Category Archives: Teaching

Yes, Audiobooks & Graphic Novels Count: Accepting Students’ Diverse Reading Choices

I originally delivered a version of this post at the Avon Free Public Library’s Local Author Festival in June. Each of the presenters was asked to talk about the reader’s experience. I recently revised that presentation for a blog post for Latin@s in Kid Lit. The post seems to have resonated with people, and I think it’s an important issue now that young people are back in school. I’ve decided to reblog it here.

 

A reader’s experience, even with a shared text, is dependent on so many things, including background knowledge, interest in the subject, interest in reading in general, and engagement in the moment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this subjectivity of reading, how one person can have a completely different reaction to a book than another. As a teacher, I’ve gained a whole new level of understanding about the reader’s experience.

When I taught middle school language arts with regular-sized classes, I experienced a typical range of responses from students. When I became a reading specialist, however, the response to reading was more consistent. My students are what’s called reluctant readers. Many of them hate to read, and they all score well below their peers on reading assessments. Of the 27 students who receive reading intervention with me this year, 85 percent are of color and almost half are Latin@. In 2010, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s article, “The Latino Education Crisis,” stated Latin@s are the least educated ethnic group. More recent statistics indicate both good and not-so-good news. The Latin@ dropout rate has dropped significantly, but remains higher than other groups. Meanwhile, the number of Latin@s in college has tripled in ten years, but Latin@s lag behind other groups in obtaining a four-year degree.

Each school year is an opportunity to change these statistics by helping students become better readers.

When I ask my students why they don’t like to read, their most common answers are these: It’s too hard. It’s confusing. It’s boring. It’s too long. I just don’t like it. I can’t connect to it. I have better things to do with my time.

My job, then, is to help them become better readers and hopefully love a book or two or more. In other words, I have to find ways to alter their previous reading experiences. I have to help them find books that aren’t too hard or boring or too long. Books that they can connect with and think are worth their time.

In some ways, this should be easy because libraries have thousands of books to choose from, but this is what happens when I take my students to the library: Some wander around aimlessly with a “get me out of here” look on their face. Some are enthusiastic, which is great, but have no idea what to do. I ask about their favorite author or genre, but they don’t have one. If I keep asking questions, I’ll usually get enough information to guide them to the right area. But, then they are faced with a wall of books and don’t know where to start.

Once, I gave a girl a specific title to find and told her to check the spine for the author’s last name. After a while, she called me over and said the book wasn’t there, that all of these books were written by FIC.

I share this not to make fun of her–because it really isn’t funny–but to shed light on the reality that some middle schoolers don’t know how to navigate a library or the world of books in general. They haven’t read enough in their lives and/or their reading experiences have probably to this point been mandated by school curricula. As a result, their identity as readers doesn’t exist at all or has been completely shaped by others. This is partly due to what they’ve been told “counts” when it comes to reading.

Lowriders in Space_FC_HiResOne boy told me he liked cars, but the library had no books on cars. Hmm, really? When I showed him the nonfiction area filled with books about cars, he said, “But these aren’t stories.” And then, I got it. He didn’t think nonfiction counted. Maybe he has been told this, or maybe he’s been encouraged to read fiction more often. I don’t know, but his desire to read nonfiction about cars was derailed somewhere along the way. Happy ending: he checked out two nonfiction books that day and the librarian ordered Lowriders in Space. So cool (the book and our librarian). And yes, I assured him, graphic novels count, too.

Here are things my students have said:

I like audio books, but that’s cheating.

But, it’s a graphic novel.

But it’s nonfiction.

It’s too short. My teacher said it has to be at least 200 pages.

I don’t like this book, but my teacher said I have to finish it.

These comments pain me.

Because if we say audio books don’t count, then aren’t we negating the tradition of oral storytelling?

If we say graphic novels don’t count, then aren’t we negating the entire field of the visual arts?

