California English Journal
At the ALAN Breakfast at the NCTE Fall 2001 Convention in Baltimore, Christopher Paul Curtis mentioned that he did not have a particular audience in mind when he wrote The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 and Bud, Not Buddy. I had already come to appreciate this fact, for Curtis' Bud Caldwell and Kenny Watson had become welcomed guests in my reading classes at East Carolina University. Curtis' story lines and protagonists are so rich and multi-faceted that I have been able to use the books in a variety of ways with both my graduate and graduate students. My students and I agree: Bud and Kenny deserve five stars!
Star # 1: READING JOURNALS WITH BUD, NOT BUDDY IN THE UNDERGRADUATE READING METHODS COURSE
Bud, Not Buddy lends itself well to journaling. My students read the book during class throughout the semester, maintaining a reader's journal in which they noted their thoughts and feelings about the story. The journal itself was unique in that it was in the shape of a small suitcase, tied with twine, making it very similar to Bud's suitcase. (Photo 014) The journal was purposefully small, making it less intimidating than a large spiral notebook! I collected the journals several times throughout the semester so that I could read what the students had to say, as well as to provide feedback. As would be expected, some of the students began by using their journals as vehicles for book reports, rather than for reflection. To model the appropriate reflective response, I wrote back to the students with comments such as, "How did that make you feel?" and, "Has that ever happened to you?" Additionally, I read aloud in class several journal entries that exemplified this deeper level of connection with the story. It was exciting to see how quickly my students came to connect emotionally with Bud, making real text-to-self connections. Let me share some of the feelings they noted:
Fear: I'm so scared
that something bad is going to happen to Bud
I just pray it doesn't!
concept I wanted my pre-service teachers to understand had to do with
the importance of students learning to make text-to-text connections.
In this particular semester, however, we talked about making text-movie
connections! Since the first Harry Potter movie came to the theaters
in mid-November, I assigned my students to see the film and then to
complete a Venn diagram, comparing and contrasting Bud and Harry. They
quickly came to see how alike
Star #3: BUD AND
KENNY IN THE GRADUATE CONTENT AREA READING COURSE
Additionally, Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 provided a wonderful model of how to use a graphic organizer for a during-reading activity. The students worked in groups of three or four in which both texts were represented. As a mixed group, the students discussed Bud and Kenny, filling in a Venn diagram entitled, Looking at Bud and Kenny, as their discussion moved along. It was interesting to "listen in" to the talk during this activity: "Let me tell you what Bud did one time!" "Kenny has such a great sense of humor!" "What about Bud's parents?" After completing the graphic organizer as a small group, the students worked as a whole group to fill in our class diagram. As we did this, the students came to understand that their own students could discuss books together, without having read both texts. Also, by hearing some of the story, many of the students became interested in reading the "other" story next! They had quickly become interested in finding out more about Bud or Kenny.
One other point worth noting is that the fact that I provided class time for reading Curtis' books was not lost on my students: "Reading in the classroom was an excellent idea. I have taken many classes and I have never had a professor who allowed time to read in class. You modeled in our classroom what teachers in our schools should do, i.e., give students time during the day to read!"
Star #4: BUD AND
KENNY DURING SUMMER SCHOOL
At the end of summer school I asked my students to write an evaluation of this assignment. One student mentioned that this was one of the "few assignments that was fun to d .It made reading the books more exciting and I began thinking about what I wanted to say to my e-pal as I read the book!" Several of the students noted that having e-pals enabled them to understand another person's point of view about the story they were reading, calling it an "exciting and valuable" experience. E-pals added another dimension to the reading. As one student put it, "I believe I got more out of this assignment and reading than I would have if we had just read and discussed the book as an entire class." Also, "I felt as if I were chatting with a friend, rather than doing an assignment!"
