Relatability?

Every semester that I have taught children’s literature courses, I hear and read the phrase
“I really related to this character/book.” or “That book is so relatable.” It has always bothered me a bit, not because relating is bad but because I see people thinking about NOT relating as a negative thing. I sometimes hear preservice teachers talk about children’s literature as if the goal of matching books to readers is about finding a book that is relatable. This is problematic.

Yes, it is important to read books where the reader can “see themselves” but this isn’t the only type of book we should read – regardless of age.

One thing that bothers me about the idea of “relatability” is that I see students shut down and disengage with a book if they can’t relate to it (their language, not mine). I also hear students say a book is “so good” ONLY because they can relate to it – without any further exploration into what exactly they mean by that term. I encourage the students in my class to be honest in what they think about a book – like/dislike, love/loathe – but that they also need to explore WHY they are having that response. So if they don’t like something, I want them to explore those negative feelings more deeply. Negative doesn’t have to mean disengage. I’ve been asking them to think more deeply about articulating what pushes them away or makes them feel like something isn’t “relatable”. This requires have a sense of ourselves as readers, but also have a sense of literary elements, literary devices, and genre because they give us language to articulate our thinking more clearly in writing.

In class this week, I talked to my students about using “connect” instead of “relate”. I’m trying this language because of the way that the term “connect” implies a more tangible thing. The hope is that by more explicitly considering not only WHEN readers make a connection but also HOW they do or do not make a connection they will be able to articulate more of their response.

 

Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”. 

Theory matters…

Theory is part of my life as a doctoral student. It was part of my life as an undergrad but in a very different way – it was music theory and it was a tough class for me. I had to learn, understand, and apply the underpinnings of how music was constructed – scales, modes, tempo, motifs, etc.  I also had to take music history classes to understand the historical contexts that composers wrote and musicians performed. All of this helped me to become a better musician – both performing and consuming. Theory mattered a lot, even though I did my share of complaining about it.

Students in undergraduate teacher education programs across the U.S. take courses that often include theory, and often complain that it has nothing to do with practice. There is a perception that theory won’t actually help a teacher teach – that classroom management is more important. Does theory matter? How can it help someone learn to teach?

I am currently rereading Teaching Children’s Fiction edited by Charles Butler, in particular the chapter by Roderick McGillis titled Looking in the Mirror: Pedagogy, Theory, and Children’s Literature. One quote that has stuck with me is:

The resistance to theory we sometimes meet in the classroom stems from an ingrained notion that literary activity ought to be natural, fun, and self-evident. p. 89

While McGillis is referring to literature classrooms, I have heard this repeatedly in various courses I teach and the undergraduate and graduate level in a college of education. I see this imagined notion regularly in both my children’s literature and literacy methods courses. It’s interesting because it serves two purposes: it means that the students shouldn’t have to “work this hard” to engage with course materials, and also that they don’t really need to understand any theory to become an elementary school teacher. Before I continue I want to be clear that I realize not ALL preservice teachers think this way, but this way of thinking has been prevalent across my own 5 1/2 years of teaching at a large midwest University.

Faculty at colleges and universities are currently teaching THE MOST TESTED generation of students ever to come through our doors. Our students were starting elementary school when NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was passed. They have been tested, practice-tested, re-tested, taught to the test, and tested again. Many come in wanting “absolute” answers and rubrics for everything. This isn’t always possible, nor is it always best pedagogical practice. But what strikes me is that this generation of tested students is now in our College of Education, learning to be teachers. Given the fact that new teachers are likely to teach in the same ways that they were taught (Kennedy, 1999), this makes me exceedingly concerned in this time of CCSS and NCTQ.

Learning about theory and how to apply it is hard intellectual work, particularly if approaching it with notions of “natural, self-evident, and fun”. It’s also particularly difficult if you’ve never ever done it before (because you were busy taking multiple choice tests).  I think one of the things that makes it most challenging is that it means we must consider ourselves, the contexts we live in, and the choices that we make. Theory forces us to become self-reflective, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable. It can make us feel vulnerable and as if we don’t know anything. But that is not bad, it is how we grow. And I believe that students in classrooms today deserve teachers who think deeply, who understand theories behind their pedagogical decisions, and who question if the CCSS are really what is best for their students. I know we have many teachers like this, but they need support. More people need to question the wisdom of non-educators making decisions about education, the created testing “panic”, and ultimately to support that teachers are professional educators who can make decisions about how best to teach their students.