If we say something is too short, aren’t we invalidating the short story, the novella, poetry, books in verse, non-fiction articles, or picture books?

If we tell someone to finish an independent reading book he dislikes, then isn’t it no longer independent reading? We’ve taken away his ability to choose what he wants to read and drop what he doesn’t like.

So, we’re sometimes telling readers that their choices don’t count, they aren’t good enough, and this, then, is coupled with the reader’s feelings that reading is boring, hard, and not worthy of his or her time.

So what does that leave us? Classes like mine with students who have had limited, difficult reading experiences.

But, don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.

After 15 years of teaching, but especially after the last five as a reading specialist, I have learned that the reader’s experience is diverse, and therefore, we must learn to accept diverse reading experiences.

What I mean is that I think we’re willing to accept that a reader’s experience is diverse based on personal history, background knowledge, interest, and skill, but we don’t often accept diverse reading experiences, especially with younger people.

Two young children lying on the grass outdoors wearing headphones reading togetherFor example, I’m never told by anyone not to listen to audiobooks, so why should I tell a student it’s cheating?

Ninth graders often read Of Mice and Men, which is 103 pages, but we tell a middle school student she can’t read a book less than 200 pages. Why?

And believe me, I am well versed on the Common Core State Standards and well aware of how competitive schools and the workplace have become. I know the statistics that tell us if a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he may never read on grade level without the proper intervention. I understand the push for rigor and the expectation that all people read certain books in high school and college.

At the same time, though, what most studies tell us is that the number one thing that affects a person’s lifelong reading skills is independent reading–self-selected reading that supplements, complements, or challenges in-class reading.

And when people read independently, they should be protected by the Reader’s Bill of Rights.

So, if we want all children to develop an independent reading habit, we have to allow them to truly self-select reading material and we have to be okay with their choices. If they want to read a graphic novel or comic book, fine. If they want to listen to an audio book, awesome. If they want to read an 85 page book, go for it.

Chances are if they do these things, and feel successful, they just might do it again and again and again. And then maybe they’ll start reading longer and more complex things, and they won’t see reading as hard or boring or not worth their time. Maybe then they will be able to navigate the library and decide on a favorite genre or author. Maybe as they get older, they will graduate from high school, reducing the dropout rate even more. Maybe more will earn four-year degrees. And maybe they will then read to their children, who will become avid readers, too. And a simple thing adults can do now to help this along is not to say, “That’s too short, too easy, or doesn’t count.” Instead, support young readers’ diverse choices and allow them to develop their own reading experiences.

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been tagged! Writers across the blogosphere have been tossing a particular Q&A around the writing community. It’s the Writing Process Blog Tour. Lila Quintero Weaver published her responses last week and tossed it over to me. First, here’s some info on my tagger.

DarkroomI haven’t met Lila in person yet, but I consider her una amiga nonetheless. We have been collaborating on the Latin@s in Kid Lit site since July 2013. Lila has been an enthusiastic blogger for the site, posting great book talks, Q&As, and personal stories. An author and illustrator, her debut novel was Darkroom: Memoirs in Black and White. She is currently working on a middle grade novel.

 

 

Here are the questions and my responses:

What am I working on?

aesop

An image of Aesop

I am revising Aesop’s Curse, my second young adult novel. During the school year, I teach middle school reading full time and college composition part time, so my goal is to finish revising Aesop’s Curse this summer so that my agent can review it and submit it to editors. The story is about a high school freshman named Alexandre Hart who learns he is the reincarnation of Aesop, the fable writer. Aesop cursed a village before he was executed, and now Alex has to somehow fix this or things will get ugly. (I don’t want to give too much away). I am also steadily working on plans to promote my debut novel, When Reason Breaks, which will be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books on February 10, 2015.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Both of my novels have a literary element. Aesop’s Curse includes information about the author and some of his most famous fables. When Reason Breaks includes Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the characters represent the poet and other people who existed in her life. For example, the two main characters, Emily Delgado and Elizabeth Davis, represent Dickinson, and the character Tommy Bowles represents two important men in Dickinson’s life: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles. While there are lots of YA books linked to famous authors and/or literary works, there are fewer about Dickinson and Aesop.