Students reading different books said "it was great to learn about the other novel" and to be able to compare the characters. As I hoped, talking about the "other book" encouraged the students to read both of Curtis' novels: "Thanks to these discussions, I will be reading Bud, Not Buddy during our break, since I've already finished The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963." Others didn't wait until break: "In fact, I read both books, and my e-pal did too!"
The e-pal assignment promises to have an impact on my students' classrooms this fall. Many of the students mentioned that they would be using one of Curtis' books with their own students: "I teach middle school language arts and I believe that my students will really enjoy the book just as much as my e-pal and I did!" Additionally, others talked about using the e-pal idea with their students: "As a high school English teacher, I can definitely foresee using the e-pal activity in my classroom. E-mail offers a familiar venue for high-schoolers to explore and communicate with each other."
Some students talked about the notion that discussing the books via e-mail made the discussions more special than face-to-face conversations, in that "there's something to be said about writing down one's thoughts and questions and getting a reply." Also, one student noted that "no matter what I was thinking about the book, I knew my e-pal would listen!"
Star #5: BUD,
NOT BUDDY AS A SOCRATIC SEMINAR
The seminar was the highlight of the course. The open-ended questions framed by the students enabled them to facilitate a thought-provoking, interesting conversation. The seminar began the posing of the opening question: What do you see as the theme of Bud, Not Buddy and why? By opening the door to a variety of responses, the facilitators were able to smoothly segue to the core questions: Some of Bud's Rules and Things for a Funner Life and for Making a Better Liar of Yourself are left out the book. Write an additional rule you think Bud might have written and explain your thinking. This brought some light-hearted, but wonderful, responses, sounding as if Bud had written them himself.
Rule #148 When someone
shouts, "Hey you!" pretend like you don't hear and leave
as fast as you can!
Finally, as a closing question, the students reminded us that one of Bud's prized possessions was his pebble collection. They gave us each a pebble and asked that if we were to give a pebble to someone, what would we inscribe on it. This question produced very heartfelt answers, helping all to focus on what truly is important, as Bud does.
Bud and Kenny played an important part in my university level reading classes over the past year. We were able to enjoy Christopher Paul Curtis' books on a variety of levels in many different ways. We would certainly concur that young adult books aren't only for young adults!
Students who decry the study of literature come, ironically, from many age groups. Younger students who have not experienced success in early reading find comfort and stagnate in unchallenging levels, whereas older students engage in the avoidance tactics so classic of a "bored" audience that has been media-mesmerized. Because these layers of behavior tend to solidify with each instructional year, literature enhancement within the curriculum often presents a gaping "hole" in communication between what teachers believe students should experience and how that hope gets diminished within the confines of classroom instruction. What further exacerbates the problem is the good teacher-bad teacher guilt trip that festers when educators try to balance the limited reading selections mandated by school districts with literature that today's young students will actually read.
We have all lived the life of spewing out line-by-line interpretations of assigned classics. This method only widens the gap of communication between the literature selections that teachers force upon students and the subjects that students independently choose.
The distinction here is important, especially in a nation where a child's standardized test score replaces the serendipity of discovering a great piece of literature. Many of my former ninth grade students would react negatively when they saw novels that college prep or honors students studied in class. These students struggled with more than just the aspects of school work; they grappled with the relevance of school in their daily lives.
As a result, these young people felt out of place in the classroom as well as out of touch with books that "only the smart classes were allowed to read." Their assumptions carried the divisive, ability tracking stigma that most books were too difficult to read and understand, let alone enjoy. And as a teacher, I consistently felt the pressure that allowed my teaching assignment to dictate the book choices and methods rather than asking, "Do levels and test scores really matter if my students aren't even opening up the books?" Furthermore, how will my students ever become literate if they never read?
Rosenblatt tells us that literature should be "lived through by the reader"(277), and although the literature a teacher chooses for the older child may be more deliberate, there is no reason why it should not also carry the magic of early children's literature.
So how do we entice individuals of all ages into good books and good talk? How do we rekindle the experience of satisfaction through reading? This article shares several approaches to engage students at the middle and secondary levels by initiating a community of literacy through Louis Sachar's Holes.
