The Importance of Research

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By the time this blog post goes up, I will be on a plane returning from a week in London and Paris. While I went on the trip to sight see and write, the friend I went with chose Paris because she was using the trip as research for her novel. She went to some of the places certain events in her novel took place to get a feel of the neighborhoods and how the residents lived. She also wanted to make sure she captured the “feel” of Paris, instead of relying on her memories from when she was a young girl. In our conversations, she expressed how much the trip helped her with different parts of her novel and allowed her to understand her characters even more. Seeing the places they lived and interacted with their city, brought new ideas about her characters and their relationships. She left with the knowledge that the feel of her novel will be enhanced due to her trip.

Now, I completely understand the privilege she and I have to be able to go on a trip of this nature to use for research and writing time. However, there are other ways to perform in-depth research in order to make sure you get your characters, their lives, their world right – especially when you are writing characters of color.

Every author, no matter what ethnicity, needs to do some research for their novels. Yes, your character’s voice may come to you, but if you only write from what you think you know, then you are getting it wrong. For example, I am currently working on a novel where my main character is a young African-American man. I’m a woman, therefore I have no experience what it’s like to be a young man, so I read a number of books, specifically memoirs, about what it is like growing up as a young Black man. My husband is also a sounding board because, well, he was once a young man. He is someone who has no problem telling me when I’m getting it wrong and every writer needs someone like that. Interviewing, getting to know people who are like your main character, and reading primary sources will help an author create a true rounded character who will feel real to the reader.

An author has to also think about the world the character lives in. I’ve traveled to different countries before, but this trip is the first time I truly took in my surroundings with a writer’s eyes. I expected London & Paris to be vastly different from life in Los Angeles, but simple things, such as particular facial expressions and physical gestures Parisians make when talking, caught me by surprise. It made me realize that with my own novel, which is set in Oklahoma, there is most likely small regional affectations that I do not know about. I realized then that I need to do more research about the world my character lives in. Using Google Earth to look up locations is a wonderful tool, but I need to do more. One idea, suggested by my traveling friend, is to use Instagram. Follow people who live in the areas you are writing to get a sense of the world they live in. Another source would be Periscope, that way you can hear and see the thoughts of the people who live in the area your characters do.

In the end, if you want to make sure you are doing everything you can to make your characters & their world come alive, you need to take the time to do your research. Do you have to do your research first and then write your novel? I’d say no. I’m doing research and writing at the same time, but I’m still in the first draft stage. All this research that I’m going to continue to do will show up when I begin to revise the novel. If you want to just write your novel to get your story out, by all means do so, but make sure you do the proper work, using all the research you’ve done, during the revision process. That is when your story will take shape, become a living breathing thing, and you want to make sure you get it right. Doing your due diligence with your research is the only way.

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Changing the Conversation

As much as I gripe about it, I love YA lit, and I love watching the landscape change into one more welcoming of POC representation. Things have definitely changed for the better over the last few years… but obviously, there’s still a long way to go.

One thing that bothered me, several years back when I first started paying attention to the diversity movement in YA lit, was how often the conversation repeated itself. First step, establish that diversity is important! Second step, discuss how to ‘write diversely’ and encourage writers to be brave! The weight of media representation weighs heavy on your shoulders, unnamed white author. Rinse and repeat.

The YA lit conversation always seemed to circle back to this “writing diversity 101” business, and it was clear by the tone and information given that the target audience was white, privileged. Ironic, no? I recognized that this as important, and figured the conversation would shift as everyone grew, the shadows turned, the earth orbited.

Surprise! The conversation didn’t change. It’s expanded to include more complex discussions, hashtag campaigns, beautifully compiled book lists, and so on. But still, the conversation always returns without fail, to the same refrain. “How do I write diversely? I’m afraid to get it wrong. Can you tell me that I did it right?” Occasionally, bloggers would point out that being able to ask these questions was a mark of privilege. That demanding reassurance and kudos for writing diverse representation was a microaggression in itself. That the privileged are centering the conversation on themselves, even when they try to be allies.

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, etc etc. So today, I’m linking to a few things that are helping change the conversation. Maybe not perfectly or even efficiently, but at least it’s not the same-old, same-old.