Each of my novels also has a diverse cast of characters, which is important to me personally as a Latina, mom, and teacher. I think it’s important to represent our diverse reality in children’s books, and to not consider these “minority” books, but rather books with minorities in them.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what interests me. I fell in love with Dickinson’s work during graduate school, I have first-hand experience with depression, and I have been a teacher for 13 years, which means I have known and learned from lots of interesting, complex, remarkable teens. When Reason Breaks combines these elements. When planning Aesop’s Curse, I again pulled from topics of interest. I found the story of Aesop’s execution fascinating, I have read a lot about the metaphysical and reincarnation, and I have known plenty of young men like Alex who fly under the radar and dread taking risks for fear of failure.

How does my writing process work?

My process is not methodical. I don’t use charts and graphs or color-coded note cards, and I don’t write every day, which is the #1 piece of advice given to writers. I scribble in notebooks and on post-it notes, and I think about my work in progress constantly, plotting scenes in my head. This way, when I have time to sit and write, I’m ready. I do most of my writing during child-free weekends (when my parents babysit), snow days, sick days, school vacations, and when my daughter is doing an extra curricular activity. Marathon writing sessions with days of no writing in between doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

SusanAdrianMay2013_200pxI will now toss these questions to Susan Adrian, the leader of the Fearless Fifteeners, a group of middle grade and young adult authors debuting in 2015. Susan’s debut YA novel is titled Tunnel Vision and will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. Here’s a brief description: A teenage boy who has a power he calls tunneling—he can decipher where anyone in the world is (and what they’re doing) by holding something they own—is brought to the attention of the U.S. government. Sounds cool, right? Susan will tell us all about her writing process next week.

End of Year Reality Check

The last time I blogged was October and the post was about being so busy September was a blur. Now it’s December. What the?

I recently celebrated a birthday and the year is coming to an end. I’m not one to make serious resolutions, but I’ve found myself thinking about my life and making plans to slow down so I don’t feel like life is passing me by at warp speed.

One of my realizations is that I can’t keep up the pace I’ve set for myself since the time I first had a job and goals and a personal drive that once got me labeled as a “rabid overachiever.” Are there shots for that? Anyway, I still have a job and goals and the desire to achieve them, but I have to manage everything in a way that won’t leave me feeling like I’m treading water.

Don’t get me wrong, life is good–really! I have a great job, an amazing daughter, supportive family and friends, and a debut novel on the way, which is a dream come true. Still, a personal reality check recently led me to this simple conclusion: I’m not a spring chicken. I’m not old. I know that. But, I can’t keep moving at the same pace I set for myself when I was in my early 20s.

In addition to work, family, and writing, I have become involved with two websites: Latin@s in Kid Lit and the Fearless Fifteeners. I love being a part of both groups and have spent a lot of my time building the site over at Latin@s in Kid Lit with some author-friends-colleagues. I don’t want to give those up. I don’t want to give anything up, really, but I do need to scale back so I can do things well instead of simply getting things done.

Part of my plan is to scale back here. I’ll keep a more regular schedule–I’m thinking Mondays and Thursdays–but I’ll do quicker posts like you might see on Tumblr. But I can’t join that site or Pintrest or anything else. I am the camel and those are the shiny, time-consuming straws I need to avoid. I’ll also engage in some cross-pollination with the other sites I mentioned. Since I’ll be posting on those sites, I’ll either reblog posts here or announce what’s on those sites and link to them.

