Why Kids Can’t Write

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CreditAngela Asemota

On a bright July morning in a windowless conference room in a Manhattan bookstore, several dozen elementary school teachers were learning how to create worksheets that would help children learn to write.

Judith C. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, displayed examples of student work. A first grader had produced the following phrase: “Plants need water it need sun to” — that is, plants need water and sun, too. If the student didn’t learn how to correct pronoun disagreement and missing conjunctions, by high school he could be writing phrases like this one: “Well Machines are good but they take people jobs like if they don’t know how to use it they get fired.” That was a real submission on the essay section of the ACT.

“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.

Focusing on the fundamentals of grammar is one approach to teaching writing. But it’s by no means the dominant one. Many educators are concerned less with sentence-level mechanics than with helping students draw inspiration from their own lives and from literature.

Thirty miles away at Nassau Community College, Meredith Wanzer, a high school teacher and instructor with the Long Island Writing Project, was running a weeklong workshop attended by six teenage girls. The goal was to prepare them to write winning college admissions essays — that delicate genre calling for a student to highlight her strengths (without sounding boastful) and tell a vivid personal story (without coming off as self-involved).

Ms. Wanzer led the students in a freewrite, a popular English class strategy of writing without stopping or judging. First, she read aloud from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s 1995 classic on how to write with voice. “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes. “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”

Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.

“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”

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At a Manhattan bookstore, elementary school teachers take a Writing Revolution workshop that stresses the mechanics of writing over self-expression. CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said. Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.

So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.

The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.

A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.

“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”

There is virulent debate about what approach is best. So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.

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A pre-assessment in social studies by a Staten Island ninth grader, part of a Writing Revolution program.

That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.

Dr. Hochman’s strategy is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like “therefore” and “nevertheless.” After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.

The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”

One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.

As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren. It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.

“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.

Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. But in general, when it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’ ”

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In a Long Island Writing Project workshop, Lyse Armand analyzes essays and literature to find her own voice. The Writing Project stresses freewriting and revision.CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.

A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?

In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.

“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought. Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:

Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.

Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.

Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.

Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature. By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.

“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.

“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”

“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”

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Kathleen Sokolowski leads a workshop for teachers that focuses on narrative skills, part of the Long Island Writing Project. CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.

Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”

There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page.

Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.

All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.

Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.

In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.

Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.

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How to Be Mindful While Reading

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CreditSam Kalda

“Reading is so much a part of our everyday lives that we take it for granted – text messages, the banners that run across our televisions, the ads that pop up. And yet, reading can be a crucial opportunity for mindfulness — the ability to be in the present moment, aware while withholding judgment, both inside and outside of yourself. This summer, take a break from passive reading, skimming, reading-as-multitasking, and try mindful reading.” — Marcella Frydman Manoharan, co-founder of Cambridge Coaching, which specializes in academic coaching and mentoring.

Find a window of time when you can focus on your reading, rather than trying to squeeze it into a busy day or get a few pages in before bedtime.

Pick reading that will engage but not deplete you, something that requires a bit of mental energy, but doesn’t end up as another item on your growing to-do list. There’s a whole world of text out there to discover: novels, biographies, histories, but also collections of essays, science writing, poems and long-form journalism.

Consider reading in print. If much of your reading is on a screen – your phone, computer or tablet — then mindful reading from a tangible book could be a nice break from the pinging.

As you turn the pages, notice the quality of light, the color and even the smell of the ink on the page, the way that the spine of your book feels against the palms of your hands. You may find yourself more easily bored or sleepy. Take note: This is you slowing down – the point of this exercise to begin with.

Pay attention to language. Look at an individual word; look up unfamiliar words. Maybe you use a pencil to underline language that you notice, or maybe you just make a mental note. Either way, get into the details — the rhythm of a sentence, a detail that conjures a person or place. Notice as reading causes your thoughts to meander. Reading does not have to be a comprehensive or linear exercise. Your mind is not a vacuum sweeping up each word mechanically. You will invariably drift off, think of something else, imagine what you’re getting for lunch, or what you should have said to your date last night — all of this is expected.

When your mind wanders, gently usher yourself back to the text and keep going. If you’ve forgotten the last passage you read, you can always go back and read it again. Or don’t. There’s value in a bit of uncertainty, in finding peace within ambiguity.