Bare Lit Festival with Media Diversified – read about the UK festival for writers of color here
Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award – promoting and publishing new writers of color
We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program – partnering industry writers and illustrators with up and coming writers
Diversireads’ Reviews – some of the most thorough, honest YA lit reviews around
Decolonise, not diversify – an important reframing of representation discussions
I’m Still Here | YA Highway – still an incredibly relevant post… here’s a quote:

There’s this weird thing that happens when we talk about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing and it assumes that because publishing is overwhelmingly white that the only people we should ask about fixing this are the white people in the structure. Or that because you can’t see us, we’re not talking. And it ignores first that most of us have set up our own groups and communities to talk this out, because we’re safest among people who understand the macro and microaggressions we experience day to day without judgement or fear. And second that we have been having this conversation for a long, long time…

I’m not advocating for silence, but for a restructuring of how we think about those of us underrepresented in the young adult publishing community. Instead of thinking of us as people that need to be lifted up or spoken for, consider us equals and the people who should be driving this conversation, instead of just grateful to sit at the table.

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Common Core in Action: An Update

photo-1As my first semester ended this past week, I thought it would be a fun idea to write a follow-up to my August post about the Common Core in Action. In that essay, I described my units for the first semester and how they connected with the Common Core standards. I was cautiously optimistic that my students would be able meet the standards I set out as I knew that they would struggle with some of the Common Core standards and the new structure to the curriculum. The Common Core focuses on in-depth analysis and use of evidence whereas No Child Left Behind did not. I also knew that many of my students, this year, were low skilled so I anticipated that many of my students would struggle with the curriculum. I hoped that by creating unique and “magical” learning experiences for my students, they would be able to succeed.

As expected my students did, and continue, to struggle with the Common Core curriculum. On the other hand, by exposing them to diverse texts, they have been able to see mirrors of themselves in the literature and that has helped a number of them become more interested in reading. In my first unit, I allowed students to choose from a list that I gave them, and many ended up choosing diverse texts because my list contained numerous diverse books. They did enjoy being able to choose books that were of interest to them instead of reading a book that was forced upon them. It was a great way to start the school year and allowed for some fun classroom discussions as students shared their novels. A number of students ended up reading their classmates books when they were done because of the conversations they had with each other. Watching & listening to their books talks was fun for me and I even ended up reading a few books at the request of my students.

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My biggest success, to date, has been the student’s “hero’s journey” narratives. Unfortunately, because of their reading levels, many struggled with Prophecy, but there were a number of students who enjoyed the novel. They connected with Kira and her journey, and reveled in the fact that Kira was a kick-ass hero, which was a departure from what they were used to. This ability to see themselves, and other people of color in literature, was reflected in the writing as a number of students chose to make their characters people of color. In addition to my students using a geographical location from their 6th & 7th grade social studies, I required students to research different culture’s mythologies and incorporate the stories into their narratives. While not all achieved this, a good number of students did an excellent job with their research and tying different cultural mythology into their stories. One student, who is half Filipino and half Samoan, wanted to use the stories from his Samoan side and I can tell you he did a great job! The excitement on his face when I told him he could, and his realization that his story, his culture matters, will forever stick with me.

Due to schedule conflicts and other crazy stuff, we started reading All American Boys just before the holiday break. It threw off my momentum a bit as some students really got into the novel and read it within a week, while others only read what was required of them. So, as the semester ends I am in the middle of reading All American Boys, and have actually been having some fun with it. My principal is teaching one class, so we are teaching this unit together, and we’ve come up with some very creative ways to engage the students into the content. We decided on the social justice prezi assessment, and will focus on students crafting their persuasive arguments after the semester break. However, we have spent the past few weeks laying the groundwork for evaluating arguments and crafting arguments using All American Boys and articles about police brutality. A number of students have connected with the subject, so the topic has been relevant to their lives.

So, while there has been some hiccups and some frustration, I’m happy that my students were able to see themselves as the hero and become involved in the reading. I am looking forward to the novels I will be teaching in the next semester (there has been some changes) and continuing to creating unique learning experiences for my students. I will admit that I’m very apprehensive for state testing as it is just 2 months away and there is more I’d like to get done in that time but I know it’s just not logically possible. Instead, I will continue to prepare my students the best way I can and hope they remember the lessons I taught them when they are taking the test.  While having my students score well is a goal, the fact that many have become readers again is much more satisfying.

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YA Asian SFF by the numbers

A few months back, I came across a graph of the CCBC Multicultural Statistics for 2015. The results were disappointing but unsurprising…

Multicultural Stat Bar Chart 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing that graph reminded me of a recent trend in YA lit — Asian fantasy. Or maybe it’s not a trend, and I only feel like it is because I’m Asian myself. Either way, I have mixed feelings about this type of book since it usually ends up being a) all my dreams come true, or b) a racist mess, or c) disappointingly mediocre and most likely written by someone who isn’t Asian. Some of my favorite (yay!) and least favorite (read: racist) books fall into this category.