I want to keep this site active (which it’s not really right  now) especially in the coming year, when all sorts of exciting things will happen like cover reveals and Advanced Reader Copies!!! AHHHH!! But I also want to keep my sanity and be a great mom and teacher and have enough energy to write more books! So, shorter blog posts on a regular basis will be part of the solution. A long soak in a hot tub and regular massages couldn’t hurt either! :.)

Does anyone else struggle with balancing it all? Any tips?

Where Did September Go?

So, September happened. And according to the calendar, confirmed by the falling colored leaves outside, it is now late October. What the? How does this happen? No matter how long I teach–13 years–the start of the school year is a dizzying, time-stealing tornado that slows down right about now, which is why I’ve come up for air to write this post.

This year, I returned to the same school district, but moved back to my old school in a new position as the 6th and 7th grade reading teacher/specialist. I also started as an adjunct professor at Tunxis Community College, which has been fun and a lot of  work. Then, three weeks into the school year, my beloved furry friend, Rusty, died after 15+ years and countless memories. Here he is, napping by my side, and holding up my manuscript during revisions.

RustyAnd here he is tolerating the shenanigans of my 6-year-old:

VLUU L310 W  / Samsung L310 WLosing him would have been tough any time of the year, but at the start of the school year was especially difficult. I had to keep going, trying to be Super Mom and Super Teacher when all I wanted to do was sit and cry. We still miss him terribly. RIP, little buddy.

On the writing front, I’ve gotten involved with some cool new sites! I am a member of the newly formed Fearless Fifteeners, a group of authors debuting in 2015. I am also a member of Latin@s in Kid Lit, a site dedicated to celebrating children’s literature by and for Latin@s. I also wrote a guest post for YA Highway, which is an awesome place for YA readers and writers.

If you read my last post, you know that I completed a major revision of my first novel and submitted it to my editor. I’m waiting for her next round of comments/notes. The final draft is due in January 2014, with a tentative release date set for early 2015.

I’ll confess that I haven’t written anything creative since turning in my revision because of the full-on crazy that was my life from September through now. Aaron, Richard, Sam, Matt “Sharkey” Hardy, and Anna–characters from my second novel–were respectfully quiet, knowing I had to focus on my new jobs and getting my daughter off to first grade when August rolled into September.

But lately, they’ve started to push their way back into my consciousness. “Knock, knock. Remember us?” they ask. Yes, I hear and see them in my head. No, I have not officially lost my mind. Other mostly-stable writers have confirmed this for me. Having your characters bang around in your head is normal–weird but true.

So, September happened and we’re almost at the end of October. The back-to-school dust has settled. This doesn’t mean life will be less hectic, but it does mean I’m managing the juggling act. Now that I’m at this point, I will find a way to toss the “revise my second novel” ball into the mix and not let anything drop. I’ll do this because one thing I’ve learned on the road to publishing book #1 is that I hope there will be a book #2 and then a book #3, and the only way for that to happen is to keep writing somehow, no matter how busy my “normal” life is.

My Second Blogversary

Two years ago, I started this blog with a draft of my first novel underway and a hope that it will someday be published. I wanted to get my name “out there” and wasn’t quite sure who would read this, but I started anyway.

Two years later, this space is still a work in progress, but I have figured out the types of posts I like to do and will continue to do those. For example, I made a commitment to read more novels by and about Latinos and spotlight those titles. Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the U.S., and I think it’s important to highlight work by Hispanics for readers of all backgrounds. I have also written about my students, who are reluctant readers, and the books they love. Everyone hears about award-winners, but I’ve discovered lots of other great books because my students said, “This was good.” And trust me, when a teen who never reads says that, I pay attention. I’m happy to highlight those books.

I write about what I do daily: read, write, and teach. Because teaching is my full-time paying gig, I haven’t kept a strict schedule with the blog. Some people religiously post on certain days. I admire that, but I’m not there yet. I want to be more consistent, but probably once a week is the best I can do given my schedule.

Other things that have happened since I started this blog:

I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and a local critique group.