While learning music theory many years ago may not have been fun or seemed applicable, it made me a better musician, which at the time was my goal (I was a music major). I didn’t always understand that the two were connected, but the further progressed the more connections I could see. I still loved making music, it could still be fun (though not always), and ultimately I had to work at it. Like music, teaching may be fun sometimes, and there may be elements of it that are intuitive for some people – but it is tough, intellectual work as well that deserves respect and theoretical backing.

to be continued….

Thinking about didactic (and not) books in classrooms

Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli

I love the book Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli for many reasons. The rich colors, full bleed illustrations, and double page spreads invite readers to join in on the adventure of the main character. The repetitive text as she swings (“higher, higher”) provides an opportunity for pre-emergent readers to read along, but also doesn’t limit opportunities for readers of all ages to fill in gaps and add to the story on their own. It presents the possibilities of imagination when doing something as seemingly simple as playing on a swing set.

This weekend I discovered a newer book by the same author, No No Yes Yes.  Even though it is written and illustrated by the same person, it is a very different kind of book.

No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli

In this picture book, a diaper-clad baby is told “no no” to things s/he shouldn’t do and “yes yes” to things s/he should do instead. For example, drawing on the walls is “no no”,  but drawing on paper is “yes yes”. My 18-month-old niece loved the book, as do her parents. It has given them language to help her not hit the dog or dump food on the floor.

While both of these books could be read with an 18-month old or a preschooler, No No Yes Yes is a great example of a didactic book. It is a book that I would use in my children’s literature class to help students to understand that a didactic book has a clear and distinct lesson. This is does not mean that No No Yes Yes is a “bad book” and that Higher Higher is a “good book”. But understanding how didacticism can function in books (for children or adults) is important for teachers to consider when selecting books. This means that if you are looking for a book that is going to foster interesting, open-ended, and authentic discussion focused the book, you wouldn’t want to use a text that is strongly didactic. The discussion will usually fall flat, or move into other responses about the “lesson”.

Students who are more advanced thinkers often prefer more open-ended books because they allow for a wider range of interpretations and thinking. Ultimately, didactic books fill a need, but it’s important to have (and use) a variety of types of books in our classrooms.

Living Bookshelves

Like many of my book loving friends, I own lots of books. I think of them very much as “living bookshelves” because the books don’t just sit there. I read them, my daughters read them, I lend them, I teach with them, I share them with students, and sometimes I just sit near them for inspiration. I used to have them organized so that I when I would teach certain subjects, it was relatively easy to grab them by genre. This didn’t last though. Because when they are “living” bookshelves, things get moved around for very good reasons (or because it’s and hour before teaching and I remember a book that I know one particular student will enjoy).

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

So I decided to reorganize my shelves, but how? Should I try and organize them again by genre – this is completely driven by the children’s literature course that I am currently teaching. We spend about half the semester using genres to help us divide and organize our study. Except that I don’t just use them to teach children’s literature.semester I’m going to be teaching a language arts methods course. I’ve taught it before and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to incorporate children’s literature into the course as a way to model for students the connections across their children’s literature and subject area course work.

so many stacks of books...

so many stacks of books…

And what about when my family and friends ask to borrow books? Sometimes they don’t ask, but i discover a book that makes me think of my eldest daughter who loves mysteries and wants to be a writer. Or I read a book with a fabulously non-stereotypical female character that my friend Jon may want to read to include in his course next semester. Or I’m participating in a #titletalk and want to find a book that would match a description someone is asking for. You get the idea.

So what to do? While I was sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of books and staring at the wall of shelves, my husband asked me an interesting question.

Which children’s literature hat are you wearing right now? Your teacher hat, librarian hat, or reader hat?

First of all, I love that he knows me and my work well enough to ask this question. It actually relates to my interdisciplinary dissertation. Interestingly, I ended up organizing them with what I think of as “my librarian hat”. There are is a shelf just for poetry, shelves for non-fiction, informational, and biography. Historical fiction picture books, graphic novels, and “transition readers” are separated for very practical purposes – I don’t have many of any of them and often need to pull them quickly for examples. The rest of the picture books, young adult books, and “chapter books”* are arranged alphabetical by author’s last name.

*I don’t really like the term “chapter books” but there isn’t another one that I like better.

As I was shelving them and thinking about teaching and recommending books, I was reminded of something. If I am going to effectively make recommendations to my students and also thoughtfully select books for instruction, I must know the books on my shelves – and more. There are definitely books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet. And there are books that aren’t on my shelves that I will recommend.

When I am clear about the purpose or goal when looking for a book (e.g.fostering reading engagement, literacy instruction, content area instruction, etc.) AND when I know my students (or friends, colleagues, etc.) AND when I know the books that are available (and where to find them) — that is when I am most effective as a teacher and children’s literature specialist. That’s what makes my bookshelves live.

Finished!

Finished!