Honestly, every time I hear about a new “Asian-inspired” YA fantasy, I feel a little shiver of dread. I wonder who’s it by, what’s the plot, and does it involve names pulled from a dictionary?

At any rate, I decided to figure out the ratio of “Asian-inspired” YA sci-fi and fantasy written by Asians and non-Asians (mostly white authors, let’s be real). Using the completely unscientific method of scouring goodreads lists and asking around, I came up with this list*:

Asian Sci-fi/Fantasy YA lit by Asians (17):

Ash by Malinda Lo (2), Half World by Hiromi Goto, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon (3), The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Prophecy by Ellen Oh (3), Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda (3), Alpha Goddess by Amalie Howard, The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco (2)

Asian Sci-fi/Fantasy YA lit by non-Asians (34):

Spirit’s Chosen by Esther Friesner (2),  Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (3), Soundless by Richelle Mead, Ink by Amanda Sun (3), Gilded by Christina Farley (3), Eon series by Alison Goodman (2), Cinder series by Marissa Meyer (4), The Walled City by Ryan Graudin, City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster (2), Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson, Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce, The Night Itself by Zoë Marriott (3), Fox and Phoenix by Beth Bernobich, Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine (2), The Fire Wish by Amber Lough (2), Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios (2), A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

*Note: I included SFF YA books involving elements of Asian cultures. I listed one book per author, but included the number of books in a series/standalone books that fit the criteria as well in parentheses. I didn’t count books that were obscure, fairly old, or arguably middle grade.

Well. I swear the perfect 1:2 ratio is a coincidence, but it seems to roughly match up to CCBC’s stats. This brings to mind two issues:

  1. What barriers to entry are there for authors of Asian descent in Western publishing? Especially those who want to write about their own culture, but are discouraged from doing so?
  2. What can be done to drive home the fact that Asia is not a monolithic culture or a convenient exotic backdrop?
To end on a happy note, here are a few of my favorite books from the two lists above: Half World by Hiromi Goto, Serpentine by Cindy Pon, and Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine. Do you have any favorites?

 

Related resources:
Tweets by Alyssa Wong on Orientalism
Cindy Pon on writing YA fantasy
Writing With Color, a great writing resource

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A Case for YA in the Classroom

#TB Bonding with students over books & authors.

#TB Bonding with students over books & authors.

 

On the first day of school I received an email from a student that made me smile. She wrote:

“Dear_________:
I know that you enjoy reading and so do I. I was wondering if you knew any good books I could read on the genre of sci-fi and fantasy?”

Can you imagine receiving an email like that on the first day of school? Classes were only 30 minutes and all I did was introduce myself, but I mentioned that I love to read and that I read diversely. This young lady, in her desire to become more well-read, reached out to a person who has the potential to make a difference in her life. That is a huge resonsibplity and one that I don’t take lightly. Of course, I sent her a long list of books and in the weeks since we’ve had some fun discussions about literature. In fact, as my students have been choosing a novel for their first unit (see my previous post that explains in detail) I’ve been having plenty of discussions and recommending books for them to read. I’ve also had students share with me books that they loved (I’ve finally read Go Ask Alice due to student pressure) and also conversations about books my students and I have both read.

I share with you this story because as an English teacher, I am in the perfect position to help encourage my students to become readers and to enjoy reading. Many students come to me who only see reading as a chore, a task that they must accomplish in order to receive a good grade. Very few of them realize that reading can be done for pleasure as well. Many of my students, when I ask them about books they read when they were little, can name a number of childhood favorites, so they clearly loved to read when they were younger. At some point, the joy of reading was beat out of them and now they come to me and balk at the 7-8 books I intend to have them read this year. How does this happen and how can we change this?

And that is one of the reasons why I choose the books I do. I use contemporary YA literature as a hook to get students to return to the pleasure of reading. I love reading YA novels because when students ask for recommendations, I can give honest feedback. Students look to teachers as leaders and when a student hears me say, “I loved this book because of xyz and I think you’ll love it too,” they are more than likely to pick up that book and read it. I’ve had numerous students choose books based on suggestions I’ve made for them. However, before I make recommendations I ask them, “What types of books do you like?” and then recommend based on their response. That is also another reason I read diversely; by reading books from all different genres I am able to provide suggestions based on student interest.

I write all this to encourage teachers to read diversely themselves and to not be afraid to use YA books in your classroom. We get stuck on “rigor”  and mistakenly believe that students need to read the “canon”, and by doing that we actually are not connecting with our students at all. We beat the love of reading out of them when we choose books from the “dead white men club”. I’m not saying that we throw out all those books all together, but that we work to achieve a balance of books that speak to students lives in the here and now, and allow our students the ability to see themselves reflected on the page. Remember, that as of 2014-2015 school year the number of students of color exceeds the number of white students. We are failing ALL students when we only have them read one type of story. By also reading diversely yourself, and reading YA, you are telling your students that teenage lives are important and worthy. That the stories of teenagers are important.

So teachers, try it. Ask your students what they like to read and encourage them to share some of their books with you. After all, I would have never read the Percy Jackson series, The Heroes of Olympus series, the Twilight saga, Go Ask Alice, and many other books if I never took an interest in the books my students were reading. By doing so, I made lasting connections with these students, who years later, still recommend books to me. And in return, some of my students have rediscovered the love of reading again. A win for all of us.


Speaking of reading good books and discussions, here are Rich In Color we will be reading and discussing Annick Press’s newest non-fiction release “Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City.”  Check out the summary below and read along to share with us your thoughts in November.

Urban-TribesUrban Tribes: Native Americans in the City Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale

The majority of Natives in North America live “off the rez.” How do they stay rooted to their culture? How do they connect with their community?

Urban Tribes offers unique insight into this growing and often misperceived group. This anthology profiles young urban Natives and how they connect with Native culture and values in their contemporary lives.

Their stories are as diverse as they are. From a young Dene woman pursuing an MBA at Stanford University to a Pima photographer in Phoenix to a Mohawk actress in New York City, these urban Natives share their unique insight to bridge the divide between their past and their future, their cultural home, and their adopted cities.

Unflinchingly honest and deeply moving, the contributors explore a wide range of topics: from the trials and tribulations of dating in the city to the alienating experience of leaving a remote reserve to attend high school in the city, from the mainstream success of the Electric Pow Wow music genre to the humiliation of racist school mascots.

Each of the personal perspectives helps to illuminate larger political issues. An innovative and highly visual design offers a dynamic reading experience.

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Common Core in Action

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With many schools already returning for the fall, and even my return tomorrow, I thought I’d do a different, more teacherly post today. There has been a lot of talk about Common Core the past few years and how it is going to “ruin” our students. Now, while that is a matter of debate, the theory behind Common Core is actually a good idea. The theory is to have all the states curriculum united so that when, say a student from North Carolina attends college in California, they should have the same exact skill set. We can’t disagree with that. However, the way Common Core has been rolled out, starting with testing and then the creation of a curriculum, is what has many folks up in arms (at least for English/Language Arts).

A few years ago I attended a conference designed for teachers to learn about the Common Core standards and how it would change our teaching. A teacher asked about curriculum plans, and when the responder stated that the plans would not be available until 2018, yet testing would begin in 2014, the room was filled with a thousand gasps. My co-worker and I glanced at each other and chuckled. See, I haven’t used a purchased curriculum plan in…oh never. I’ve been given textbooks, but I’ve always used them a supplemental to the curriculum I create. In fact, I stopped using my literature textbooks a few years ago and now they’re just decorating my shelf. I’ve completely switched to novels and supplemental non-fiction articles that I find in the news and on sites like the New York Times Learning Network Blog. By creating my own curriculum I can tailor my units and lessons to content that will be of high interest to my students. All of the writing that they do is relevant, in some way as best I can, to their lives allowing them to take ownership of their work. Of course, not all assignments are popular and sometimes just don’t work, but I do have students asking me “When are we going to do _______ project?” They are excited about learning, sometimes excited about the novels (can’t win them all) but most of all, they learn about their world and even discover what types of literature they like and don’t like. Most importantly, I choose novels that have diverse leads and all of my students are able to see themselves as the hero.

So today, I thought I’d give a little bit of insight into my thought process and how I chose the books for the first semester. I will also be including the Common Core standards to underscore how the novels and the assessments meet the standards.

First unit is titled “The Elements of Fiction” and has students looking deeper into what constitutes a fictional story and evaluating a novel for its elements. The students get to choose a book from a list I will give them; and based on my experience from last year, none of the books will be current movies. Students will either write a 500 word book review or create a new book jacket that evaluates the character arc, plot construction, the writer’s style & theme, and finishes with their own brief review of the book. The Common Core standards this meets are: Reading Standards for Literature 2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standards 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. Of course, throughout the unit I will be addressing other standards that will help the students meet the two main standards I have chosen to assess.