One of the first ways to ignite the spark of Sachar's work is to entice even the most reluctant students to hear his work read aloud. Most teachers would confirm that getting the students "hooked" into the book is a large part of the literacy battle, so why not let the immediacy of Sachar's technique cast the first lure? Reading aloud serves two purposes. It invites the accomplished reader to solve the mystery by scattering bits of a story puzzle that leave the reader searching for one more piece of information. At the same time, it scaffolds the reluctant reader to think, "Okay, I'll just read the next really short chapter to see what happens." Students quickly notice that Sachar's second chapter is only one-page in length. So the reader gets hooked and subtlety becomes reeled into the excitement of reading in several unique ways.
At first, reading aloud can be uncomfortable, and I found that my high school students initially cringed at their traditional perceptions of the idea. But once I dropped a direct teaching façade and invited my students to perform a readers' theater from the first two pages of the story -- which happen, ironically, to include the entire first chapter - our read aloud was well on its way.
My students, instinctively, remarked that Sachar's writing style "sounded like school rules." Why are the sentences so short? Why did he indent so much? Why do some things happy "usually"? Why do they happen "always"?
As if I had planned it that way, the fifteen students present in my at-risk English class that day decided to take "one sentence each" In addition, the six ESL students in the group further participated by re-reading the clipped style sentences in their native language.
Students reacted to this experience in a meaningful way when they realized that the simple words Sachar used were put together in a way that allowed the mood to come through, even when we used word from a different languages. One student said, "Sachar writes like people think." This surprised me because I had always had difficulty trying to convince students that syntax and diction are essential to an author's voice and style. And instead of telling students this was so, they had an opportunity to discover it through the reading experience.
For young people and adults, an author who begins a story by saying, "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake"(3) also gives us a sense that he is "real," and he understands the irony of world in which we live. Sachar establishes Stanley Yelnats, a sympathetic hook upon whom we can hang the cloak of our naiveté.
Another important feature about using Holes in the classroom lies in the "reading sense of satisfaction" it offers to audiences of all ages. It provides one of Mem Fox's sixth necessities for books through its ability to present "readers with real rewards for the effort of reading them"(99). Students believe that Stanley is real because Stanley's reasoning about events in life reconciles the frustration and irony of events in their own lives. We live in a nation where Stanley's logic: "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy" (5) can be juxtaposed with the reality of our students' educational realities: "If you take a poor student and make him take a high stakes test every year and publish the results, he will turn into a good student."
This introduction to the text through Chapter 1 sets the stage for the next step where students at all grade levels are asked to speculate through dialogue about the book. In my experiences, this has opened the door for fourth graders to collaborate with the fifth graders across the hall. Secondary teachers have gathered students of all ability groups into literacy centers for peer discussions. The basic skills students and the honors students collaborate. The playing field is level because, for the first time in many of our students' lives, the ability levels are leveled.
Finally, preservice teachers from a local university have frequently shared in guiding this literacy process because facilitating Holes in a field-based setting has become a vital performance assessment in the language arts methods curriculum for elementary and secondary education majors.
It is exciting to see the community of learners that begins to take shape as students of all grades and ability levels see others carrying the exact same book to class. Holes does not require a "simplified" version, nor does it suggest that grownups are too mature to read it. What's most important is the implication that this literature selection is for everyone. Students actually bring the book to class because they are not embarrassed by the size of the type or the fact that they are the only grade or ability level enchanted by the ease of Sachar's writing. One middle level student thought it was "cool" that the student teacher from a local university was reading the same book as her fourth grade class.
Teachers expressed surprise when Whitin's "literature circles and sketch to stretch" activities became more extended because their students had actually done the reading. They delighted in orchestrating from the sidelines rather than threatening or planning sneaky pop quizzes to ensure the students had really read the assigned chapter. Probably the most refreshing comment came from teachers who said, "We actually talked with our students about the story rather than teaching at them."