I attended the New York SCBWI conference and met lots of great people.

I revised my first novel and wrote a second one.

I wrote a guest post for Latina Book Club.

I was part of a blog tour for A THUNDEROUS WHISPER by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.

People in 40 countries have checked me out. A big wave to that person in Kenya, the reader in the Philippines, and those seven people in Armenia. How cool is that?

Two years later, my third novel is in the planning stage. I still have the hope that my first novel will be published, but I feel like I’m closer to that becoming a reality. I’ll be attending the New York SCBWI conference again, and this time, I will actually know people! I look forward to this year and will continue to do the things I love–read, write, and teach–and blog about them.

More Diversity Needed in Children’s Literature

Last week, the New York Times published an article about the fact that Latino students don’t often see themselves in books. This sparked lots of discussion, with a few responses printed days later. Then, earlier today, NBC News reported that according to Census data white people will no longer be the majority in the U.S. by 2043.

Times they are a-changing. This is not “news” in the sense that these projections have been made before, but these facts about our country’s changing population have been getting more attention because of the large number of non-white voters who participated in the presidential election. Let’s focus on the reading issue…

When it comes to reading, there are some near-certainties. Children who are read to from birth to age 3 enter preschool with an advantage. Children who attend organized preschool have an advantage. By kindergarten, the literacy gap–even though students cannot yet read themselves–already exists. If a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he or she could lag in school forever. Yes, forever. I teach reading in high school, so obviously I believe it’s never too late to improve one’s reading skills. Still, while my students make gains, other students are–you guessed it–making gains, too.

With our changing population, parents, teachers, writers, and the publishing industry have a lot to consider. Parents need to read to their children every day. All subject teachers must see themselves as reading teachers and must make conscious choices in terms of reading material. And, ultimately, I hope more books by and about Latinos are published.

I believe that a child should read widely, not just about one’s own race or culture, but I also think it’s important that a child “see” himself (whether it’s because of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other personal experiences) in a book. Why? Because we live in a diverse society, and our diversity should be represented in the books we read.

Since the recent news was about Latinos, I’m going to focus on that piece. To read book after book with only white characters is simply unrealistic when, in 30 years, the majority of Americans will be non-white. With the growth of the Hispanic community, how strange would it be for children to grow up reading books that do not have Hispanic protagonists or supporting characters? How strange would it be to hardly ever read a novel written by a Latino/a? More books by and about Hispanics would be a great thing.

I also think people need to be more aware of and support current Hispanic writers. There are lots of great MG and YA books out there already! Check out this mega list. Other great places to check out are the Latina Book Club, the Hispanic Reader, and Vamos a Leer.

Anthologies often include stories from a few of the greats–Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Gary Soto, to name a few. They are amazing writers, all among my favorites, but teachers and librarians need to venture beyond these go-to authors and give props to other Hispanic writers by using their books in class or offering them to students regularly as independent reading options. My school did this exact thing recently.

Matt de la Peña visits Hall High School in West Hartford, CT, on Dec. 7.

Matt de la Peña visits Hall High School in West Hartford, CT, on Dec. 7.

Matt de la Peña came to my high school on Dec. 7. He talked to all 9th graders (not just Latinos) in the auditorium and then ran smaller sessions that were mixed in terms of grade (9-12) and race. In preparation for his visit, the school library ordered multiple copies of his novels: BALL DON’T LIE, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, WE WERE HERE, and I WILL SAVE YOU. Our students’ comments during and after his visit proved that Matt appealed to ALL of our students.

Comments from my Latino students were interesting, though. More than one asked me if he was rich. I said he has two college degrees and four published YA novels, with a fifth on the way. One was made into a movie. Is he rich? I don’t know, but he is successful, in my opinion. Another boy, who sat through both of the small sessions and talked to Matt afterward lost the book that was signed for him. He thinks someone stole it. I found him one day roaming the halls after school looking for it. The next day he said, “It’s weird, but I kind of miss him. He was cool.”

