Friday, February 23, 2007

How Did You Get Started?

The inspiration for this blog comes from a lesson that I observed a student teacher lead in a course on British literature at a suburban Chicago public high school in October, 2006. At the start of the lesson, the student teacher placed a writing prompt up on the blackboard: “If you had to choose a word to complete the phrase ‘the Age of _________’ to describe the time in which we live, what word would you choose, and why?” After about twenty minutes of writing and discussion, in which students shared all sorts of responses to this prompt--fear, sexuality, technology, and struggle, among others--the student teacher transitioned to a lecture on the Age of Reason, and an in-depth examination of two literary artifacts from this era. The entire lesson lasted about ninety minutes.

Even though, on the surface, nothing remarkable happened in this lesson, I found myself repeatedly thinking about it in the months that followed. At the core of my reflection was my awareness that the lesson embodied an enduring and well-documented tension that English teachers face, especially in middle school and high school settings. This tension might be described as a pull between the past and the present, or the desire to engage teenagers in “great books” and significant literary movements, on the one hand, and critical thinking about the contemporary world, on the other. Like many tensions inherent in the act of teaching, this one is not irreconcilable; good teachers know how to explore both past and present, and satisfy paradoxical needs and interests. However, empirical evidence suggests that most secondary English teachers give short shrift to critical thinking about the contemporary world in comparison to engaging teens in great books and the traditional skills of literacy education (see Yagelski, 2005, p. 265).

In early March 2007, I decided to start this blog as a way to explore and model how English teachers might use young adult literature to encourage deeper and richer critical thinking about the contemporary world in middle school and high school English and history classrooms. For about one year, I read about 40 recently published books that the Young Adult Library Services Association had recognized in 2007 as exemplary books for teenage readers. My commentaries about these books are accessible via the links on the right hand side of your screen. In general, I wrote traditional book reviews, with claims about connections to the contemporary world, and links to digital videos and other resources on the web.

Since the end of this research project, I have changed this blog to focus in a more open-ended way on political and social affairs in the United States and the world, and how young adult literature can help all of us to think critically about these affairs. My interpretations of young adult literature and my claims about connections to world affairs are solely my own; they reflect my own inclinations and thinking. My goal is not to control or limit the diversity of messages that might be derived from young adult literature; rather, I mean to show how all readers have the capacity to use their reading of literature to create useful insights and commentary on the contemporary world. Hopefully, some enjoyable conversation and maybe even argument will evolve from my efforts.

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