Some of the most interesting responses resulted when several teachers and multiple classes read the book over the same period of time. This simple change in the scope and sequence of the curriculum initiated the transformation to a community of readers. Further, the lines of demarcation between ability levels tended to blur quite quickly as one group of students hiked to the outside commons area to plot out a hole that "must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction"(Sachar 13).
This group pondered the mathematical calculations for volume and space. They plotted space, then taped it off, then roped it off. The key, however, was in the magic of this "imaginary hole" becoming the focal point of discussion for students, teachers, staff, administrators, and visiting community members. Everyone had to offer an opinion, and everyone empathized with Stanley in Chapter 7 when he looked helplessly at his shovel and thought, "It wasn't defective. He was defective"(27).
At this point in the novel, one student who was receiving special needs services, came to my classroom and said, "When Stanley said he had only 'ten million more [holes] to go'(28) I know exactly how he feels. That's what I feel like when I try to read." Genuine, honest talk centered around many aspects of Sachar's book.
One group of students chose to work as biologists to investigate lizards, especially the validity of Stanley's belief that "Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you but you don't want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard"(4). We talked about the process of canning fruit and speculated about wild onions. Instructions and family traditions for canning preserves became a part of classroom writing. The sensory experience of holding, touching, and smelling onions permeated the learning atmosphere. I often wondered if our eyes watered from the onions or from the sheer joy of the literary journey that enveloped us.
The enchantment of discovery through the lens of Stanley's situation eroded the tough veneer that children and adults tend to place between themselves, their classmates, and their teachers. It also served to blend the hierarchy of perceptions in terms of what students think teachers value as good books or schoolwork and what children instinctively enjoy through good literature and inquiry. This common ground holds importance, especially as a teacher's instructional goals outside the classroom must compete with the immediate graphics and allure of MTV, skate boards, and video games. Students have commented that they are so "into" the action of this book that they have actually read it at home!
Parents who see their child reading Sachar comment about the innocence in Holes that allows us to giggle, ponder, and twist our hair with Stanley's frustrations. We don't feel so compelled to know it all, have it all, or be it all. One high school mom commented that she actually talked "with" her son about the book, rather than talking "at" him about his grades. She asked me what I was doing in my English classes that seemed to "cure his apathy" about school.
Sachar addressed this mom's question in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. Basically, he said that Holes was "meant to be enjoyed. If there's any lesson at all, it is that reading is fun"(Nilsen and Donelson 203). What's ironic, however, is Sachar's admission that fun and enjoyment were not on his mind when he was writing Holes. In fact, his purpose in writing was to "put all the elements of the story together: plot, character development, theme, etc."(203).
For teachers of English,
this paradox illustrates an important lesson. It nudges us to balance
all of the standards and benchmarks of our "content stuff" with
the spark and enthusiasm so vital in sustaining life long literacy
skills. To this end, a literature selection like Louis Sachar's Holes fills
the relevance gap that educators crave as we look to refresh an outdated
curriculum or shed a monotonous teaching approach. Most importantly,
the infusion of this 1999 Newbery Medal into our nation's traditional
canon carves a respectable, academic niche for young adult literature.
I am the daughter of dreamers.
I know by heart the
tale of my grandfather
My grandmother told
me about her life as a girl,
I am the daughter of dreamers.
My life and my friendsâ lives,
Who brought these
lives to us?
The sun rises--
He packs his bags,
A second chance.
He departs down the
Before him he sees
Now is the time to
never looking back
He whispers to himself
Remember Joy and
For you shall never
He continues his
A place where pain
A new beginning.
When I began junior high school in September of 1963-John F. Kennedy was still alive, Martin Luther King had only a week before delivered his great "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Bob Dylan's "Blowin In The Wind" as sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, had reached the same level of popularity as teenage love songs.