I know my students well enough to know that they saw themselves in Matt: a young Mexican-American who was a reluctant reader and the first in his family to go to college. They saw themselves in his characters and then met the author and made a connection.

It was an experience they won’t soon forget, and one that proves it is important for Latinos to see themselves in the books they read and names like theirs on the spines.

Celebrating Hispanic Authors: Spotlight on Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! I hope you’re spending some of your time from Sept. 15-Oct.15 curled up with a good YA book by a Latino/a author. If you need book suggestions, you may also want to check out Latina Book ClubVamos a Leer, and The Hispanic Reader.

Today’s YA author in the spotlight is: Benjamin Alire SáenzEnjoy!

AUTHOR: (information comes directly from Cinco Puntos Press and University of Texas at El Paso)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, less than 50 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. He was the fourth of seven children and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla Park in a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family. During his youth, he worked at various jobs–painting apartments, picking onions, and cleaning for a janitorial service. After graduating from high school in 1972, he entered the seminary. He was later ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood three and a half years later. At the age of 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.

Sáenz is an award-winning poet and author of books for children and young adults. His first YA novel, SAMMY & JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Americas Book Award, The Paterson Prize, and the JHunt Award. It was named one of the top ten Young Adult novels by the American Library Association and one of the top books of the year by the Center for Children’s Books, The New York Public Library, and the Miami Herald.

His other YA novels are: HE NEVER SAID GOODBYE, LAST NIGHT I SANG TO THE MONSTER, and ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE.

YA NOVEL: SAMMY & JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: A young adult novel Latino-style–the year is 1969. America is at war, Hollywood is a dirt-poor Chicano barrio in small town America, and Sammy and Juliana, about to head into their senior year, are in love.

MY TWO CENTS: I listened to the audio version of this novel. I had mixed feelings while reading it, but the characters and story have stuck with me. Sáenz creates strong characters–main and supporting–that I cared about and could visualize. Sammy’s voice was spot-on as a teen boy who grapples with the personal issues all teens do–friends, love, fears and hopes for the future–while also dealing with poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War era. A pet peeve of mine is when authors describe in too much detail. Sáenz does this, but it didn’t stop me from reading. Also, while Sammy and Juliana are in love, as the book blurb states, this is not a traditional love story. Something tragic happens shortly into the novel that ends the love affair. I won’t spoil it, but the relationship was short-lived, and Sammy spends the rest of the novel dealing with this loss and many others. If you’re looking for something light-hearted with a happy ending, this one’s not for you. There was no uplifting, triumphant moment for the main character. I wanted something good to happen to Sammy.  Sáenz left me feeling what it’s like to get pounded by life, as Sammy was, which is also a point worth making. Some people take a beating every day and have to find the strength to keep marching forward. Sad but true.

TEACHING TIPS: This book has many issues worth pursuing in the classroom: immigration, poverty, grief, drug-use, discrimination based on race and sexual preference. One thing I thought about while reading was how parts of this novel could easily be used by teachers in different ways. I say parts because I don’t believe every novel used in class needs to be read cover-to-cover. Also, a history teacher, let’s say, may want to zero in on certain aspects of a novel, but may not want to handle elements typically taught by an English teacher, like character development or symbolism.

The thread about the Vietnam War could be pulled from the novel and used to complement non-fiction pieces in history classes. The character Pifas is drafted and students protest the war by wearing black arm bands and staging a sit-in in the school cafeteria. These were among the most memorable moments in the novel. The conversation between Sammy and Pifas about being drafted is emotionally gut-wrenching, and my heart sank when Gigi gets out of the car and falls to her knees in reaction to the news about Pifas’s death.

LEXILE: 390

LINKS for more information:

Find SAMMY & JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD on Amazon.comBarnes and Noble.comIndieBound.org,  and Goodreads.

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