leave comments. You can FOLLOW ME on TpT, where I will soon post more materials and activities.
"We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another."
As you are likely aware, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a young adult dystopian novel that was first released in April of 2011. The second in the series, Insurgent, was released in May of 2012. According to my students, the next book, Allegiant, will be released in October of this year. The first novel, which is what I will focus on in this post, revolves around the choices that a teenage girl must make as she moves toward adulthood. It is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the society is divided into factions based on which attribute they most value (bravery, truth, peace, knowledge, or selflessness). At the beginning of the book, the main character must choose her faction, and once she makes that choice, she must learn to live with the impact of that decision. Meanwhile, the world around her is rapidly changing and deteriorating in ways she only begins to discover. For more information about the book series, you can see Veronica Roth's page. Here's the trailer for the movie to be released in March 2014.
Above all else, I judge teen lit by how much excitement it generates in my students. We read Divergent in August, and I still had students talking about the movie and showing me images of the new book cover as late as May. I had three copies of Insurgent for the classroom, and they were constantly in demand and read (voluntarily) by almost half of my students. This book series resonates with the students and generates a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in reading. It is exciting and dares students to consider their own bravery, but it is also the story of a teenage girl discovering love and romance, which the students enjoy as much as they do the intensity of the action.
Last year, I began the year for English 9 with Divergent. The unit revolved around active engagement and how to make choices in the classroom and in the community. One of the things I loved about beginning the year that way was that students used Divergent during our SSR (sustained silent reading) time. That made it easier for them to adjust to SSR, and it was also nice because it allowed students who flew through the reading to move on to other books while giving students who took longer to read the support and time that they needed to get through the novel.
The novel focuses on choice--the fact that above all else, the choices that we make determine what happens in our lives. It also highlights the interrelationship between choices and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because it was the beginning of the year and the beginning of my students' high school careers, we focused on parallels between choices in the novel and choices that they were making in their own lives and as citizens within the school community. I used nonfiction and poetry supplements to enhance the novel and highlight the skills that we were developing.
The unit revolved around three essential questions:
As far as skills are concerned, I focused on point-of-view, characterization, tone, inference and close reading skills (including annotation). As we moved toward the end of the novel, we focused on theme and finding textual support to prove theme statements. The students completed plot questions and double entry journals for homework (I've attached a sample of that assignment below). For assessment, I used quick reading quizzes and daily formative skills checks. We had discussions and practiced the skills with supplemental readings. As far as major assessments, I used two skills assessments. The first was an excerpt from a major scene in the novel and the second was a cold reading passage. We also had a Socratic discussion at the end of the novel for which the students prepared, and the students wrote responses to some guided questions on Schoology prior to the discussion. For more information about Socratic discussions, see my previous post.
The document below includes the way that I broke up the reading, a description of their homework and a model of the double-entry journal. It also includes the homework for chapters 1-4. In the journals, the students moved from practicing inferences to tone and finally to theme statements. If you like this activity and are interested in having more of the packet, please feel free to contact me directly. These journal entries could certainly be modified to use in class as a way to reflect on and respond to the reading.
The final project required students to create their own factions. It was a research project and it included a group presentation. The students had to come up with the faction characteristics and create a name with a complex meaning. They had to find a possible representative from real life of that faction and research the person's life as an illustration of how that person demonstrated the traits of the faction, and they had to make connections to the novel with passages from the book. Here is a PDF of the assignment sheet, the rubric for the projects, the audience participation guide, and the peer and self-evaluation that I created last year.
Phew! That just about sums it up, I guess. I do have more materials and activities that went with the unit (in case you're interested), but I tried to include the major assignments and the general approach. As far as changes for this coming year, I will likely NOT teach tone as one of the main skills with this novel. I discovered that because the novel has so much dialogue, many students became confused between characterization and tone. They would focus on a character's specific tone in his/her words instead of finding the tone of the passage, and it was challenging to explain the nuances of the difference. They found clarity as we looked at descriptive passages, but it was perhaps an unnecessary confusion. I might also drop the double entry journal entries down from two entries to one (or have them do one at home and one in class). The length of the novel was overwhelming for some students, so I will do more next year to help them with modifications as needed. We have a couple of copies of the audio of the novel, and one of our ELL teachers created chapter summaries of the novel that we'll use for struggling students. I'm also considering teaching Romeo and Juliet first this coming year so that students can take a field trip to see the play at the amazing Staunton replica of the Blackfriar Playhouse before it leaves in November, so I will likely introduce some of the concepts such as inference and close reading skills at an earlier time.