By the time I began my senior year in high school in the later summer of 1968-John F. Kennedy was dead, Martin Luther King Jr., too, had been murdered, and Robert Kennedy had had his life ended by an assassin's bullet in Los Angeles. We had 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, whose average age was 19-including former classmates and teammates of mine-and racial riots had broken out across the nation. A drug epidemic had swept from the streets to the colleges and to the high schools. And when my English class took a bus that fall to see Hamlet in San Francisco, we saw hundreds of kids our age and younger, panhandling and living on the streets.
By the mid 1960's and into the 1970's California English teachers, partially in response to the social crisis and partially out of the idealism of the early 1960's-transformed the teaching of English in California. While keeping standards intact, English teachers expanded the curriculum to include the study of film as literature and to study, too, the lyrics of Dylan, Paul Simon, John Lennon and Paul McCartney as poetry. California English teachers expanded the canon to include contemporary authors like James Baldwin, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Heller, among many others. While not jettisoning standards, students were encouraged by teachers to move beyond the five-paragraph essay-and to write personal essays, short stories and poems while not neglecting grammar or vocabulary. Creative Writing and Journalism programs were not given short shrift. And reform minded California teachers were part of a national movement to understand that children from ghetto and barrio and poverty schools came to school with special needs and problems.
wo men who emerged from the social crisis of the 1960's, James Moffett and Jonathan Kozol, offer us today a way to combine "results" based instruction with teaching methods and curriculum that achieves creativity and integrity. Moffett died six years ago this December and he, I am sure, would never have made peace with the high stakes testing and accountability movement. Kozol is very much alive and he has never been known to compromise his principles. Be that as it may, it is my belief that Moffett and Kozol's ideas can lead us out of an impossible impasse in the debate between old time reformers and the current standard based traditionalists.
Those of us who are opposed to the high stakes testing and the accountability movement need to admit, however, that the current sad state of affairs has emerged from genuine grievances. These include: thirty years of grade inflation, a belief in the most shallow aspects of the self esteem movement, magical thinking related to the benefits of computer technology, widespread loosening of discipline related to violent and disruptive behavior, and utopian schemes to make school a place of no failure and no pain for every student.
Reformers need to be cognizant of the justice of many of the traditionalists complaints just as traditionalists need to understand that students are not and cannot be all cut from the same cloth. Implementation of Moffett's ideas about writing and understanding Kozol's plea for children raised in deprivation can be integrated into the traditionalist concern for standards.
James Moffett was an editor, an essayist, and a teacher whose contributions to the teaching of writing are invaluable. One of his greatest insights was the idea of student writers using professional writers as role models in terms of practicing the writing process of drafting, editing, and final publication. Moffett demonstrated in "Coming on Center" as well as numerous other essays-that the best writing emerges from listening to one's inner voice, something inimical to high stakes writing tests like the timed A.P. writing exams or the 20 minute SAT writing sample. As Moffett stated: "The processes of writing cannot be realistically perceived and taught as long as we try to work from the outside in. The most fundamental and effective way to improve compositional "decisions' about word choice, phrasing, sentence structure, and overall organization is to clarify, enrich, and harmonize the thinking that predetermines the student's initial choice of these. We must never forget, no matter how much a technocratic mentality and uncontrolled educational-industrial complex bullies us the other way, that the heart of writing beats deep within a subjective inner life that, while neither audible nor visible at the time the most important action is occurring, governs all those choices that a composition course tries belatedly to straighten out."
If we must prepare our students for timed writing exams, we must also instruct students in process writing. Students can and will learn strategies for both.
"Coming On Center" is not the book of a utopian or of a writer who wants to make children the center of the universe. Mofett wanted students to read great literature in order to link their inner lives with the lives of others. Moffett propose non traditional methods in order to make a point traditionalists can agree with: "?
From reading and
reacting together to literature, children learn that many of their
feelings, experiences, and wonderings have been written about by people
now adults. They can feel
A student centered English class, thus, is one whose intent is to bridge the gaps between students and adult society. A student centered English class, if I understand Moffett correctly, is an induction of students into the greater world shared by teenagers and adults, something traditionalists also believe.