Finally, don’t over-prepare for your reading. You don’t really need the perfect lounge chair, with light at just the right slant and a cup of tea precisely brewed. Mindful reading can provide an oasis even in more turbulent settings.

Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset

Edutopia

Use these novels to teach learning from loss and overcoming adversity to your middle schoolers and high school freshmen.

Heroes in books and movies captivate kids, many of whom could teach a master class on these characters. The fresh perspective teachers can offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, we can teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. We should show students that we also value process and progress. Heroic stories can help: They teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset.

The following books feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds and races, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce the initial lessons and keep students hungry for more. While these young adult books are typically middle school level, their resonant subject matter, complex characters, profound themes, vivid vocabulary, and historical contexts make them suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of the protagonists fool you: All of these books are worthy of serious study—and they invite multiple readings.

 

Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Ten-year-old Kenny is tormented by school bullies and his brother Byron, but when a family trip to the segregated South turns tragic, it is Byron who rescues his brother from trauma. Byron gently coaxes Kenny to reconcile with the monsters and angels that nearly destroy him. As Kenny makes peace with life’s joys and cruelties, readers realize that giving up is not an option.

Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: After the massacre of her father and many other members of their island tribe, an orphaned young girl is abandoned for 18 years when the remainder of the tribe departs for the mainland. Karana endures and even thrives by embracing enemies, both animal and human. This profound, beautiful story about the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit spurs students to summon their inner strength in the face of despair and desolation.

Brian from the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen: Brian enlists grit, guts, and the grandeur of nature to come to grips with himself, his parents’ divorce, and the harsh wilderness. Equal parts adventure and introspection, these stories promote inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.

 

Katie from Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: When a move to 1950s Georgia separates her family from their Japanese community, Katie survives the stigma of bigotry with the help of her beloved, optimistic sister, Lynn. Lynn’s untimely death leaves Katie heartbroken, but she musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Katie’s family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish hope even in the toughest of times.

Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt realizes that he is actually the clone of the evil drug lord El Patrón. Matt claims his own identity by recognizing that choices, confidence, and adapting to change create true character.

Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amid poverty and prejudice in 1930s Mississippi. Although Mama strives to shield her children from the pain of racism, Cassie grows up fast as the seeds of the civil rights movement are planted in her family farm. Students will struggle with the hard choice between standing down and standing up for yourself.

 

Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Stepsby Louis Sachar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, Stanley digs deep into a family curse that turns to fortune. This intricate, ingenious tale of friendship and fortitude will provoke debate about how much control we have over fate. Stanley and Armpit, the protagonist of Holes’ sequel, embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.

Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle: Swept into a strange, scary new dimension on a desperate search to save her father and brother, Meg summons the supremacy of love to win the day. Alternately harrowing and heartwarming, the book reminds readers that the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.

The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic can mean simply showing ourselves and others the best of what humans have to offer. We should cultivate and celebrate the hero living in each of us. Teachers can assist in this noble quest by supporting students in finding what is special about them (and each other!) and in nurturing the singular gift that only they can heroically share with the world.

Once students can identify positive, productive qualities in others—first in books and media, then in friends and family—they soon recognize and develop those same positive attributes in themselves. Teachers who attend to the whole child understand how social-emotional-soulful learning directly impacts student success and satisfaction and actively encourage their students to become role models in their own right.

New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality

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Students in Philadelphia waiting for an autograph from Angie Thomas, whose novel, “The Hate U Give,” won critical raves. CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.

Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.

That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.

Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.

When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”

“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.

This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.

In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.

Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.

While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.

The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.

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Ms. Thomas’s first novel explores the issues of racism and police brutality. It set off a bidding war among publishers.CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.

Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.

The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.

“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”

As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.

“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”

In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.

But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.

“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.

One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.

“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.

Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.

On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.

The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.

One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.

“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”

8 Empowering Middle Grade Novels for Kids Interested in Social Justice

Barnes & Noble

As the United States watches a new administration take over the White House after a contentious election year, a wave of social and political activism has swept the country. For generations, young people all over the world have taken an interest in social justice and found the courage to fight for their own rights and the rights of others. Here are eight inspiring middle grade books that prove you’re never too young to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference.

