Common Core in Action: Finale

photo-1At the beginning of the year, I wrote a lengthy essay about how I intended to incorporate diverse texts into the Common Core curriculum and laid out my first semester plan. At our semester break, I gave an update with my success and my challenges. Well, the school year is about to come to a close, with finals being next week (yay!), so I thought I’d reflect on how the first year of full implementation of the Common Core standards went.

Well, to be blunt, this year was a tough one and I’m glad it’s just about over. As I stated in an earlier Common Core post, my students are low-skilled therefore they struggled with much of what the standards asked of them. In order to help them attempt to even come close to meeting the standards, I had to slow down my pace which resulted in me having to make a tough decision. I usually teach Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in combination with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio which meets Literary Standard 8.9,  “Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.” This year I had planned to really dig into poetry by reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and then having the students write a memoir of their own lives using verse. I was really excited about the prospect of digging into poetry before Shakespeare, but alas, that dream was not meant to be. My students struggled with writing arguments (which I know is tested), so I chose to forgo my exciting poetry unit and allow the students to spend more time analyzing and writing about the issues presented in All American Boys. It was a tough decision, but in the end a good one.

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I didn’t end up skipping poetry entirely, but made it a shorter unit where the students just learned to analyze poetry by looking at a poem’s different elements and by writing a lot of poetry. We read Nikki Grimes’s classic Bronx Masquerade, and the students really got into the book. They, again, connected with a number of the characters and found their own voices by seeing how open the characters were with their words. In addition, we were studying Bronx Masquerade during National Poetry Month, so the students were writing poems almost every day. I was astounded by the creativeness and the depths my students were willing to go to in expressing themselves with their poetry. We all had a lot of fun, while meeting more Common Core standards.

At the beginning of this month, my students took the SBAC (Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium) test. While I have not received the results of the test back yet, I am cautiously optimistic because I know that my students were prepared for the test. By slowing down my pace, I allowed my students to really think about what they were reading, analyze it, and then write about it. I gave them the tools to craft good arguments, and I saw these strategies come to fruition during the test. While I was not over their shoulders reading (or even giving feedback because that is against the law), my students took their time during both sections of the test, and were using all the tools the SBAC test provides. I was very pleased to see that my students were displaying the knowledge that they learned over the past school year.

So, what did I do with my students to wrap up the school year? Well, they are currently preparing to give a panel type presentation of a social experiment they performed last week. Because I teach 8th graders who are fidgety this time of year, I have them participate in a Rice Baby project, which ultimately grounds them in the last few weeks of school year. They read Gaby Rodriguez’s memoir, The Pregnancy Project and used it as a template to perform an experiment that tested people’s perceptions about teen parents, specifically teen parents of color. Again, students really got into the novel, especially since Gaby is Mexican-American like many of my students. They enjoyed discussing the novel and got into the research, planning, and execution of their experiment. At this date, they are working on their experiment write-ups and preparing their panel presentations where they will share their conclusions from the project. This project, again, meets a number of the Common Core standards, yet has the students engage with the standards in a unique way, that connects to their daily lives.

Overall, I’ve worked hard this year to help my students get to where I want them to be and I can only hope that when they begin their high school careers in the fall, they feel like the education they received from me was worth it.

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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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