Jonathan Kozol's "Amazing Grace" is a heart breaking description of the South Bronx community befriended by the author. The boys and girls in "Amazing Grace" are not stupid, quite the opposite, but they are poor and deprived of many things-though not of loving hearts.
Kozol listens to
stories of children who mostly share a common fate-abandoned by fathers,
mothers often dying of AIDS, victims of violence -in an America that
seems to have deserted them. Yet the children are natural storytellers
and truthtellers and one believes, with Kozol, that if these stories
were harnessed in writing, as some of them already have-these children
could teach us all the meaning of courage and devotion and love. One
must ask the traditionalists and devotees of testing: what measure
can a test place on these stories Kozol has recorded?
Can we combine a
standards movement with classrooms that encourage innovative and creative
learning? We can. Starting thirty-nine years ago I was taught by English
teachers who prepared us for college and standardized tests and yet
taught the writing process, who allowed us to write of personal experiences,
yet who made us read great literature
This issue of California English is the second volume addressing the subject of Young Adult Literature. Submissions for the September magazine were so excellent that the CATE Board decided to extend our treatment of this topic.
My own opinion is that teachers should offer young people two very different kinds of books. One kind act as mirrors - reflecting students' own experiences with peers, parents, sex, drugs, and school. Young people need stories in which someone who looks and thinks as they do and has handled these problems, for better and for worse. I believe that apart from a lively book talk to interest them in picking up the volume, teenagers don't need a teacher's help with "mirror" books. In fact, our penchant for discussions about foreshadowing, symbolism, and themes tend to ruin such stories for kids.
Students also need books that act as windows. These stories offer readers access to other worlds, other times, other cultures. Few young people think they have much in common with Odysseus until an artful teacher helps them see how we are all on a journey towards self-discovery. Few relate to Pip until they walk for a while in Dickens' fictional world and begin to understand their own great expectations. It's not a matter of either/or. Students need both kinds of books. Of course, teenagers need help looking through the window of most classical texts. At first glance a classic seems opaque, full of incomprehensible references and unfamiliar language. It is the teacher's job to clear the window pane so students that can peer through - helping them learn to unpack inverted sentences, approach unfamiliar vocabulary, and pronounce characters' names. Often students need background information about foreign customs and cultures.
Many have abandoned the classics for more user-friendly titles. I feel this is a mistake. Just because students can't read a book on their own doesn't mean they can't and shouldn't read it with help. Instead of choosing more seemingly "relevant" stories, we should be showing students how classic heroes struggle with the very same monsters we face today. If I were in charge of the world, I would mandate that every ninth-grader read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How better to help young people consider the dark side that lurks within us all? The short novel is rich and layered, unfolding like a mystery story. Teachers shouldn't be put off by the fact that many students would find the text difficult. I have stopped telling students that they are going to love this text and instead tell them that what they are about to read may at first seem quite hard. I even warn them that, at first, they may hate it. I promise to help them through and also assure them that in my professional opinion, they will ultimately feel that the struggle was worthwhile.
It seems misguided to me that schools should reserve the classics for honor students. Ignoring the elitism that such a curricular decision betrays, teachers defend a simplified reading list for "regular" students by explaining to themselves and others that most teenagers simply can't understand the difficult vocabulary. Besides, they argue, today's kids won't read anything that is old. I worry that in our determination to provide students with literature they "relate to" we end up teaching works that students actually don't need much help with. And I worry that we do this at the expense of teaching classics that they most certainly do need assistance negotiating. This is not to suggest that we stop putting contemporary literature into students' hands, but only to remind ourselves that we should be teaching in what Lev Vgotsky calls the zone of proximal development. He wrote that, "The only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it." If students can read a book on their own, if this is a mirror book, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study. Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges to young readers. These texts should be books that will make students stronger readers, stronger people for having studied.