The Breadwinner Trilogy

Paperback $13.81 | $18.95

The Breadwinner Trilogy, by Deborah Ellis
This series follows 11-year-old Parvana, who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and her family is left without someone who can work or even shop for food, Parvana, forbidden to earn money as a girl, disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive. The Breadwinner is an empowering tale with a sharp and brave heroine.

Stella by Starlight

Paperback $7.99

Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in the segregated south in 1932. Out, late one night, wandering around, Stella and her brother witness a Klu Klux Klan activity, starting an unwelcome chain of events in her otherwise sleepy town. With a compelling and courageous voice, Stella tells the story of how she and her community ban together against racism and injustice.

A Little Piece of Ground

Paperback $9.95

A Little Piece of Groundby Elizabeth Laird
Living in occupied Palestine, twelve-year-old Karim is trapped in his home by a strict curfew. Wanting to play football with his friends, he decides to clear a rocky plot of land for a soccer field. When Karim is found outside during the next curfew, tensions rise, and his survival is at stake.

One Crazy Summer

Paperback $7.99

One Crazy Summerby Rita Williams Garcia
Set against the backdrop of the Black Panther movement, Delphine and her sisters visit their estranged mother in California, attend a Black Panther day camp, and discover their mother’s dedication to social justice issues. A moving, funny novel with a captivating voice, the sisters learn about their family and their country during one truly crazy summer.

Sylvia & Aki

Paperback $6.99

Sylvia & Akiby Winifred Conkling
Sylvia and Aki never expected to know one another, until their lives intersect on a Southern California farm and change the country forever. Based on true events, this book reveals the remarkable story of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children.

Operation Redwood

Paperback $9.95

Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French
When Julian is sent to stay with his disinterested aunt and uncle for four months, he discovers that his Uncle’s corporation plans to cut down a group of redwood trees at Big Tree Grove and decides to take a stand to save the trees. Perfect for the young environmentalists in your life, Operation Redwood is an adventurous and gripping tale as Julian and his friends hatch scheme after scheme to save these giants of nature.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Paperback $7.31 | $12.00

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Dephine Mainoui
For more mature readers, this unforgettable autobiography tells the true story of Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old Yemeni girl married off at a young age, who decides to resist her abusive husband and get a divorce. A moving tale of tragedy, triumph, and courage, Nujood’s brave defiance has inspired generations of women and young girls.

Return to Sender

Paperback $6.99

Return to Sender, by Julia Alverez
After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family hires migrant workers from Mexico to save his Vermont farm. Tyler bonds with one of the worker’s daughters and navigates complicated moral choices in this award-winning novel about friendship, cooperation, and understanding.

 

The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books

Mother Jones

Attempts to diversify lily-white kid lit have been, well, complicated.

Shannon Wright

One afternoon last fall, I found myself reading my picture book The Sea Serpent and Me to a group of schoolchildren in the island nation of Grenada. The story is about a little girl who befriends a tiny serpent that falls out of her bathroom faucet. I had thought it would appeal to children who lived by the sea, but as I looked at their uncomprehending faces, I realized how wrong I was. It wasn’t just my American accent and unfamiliar vocabulary, but the story’s central dilemma: The girl wants to keep the serpent at home with her, but as each day passes, he grows larger and larger.

“What do you think she should do?” I asked, holding up an illustration of the serpent’s coils spilling out of the bathtub.

“Kill him and cook him,” one kid suggested.

It took me a few seconds to understand that he wasn’t joking. If an enormous sea creature presented itself to you, of course you’d eat it! Talk about first-world problems.

Roughly 80 percent of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers—is white.

I think of that kid from time to time when I need to remind myself that my worldview is pretty limited. Within five years, more than half of America’s children and teenagers will have at least one nonwhite parent. But when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at 3,200 children’s books published in the United States last year, it found that only 14 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters. Meanwhile, industry data collected by publisher Lee & Low and others suggest that roughly 80 percent of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers—is white, like me.

Writers and scholars have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for decades, but the topic took on new life in 2014, when the influential black author Walter Dean Myers and his son, the author and illustrator Christopher Myers, wrote companion pieces in the New York Times‘ Sunday Review asking, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” A month later, unwittingly twisting the knife, the industry convention BookCon featured an all-white, all-male panel of “superstar” children’s book authors. Novelist Ellen Oh and like-minded literary types responded with a Twitter campaign—#WeNeedDiverseBooks—that spawned more than 100,000 tweets.