As a final thought, I'd like to encourage teachers considering teaching YA lit in the classroom to take the plunge. At my school, many people are very supportive--in fact, this last year, we purchased Divergent and the whole school read it at some point during the year. I know that may not be the case everywhere, but I find that we as educators can continue discovering the balance between classical, canonical texts and contemporary texts written for teens. Many students (both boys and girls) told me that Divergent was the first book that they had honestly read from cover to cover, and that paved the way to a much more prosperous year as far as silent reading and setting individual reading goals. What I love most about YA lit is the way that the stories address complex issues (such as why wars happen and how to make difficult choices and face your fears) in ways that are accessible and appealing to teens. I've read SO MANY amazing YA books that would work well in the classroom. The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare is amazing, as is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (how do I not have a post on that novel yet? Coming soon...) would be an awesome novel to teach, and it would work nicely as an exploration of text-to-text comparisons with a focus on audience since the film and novel are quite different. I also love the idea of teaching the first book in a series because that gives students a great jumping off point for their own reading. As far as realistic fiction, I just read Hold Still by Nina LaCour, which addresses the impact of suicide on a community, and our department discussed teaching John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which includes teen romance, the role of fate, and illness.
Have you taught (or are you considering teaching) any YA lit novels in your class? Please share your comments and ideas! I look forward to learning what others are doing with this amazing genre.
“There is no great secret. You endure what is unbearable, and you bear it. That is all.” ~Clockwork Princess (The Infernal Devices Book 3), Cassandra Clare
Summer is here! I thought for a while, especially after the feet of snow that we had in March, that it would never actually get here, but as I sit on the balcony at the beach in SC, I realize the incontrovertible truth that summer has finally come. Woohoo! I have big plans for this summer, including a ridiculously long reading list (I've brought home a giant crate of books along with another massive bag holding the overflow) and a gigantic revision of my writing. I just finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, a novel I started in March but just now came around to reading. It was awesome, and well worth the wait. I'm now plowing through four of Lauren Oliver's books, which I'm sure I'll write about soon enough. But alas, I did not sit down at my laptop to write about summer, or the current novels. I sat down here to write about the phenomenal series I read a few weeks ago, The Infernal Devices series (also familiarly called the Clockwork series) by Cassandra Clare.
Where to begin with this? First, a confession (that may lower your view of me as a literary person): I do not particularly like Victorian literature. I've never been big on Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, or even Charles Dickens (though I did find myself strangely in love with Great Expectations when I was a sophomore in high school). I've never been a big fan of third person omniscient narration, nor have I enjoyed reading about the way that things were in the 1800s. In college, I focused on Postmodernism, and I was fascinated by deconstruction of metanarratives and the notion of the simulacrum in literature. In essence, I could not have been more removed from the study of Victorian literature.
If you have not read this series, my rambling about literature undoubtedly seems irrelevant, but this all comes around to the fact that Cassandra Clare accomplishes a phenomenal feat in her series; she echoes the tropes and style of Victorian literature while creating a science fiction/ fantasy world full of suspense, mayhem, and intrigue that rivals anything in YA literature today. Set in late 1800s London, these novels include famous passages from the time period at the beginning of each chapter, and echo the style and description of the time period. They simultaneously challenge the traditional tropes of fiction, and Clare forces readers to grapple with the implications of stories and the way that we are all drawn into them.
Translation for the teen reader and the classroom: I should say that these novels were recommended to me and brought to me by one of my freshmen students. She told me that I would love them, but to be honest I was a bit daunted by the size and by the notion of reading all of them before the end of school (you know what May is like for teachers). When I started Clockwork Angel, three different students approached me in the hall or during my parking lot duty to tell me that those novels were the best series they had ever read. I will say that the first one in the series takes a bit of work to get into the world of the characters, but it is well worth the investment. From about page 150 through the end of the third novel, I could not put them down. I haven't read The Mortal Instruments series (City of Bones) yet, so I cannot compare them. However, I can say that these novels address many issues, such as: discrimination, deception, the value of life, revenge, and the complexities of love. I can also say that they introduce students to the tradition of Victorian literature while also creating a world that is completely fantastical and that escapes from our own. I hope that you will place these novels on your summer reading list, and that you enjoy them!
“You know that feeling,” [Tessa] said, “when you are reading a book, and you know that it is going to be a tragedy; you can feel the cold and darkness coming, see the net drawing tight around the characters who live and breathe on the pages. But you are tied to the story as if being dragged behind a carriage and you cannot let go or turn the course aside...I feel now as if the same is happening, only not to characters on a page but to my own beloved friends and companions. I do not want to sit by while tragedy comes for us. I would turn it aside, only I struggle to discover how that might be done.” ~Clockwork Princess, Cassandra Clare
"High school is a scary concept, especially when you are an eighth grader walking into it. To be honest, high school isn't all that scary once you get going. My ninth grade year has been my best year so far. All of the teachers are so helpful and caring. They listen to what you have to say and also give great advice when it's needed." ~current 9th grade student
For their final writing assignment this year, my English 9 students wrote letters of advice to the incoming freshman class. We studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explore the use of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasion, and then my students applied those techniques in their letters as they passed along the wisdom they’d gained over the course of the year. Tomorrow, we’ll post the best letters on the bulletin board, and we’ll place all of them in a binder for the incoming class. The students will have an opportunity to look over the letters and to make signs and posters demonstrating the best pieces of advice.
I first came up with this idea after reading Karen Finneyfrock’s novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. In that amazing story, young Celia finds her way in the world as she navigates the challenges of her freshman year. See my previous post for more information about that novel and the kinds of students who might best benefit from reading it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this assignment, but what I noticed right away is that many students who often take a long time getting started with writing assignments jumped into this one immediately. They outlined their ideas, came up with clear thesis statements, and spoke directly to their audience. They admitted their own mistakes and expressed their regrets about some of the choices that they had made.
I've read about half of the letters, and here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read so far:
“You should be able to be who you are and not what others expect of you. Become the new cool. Even when everyone else judges you. “
“Before you start to make fun of someone, just think how much it will hurt them. Would you like to be that person?”
“[The teachers] just ask that you respect them and all of the other students. Your teachers don’t want to sit through a whole year and argue with you. They want you to be successful and respectful. Treating my teachers right really got me a long ways. Sometimes you may not agree with their decisions, but you have to give them the respect that they deserve.”
“Don’t listen to drama because everything you hear might not be true. It helps if you keep just a small group of friends who you can trust. Participating and listening to drama doesn’t show good things about your character and can hurt others as well as yourself.”
I’d like to note that most of the students who gave the best advice were not students getting straight As and behaving appropriately at all times. The ones whose letters were the most authentic and compassionate were the students who had struggled in earnest this year and who knew from hard-earned experience the things that would help them achieve success. The students also had to mark the different kinds of persuasion that they used (we selected different fonts for each kind), so we had a lot of good discussions about what logos, pathos, and ethos are and how to incorporate them into our writing.
Another great benefit of this assignment is that almost all of the students mastered the concept of using a concession and a counterargument. While I’ve tried various ways to help them understand and apply this concept, most of them have been unsuccessful in their previous applications. However, this time, they thoroughly understood why the students might not listen to them, and they knew what the younger students’ objections might be. They addressed those directly and highlighted why the other students should see things from their perspective. Some of the students included this kind of logical reasoning for each of their main points, which really strengthened their argument.
Students said things like:
“You may be shy and think that you don’t want any more friends, but trust me if you’re in a club or a sport, you are bound to make a new friend or two.”
“At this point in your life, I’m sure you aren’t worried about your grades, but they are more important now than ever before.”
“I understand that sometimes you are afraid to stand up because you are shy or simply because you are indeed a freshman but participation can help you in so many ways.”
"You can’t erase the past from everyone’s minds but you can have a fresh start to make more of yourself when you get to high school."
Overall, the students had brilliant points to make to their future underclassmen. They advised them about things like homework and grades, but they also talked to them about participating in sports and clubs, about bullying and making friends, about respect and standing up for beliefs. I should get back to them, so that they can see my feedback tomorrow!
It is with hope and encouragement that we wrap up this year and prepare for the next one.
P.S. I took off last week to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, but it mostly caused me to feel a bit lost and lazy, so I will do my best to keep up each Sunday over the summer :). Coming next week: a post about the phenomenal Infernal Devices series!
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
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.