The second unit is titled “The Hero’s Journey” and builds off the previous unit. This time, students will use the knowledge they have gained about the elements of fiction and will use those skills to write their own fiction. In the past, I’ve told students “just write a story” and many floundered, so a few years ago I changed tactics and now give them more specific parameters. The parameters change depending on the unit. Last year, the focus was on the theme of Coming of Age, this year is the Hero’s Journey. The novel they will read is Ellen Oh’s Prophecy. I chose this novel because I want the students to see a girl as the hero, as the special one, and to experience a culture outside of their own. Prophecy fit the bill perfectly. In addition to reading the novel and studying Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” students will actually write their own “hero’s journey” story. Students will chose out of a hat, the age and gender of the character, an external conflict (all are required to have internal conflict) and to throw in some research, their story must be from a geographical region they studied in 7th grade. This bit of research also meets one of the Common Core writing standards. Students will, again, choose to present their story as a graphic novel or as prose. The Common Core standards this unit meets are: RSL 3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of character or provoke a decision; and WS 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experience or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. Just as in the unit before, there are other standards in addition to these two main ones that I will use to asses students.

all am boys

The third unit, and last unit of the semester, is currently titled “Fight for Freedom” and is reboot of a unit I did a few years ago. In all the excitement over the Hunger Games, I decided to do an experiment and teach the entire series. The third book, Mockingjay, and its theme of revolution fit perfectly with the U.S. History curriculum my students were learning at the time, which was the start of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the Arab Spring was still in the news and I thought that tying the three revolutions together would be a good idea. In theory, it would have worked, but I was tired of Hunger Games and so were the students. The unit kind of ended up a dud, but what ended up happening was an issue with the city and my school, so the students were actually able to take the lessons learned about standing up for their beliefs and putting them into action. They were able to truly be a part of a real revolution. Anyways, I’d been toying with bringing back that unit in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how my students who feel they don’t have a voice (many of them are immigrants, or are the children of immigrants) can somehow find a way to share their voice. I hadn’t decided on a novel until I read Jason Reynolds & Brandon Kiely’s All American Boys. If there ever was a novel that was timely and full of protest, this is the novel. I know my students are asking questions about the topics they see in the media, and even hear from family members, and I want them to be able to learn to express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about issues that directly effect them. So while I haven’t exactly decided how I’m going to asses them, I do know what standards we will be addressing. The Common Core standards this unit will meet are: Reading Standards for Informational Text 2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of a text, including its relationship to supporting ideas, provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standard 1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. Last year, I had my Honor class choose a Social Justice issue that had meaning to them (a few even did police brutality) and had them create a Prezi presentation that persuaded us to their side. They had to provide research and facts to support their opinion. Those went over very well with my students, with many of them referencing what they learned from their classmates later in the year. At this point in time, that is the assessment that I’m leaning towards because the project allows them to choose a topic, research, present an argument AND use technology (which is another Common Core standard).

And that, my dear readers, is how my first semester is structured. If you have read all the way to the end, I thank you for your time. As you can see, teaching and creating relevant and interesting content for our students can be time consuming and require a significant amount of thought. It requires a teacher to truly know and be aware of their student population, and also be current on what is being published in YA literature. We don’t have to stick to the classics to find quality literature to teach. In fact, second semester my students will be reading two award winning books (Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and William Shakespeare. It’s all about how you present the material. I routinely change up my units (I even changed twice mid-year last year) to keep my teaching fresh and to meet the student’s needs. For example, with William Shakespeare, I always paired it with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio, and as much as I love the book, I was getting a bit bored with it, so to keep it fresh, I changed up the novel. This year my students will be comparing Romeo and Juliet to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other (and it meets RSL 9). I read the novel over the summer and found it to be a sweet quiet story that retold Shakespeare’s R&J in a unique way. We shall see how it goes.

Fellow teachers (and librarians who help teachers), I implore to think outside of the box and try to create your own curriculum. It takes a bit of work, but it is worth it. Teachers are some of the most creative people around, but are often forced to used purchased curriculum plans that don’t have a lick of relevance to our students. These cookie-cutter plans continually exclude children of color and they rarely get to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. It is up to us to help change that, and until your district requires you to use the plan of the month, create your own. You will be liberated with what you can create, what you can do in your classroom, and what your students can achieve. Because at the end of the day, we want our students to be betters readers and writers when they leave our classroom than when they enter it.

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