Most hashtag campaigns go nowhere, but Oh managed to harness the momentum.We Need Diverse Books is now a nonprofit that offers awards, grants, and mentorships for authors, internships aimed at making the industry more inclusive, and tools for promoting diverse books. Among the first batch of grant recipients was A.C. Thomas, a former teen rapper who sold her young-adult Black Lives Matter narrative in a 13-house auction. (A feature film is already in the works.)

The market for diverse books “can’t just be people of color,” says Crown Books VP Phoebe Yeh. “It has to be everyone.”

Problem solved? Not so fast. For years, well-meaning people up and down the publishing food chain agreed that diverse books are nice and all, but—and here voices were lowered to just-between-us volume—they don’t sell. People of color, it was said, simply don’t purchase enough children’s books. But after studying the market last year, the consumer research firm Nielsen urged publishers to embrace “multicultural characters and content.” Nielsen found that even though 77 percent of children’s book buyers were white, ethnic minorities purchased more than their populations would predict—Hispanics, for example, were 27 percent more likely than the average American bookworm to take home a kids’ book. Yet the market for diverse books “can’t just be people of color,” says Phoebe Yeh, the Chinese American VP and publisher at Crown Books for Young Readers. “It has to be everyone.”

In an essay this spring, the book-review journal Kirkus revealed that its reviewers had started mentioning the race of main characters in young-adult and children’s books. The goal, its editor wrote, was to help librarians, bookstores, and parents find stories with diverse characters—and to challenge the notion of white as the default. Many applauded the move, but others were incensed, among them author Christine Taylor-Butler. For The Lost Tribes, her book about a kid who discovers his parents are aliens, she and her editor consciously chose not to reveal upfront that her main character (like her) is black. Highlighting the race of a nonwhite protagonist, she believes, will lead many buyers to conclude that the book isn’t for them—or the children they cater to.

Last year, after Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover won the Newbery Medal and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming was selected as one of the two runners-up, a white school librarian named Amy Koester blogged about the sotto voce grumbling she heard from other librarians who felt these books, with their black protagonists, would be a “hard sell” in their white districts. “If we argue that only black youth will want to read about black youth,” Koester countered, “we are really saying that the experiences of black youth have no relevance or meaning to youth of any other race.”

The biggest threat to literary diversity, says author Christine Taylor-Butler, is the “feeling that it is okay to destroy people on social media.”

Color-coding our bookshelves doesn’t just shortchange the black kids. It is well established that reading literary fiction enhances our empathy and our ability to gauge the emotions of others, so what happens to white kids who are raised solely on stories about white kids? Economists note that the ability to grasp the perspectives of people who don’t look like us is increasingly crucial in a nation riven by race and growing more heterogeneous by the day. In a recent TEDx Talk, Chinese American author Grace Lin recalled hearing from a school librarian whose students stopped teasing an Asian classmate after they read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Lin’s adventure story starring a Chinese girl named Minli. The book, Lin said, had made being Asian “kind of cool.”

Ellen Oh, the Korean American founder of We Need Diverse Books, points out that librarians don’t fret over whether kids will relate to a title like The One and Only Ivan, told from a gorilla’s perspective, yet faced with a book about a Chinese kid, the literary gatekeepers—from agents all the way down to parents­—may balk. “Some of our most popular books deal with worlds that aren’t Earth and people who aren’t human,” Oh says. “But the people you walk beside on this Earth have stories too.” To complicate matters, a shrinking publishing world has consolidated its marketing budgets. “Readers are led by publishers into fewer and fewer books,” observes Kevin Lewis, a black picture-book author who spent 23 years as an editor at major publishing houses. The result, he says, is that publishers often use a single narrative to represent an entire group’s experience.

A page from A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

This puts intense pressure on authors to get it exactly right, even though nobody can quite agree what that means. Over the past year, the creators of two picture books were harshly criticized for their failure to convey the grim brutality of slavery. A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, both white, showed the same dessert (blackberry fool) being made at different times in history. The book received standout reviews, but after it was eviscerated on social media for its portrayal of a slave woman and her daughter serving the dessert on a South Carolina plantation, a contrite Jenkins donated her writing fee to We Need Diverse Books. (Blackall stood by her work.)

Scholastic recalled this picture book amid criticism that it glossed over the horrors of slavery.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington—written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, both women of color—told the story of Hercules, the late president’s enslaved household cook, but glossed over the horrors of captivity and consigned to an author’s note the fact that Hercules eventually ran away (on Washington’s birthday, no less). In the face of internet outrage (#SlaveryWithASmile), Scholastic made the controversial choice to recall the picture book, because “without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”

(Since this article went to press, two more books—by award-winning children’s authors—have been subject to allegations of racial insensitivity. Lane Smith’s There Was a Tribe of Kids was viewed by some observers as demeaning to Native Americans. The other title, When We Was Fierce, by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, initially drew high praise, only to have its publication date pushed back indefinitely in response to online outcry.)

Some diversity advocates fear that the vitriol of the internet attacks will give pause to skittish writers and publishers. “For me, the biggest issue is the chill on diversity that is happening because of the feeling that it is okay to destroy people on social media,” Taylor-Butler told me. “We have lost the perspective that these are books and they are going to be imperfect.”

The questions roiling the children’s publishing world are among the pressing cultural questions of our time: Whose story gets told, and who gets to tell it? How do you acknowledge oppression without being defined by it? And to what extent should writers bow to popular opinion? There are no simple answers. But what seems clear to me, as a writer struggling to find the best way to tell stories to kids, is that my inevitable mistakes are well worth making. Children, it turns out, are the best critics of all. They read carefully and passionately, and when they sense you have missed an essential aspect of the story, they will be more than happy to point it out to you.

National Poetry Month: Useful Resources for Teachers and Students

Edutopia

davis-natlpoetrymonthresources-flickr

‘Tis National Poetry Month! In April, classrooms around the country will dive into the expressive art of poetry — Shakespeare, Neruda, Angelou, Hughes, Dickinson, the list goes on and on.

There are many great ways to bring poetry into the classroom, and whether it’s through reading, writing, or performing, poetry can be a great way to engage students. To help you bring poetry into your classrooms, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best open resources.

  • National Poetry Month, Poets.org: What can I say? This is a one-stop-shop for all things National Poetry Month. Poets.org’s resources include an insightful page for educators, as well as links to events going on around the country, a list of 30 ideas for celebrating, and information about Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 30. There’s plenty of useful stuff here to keep your classroom busy throughout the month.
  • ReadWriteThink Poetry Lesson Plans: There are a number of relevant lesson plans here for students of every grade level and reading ability. There are also some great interactive media for classrooms, as well as links to outside websites focused on teaching poetry.
  • The Poetry Learning Lab, Poetry Foundation: For students, the Poetry Learning Lab is a great source of knowledge, including a glossary of poetry terms, links to public domain poems, and inspiring essays on poetry from writers and educators. The Lab also features a useful page of teacher resources, with outside links and original content. Another cool feature, the Poetry Foundation features interactive virtual poetry tours of three U.S. cities.
  • Reading Rockets Literacy Resources for National Poetry Month: Helping students improve as readers is the focus of Reading Rockets, and they’ve developed this resource to help teachers use poetry to accomplish this goal. There are interviews with poets, teaching resources and many other useful tidbits. For teachers of English-language learners, Reading Rockets’ sister site, Colorin Colorado, offers some great poetry links, as well.
  • EDSITEment National Poetry Month Exemplars: The National Endowment produced these standalone lessons for select poems by well-known poets like Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, and Lewis Carroll. The poem-specific resources include a lesson plan, related resources, a link to the work, and information about the author. The lessons were designed for English language arts, align to the Common Core, and are meant for elementary, middle school, and high school students.
  • Selected Works, Public Domain Poems: This is a great place for students to explore the works of favorite poets, from Oscar Wilde to Percy Shelley. All of the poems are in the public domain and are open and accessible for classrooms. The Poetry Foundation also features an immense collection of more than 12,000 poems that are searchable by topic, occasion, author, and more.

More Quick Poetry Teaching Resources and Collections

There are so many great poetry resources for teachers, and it’s always a challenge to round them all up. Here are a few more useful links from around the web, including inspirational articles, more lesson plan collections, and tips for teaching poetry.

From the Edutopia Vault:

Each year, Edutopia releases a number of extremely useful and insightful blog posts about teaching poetry. These are a few of the most popular from the last few years: