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:

11-Year-Old ‘Sick of Reading About White Boys and Dogs’ Launches #1000BlackGirlBooks

11-Year-Old 'Sick of Reading About White Boys and Dogs' Launches #1000BlackGirlBooks12

Marley Dias is an 11-year-old New Jersey resident who’s spent more time giving back to her community in her brief time on this planet than most of us will spend in a lifetime. She’s received a grant from Disney, traveled to Ghana to help feed orphans, and now—in her latest act of altruism—she’s rounding up children’s books that feature black female leads so that she and her peers have more fictional characters to look up to.

The project, titled #1000BlackGirlBooks, started when Marley complained to her mother about reading too many books about white male protagonists in school.

From the Philly Voice:

“I told her I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” Dias said, pointing specifically to “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the “Shiloh” series. “‘What are you going to do about it?’ [my mom] asked. And I told her I was going to start a book drive, and a specific book drive, where black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.”

Marley is looking to collect 1000 books featuring black female protagonists by February 1. She is nearly halfway to her goal.

“I’m hoping to show that other girls can do this as well,” Marley says. “I used the resources I was given, and I want people to pass that down and use the things they’re given to create more social action projects—and do it just for fun, and not make it feel like a chore.”

“For young black girls in the U.S., context is really important for them—to see themselves and have stories that reflect experiences that are closer to what they have or their friends have,” Marley’s mother, Janice Johnson Dias, tells thePhilly Voice.

Marley, who hopes to one day edit her own magazine and “continue social action” for the rest of her life, will catalog the donated books and transport them to a children’s book drive in Jamaica. She and her mother are also trying to start a small library in Philadelphia.

A fundraising website describes Marley’s project thusly:

Frustrated by the lack of books about black girls in her school curriculum, Marley Dias launched this campaign to collect 1000 books where black girls are the main characters. The #1000blackgirlbooks project is her BAM social action project for 2016. Books will be donated to Retreat Primary and Junior School and Library in the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica where her mother and GrassROOTS’ President, Dr. Johnson Dias, was raised as a child.

She is currently taking both cash and book donations. Books can be sent to the following address:

GrassROOTS Community Foundation
59 Main Street, Suite 323, West Orange, NJ 07052

Keep up the good work, young shero.

How to Make Middle School a Smoother Ride

The Atlantic
Most people are horrified by the mere memory of their preteen years. That might be in part because they weren’t reading the right stuff.

By Noah Cho

NOV 25, 2015
This story is part of a short series on innovative ways teachers are rethinking the traditional lesson plan. What’s one that resonated with you or the student in your life? Tell us about it: hello@theatlantic.com.

When I tell people I teach the 7th and 8th grades, their initial response is usually the same: “What a terrible age!” or something to that effect. Then: “How can you stand it?”

While it bothers me to hear strangers make these assumptions, I try to remember: This isn’t about my students; it’s about them.

People tend to recoil at the thought of middle school because of their own experiences. It can be hard for them to push aside the trauma or awkwardness they remember to understand why I love working with middle-school aged students.

That said, the preteenage years can be a fraught phase in life. As adolescence takes over, things become less black and white. Relationships evolve. Bodies change. Students become more conscious of their outward appearance and how that sometimes conflicts with what they feel inside.

I try to be mindful of the precarious path they walk during this time of transition.  On a far more essential level, racial and gender identity start to solidify as students begin to see how they fit into the larger world. As a teacher of literature, my role in that process might not be immediately apparent. But I’ve seen what exposing students to relatable works can do. I try to be mindful of the precarious path they walk during this time of transition, using the literature I teach and the lessons I plan as steadying tools to guide them.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to join the small English department of Marin Country Day School, an independent school that takes diversity, social justice, and inclusion seriously. We draw students of diverse backgrounds from San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay; the number of students of color at our school has consistently grown over the last ten years, now approaching 33 percent of the student body. We have openly gay and gender-fluid students, and a multiplicity of family structures at play among parents. My colleagues and I saw an opportunity for the English department to help students through these potentially turbulent years using the very building blocks of our curriculum.
When I started at Marin Country Day, the department’s syllabus already touched on aspects of identity—a few personal narrative essay assignments and poetry included. Given free rein by our school’s administration, and taking advantage of the fact that we were one of the rare English teams in our area that had more teachers of color than white teachers, we decided to make identity the central focus of our curriculum.

I remember walking into my classroom for the first time, bare walls and all, and spending hours poring over the existing curriculum with my new team. I remember a smile spreading across my coworker’s face as I pushed Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese to become one of our new texts. This was the kind of material we wanted students to know about early on.
We’ve continued to add more texts to each year’s plan that better reflect the myriad identities that file into our classrooms every September.

We choose writing from all over the world, stories that speak about gender and sexual orientation, and texts that touch on race and socioeconomic status. We can’t always cover every cultural identifier during the semester, but we try our best. And we make it a point to include our students in that process.

At the end of the year, students rate the three major texts and various short pieces they’ve read on a scale from one to five; when our department meets at the end of a semester, we try to change at least one text for the next year. Though we’ve consistently kept American Born Chinese on our syllabus, no text is sacred to us, regardless of prestige. Two years ago, we chopped To Kill a Mockingbird from our reading list in response to negative feedback from students of color.

During the annual survey, we also ask students for books they’ve enjoyed reading in their free time. As a result, we’ve added things like Every Day by David Levithan to our syllabus. The goal is for students to understand reading as an opportunity for enjoyment, not merely an obligation.

For an hour and 20 minutes a day, my fellow teachers and I have a chance to help them sort through the static and find a sense of place.
That enjoyment—seeing themselves and becoming familiar with identities deemed Other—is more than an escape. Students of color live in an especially reactionary world, one that is frequently unreceptive to their attempts to push back against injustice. Students who are gender-fluid or non-conforming still have to gel with a cissexist society. For an hour and 20 minutes a day, my fellow teachers and I have a chance to help them sort through the static and find a sense of place.
In a typical year, eighth-graders read several pieces about identity, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past two years, the fall curriculum has started with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, moved to excerpts from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and lands on a short personal essay by Alice Walker titled “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.”

Then we take a deep dive into what we call the “identity unit.”

On Day 1, students answer two questions in a writing exercise: When someone meets you, what is the first thing that you think they notice about you? What are some things you wish someone knew about you when they first met you? The students break into pairs, sharing some or all of the bullet-point lists they’ve created with each other.

Next, I have students read a modified version of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s article, “Iceberg Theory of Culture.” In 1976, Hall theorized we all have two significant layers: how we present to others—racial and gender presentation, etc.— and what’s “below the surface”—learning differences, morals, ethics, etc.

Students are asked to process these topics in different ways, sometimes physically. I’ll pose statements like “I think about my race on a daily basis,” or “I have been judged based on perceived socio-economic status,” and students will then move around the room to show where they fall on a spectrum, “agree” on one end, “disagree” on the other. We’ll usually have some class discussion afterward, and I’ll ask them to free-write a paragraph based on the topic.
I recently reached out to one of my former students, Darcy, who now attends Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She told me by email she still remembered the activity, a full three years later.

“Discussing our identities for the first time felt foreign, strange, and perhaps awkward,” she wrote to me. “However, the conversation about identity became more fluid with each new discussion. I appreciate that the iceberg concept was introduced to me at a young age because the activity forced me to communicate with myself in-depth, something that I know is hard even for adults.”

Once the class has discussed the iceberg and various identifiers, the students turn the lens inward. They spend some time brainstorming all the aspects of their identities, mulling over how much these elements contribute to their self-perception and how the rest of the world sees them.

To drive home these concepts, I have them visually create their own interpretation of the iceberg to depict their identity. In the last few years, I’ve seen students create models to speak for them—an advent calendar, for example, that featured “white” under a box labeled “race,” revealing “multiracial” once a tab was lifted. The student sought to show how important his multiracial Asian ethnicity was to his sense of self, though everyone else perceived him as white. Another student drew a cross-section of an apple, listing her presentational identifiers on the outside and her morals and ethics in deeper layers inside.

Most of the work we do around identity is geared toward beginning the long process of understanding these shifting concepts in society. These are issues my students will grapple with for as long as they live around other people. But already, I can see the impact of this work as students move on from my class. Again, I turned to Darcy to get a read on whether this material resonates.

“In middle school, I think many aspects of what I thought my identity to be were subconsciously influenced by my family. I wouldn’t say that pieces of my identity are necessarily easier to process now, but as I’ve matured I can identify independently,” she wrote. “I understand and appreciate that there is much more to a person’s character than what appears at the tip of the iceberg—a lesson produced by the discussions in my middle school English classroom.”

Reading Non-Fiction in English Class

Photo

Shanna Douglas, a teacher of eighth-grade English at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, has her students read nonfiction like speeches and letters related to assigned fiction.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.

In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different.

The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching, but one of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The rationale is that most of what students will be expected to read in college and at work will be informational, rather than literary, and that American students have not been well prepared to read those texts.

Photo

Under Common Core standards, the reading of fiction classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” is complemented by historical and contemporary texts like newspaper articles.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

At first, many English teachers and other defenders of literature feared that schools would respond by cutting the classics. That has happened, to some extent. But most districts have managed to preserve much of the classroom canon while adding news articles, textbook passages, documentaries, maps and other material that students read or watch alongside the literature, sometimes in strained pairings.

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent. Many educators say the shift was necessary, particularly in elementary school, where students encountered relatively little nonfiction. The change is seen as particularly helpful to boys, who lag behind girls in reading and tend to be more interested in nonfiction.

Schools generally choose their own reading materials. For nonfiction, however, the Common Core standards specify that students should read certain “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions. Many high schools have added these to American literature classes.

They have also added contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate. And along with “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, students might be assigned readings about Shakespeare’s life or a contemporary magazine article about teenage suicide.

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher, said he found that struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.

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Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader in Manhattan, said she would rather read books, not short nonfiction, in her English class. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

But Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader and an avid reader, said that while she appreciated that nonfiction could provide historical context for a novel, she got tired sometimes of the short informational texts she was assigned.

“We do so much nonfiction,” Karma said. “I just want to read my book.”

Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, said her son had a similar reaction last year, when his fifth-grade class in Dix Hills, N.Y., began the year by doing a painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For those who have not been in the fifth grade recently, the declaration was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.)

On the ninth day, she said, her son got into the car after school and started to sob.

Ms. Yaris said she thought the lesson, which is part of a curriculum suggested by New York State and used widely around the country, was not a good interpretation of the Common Core. “If you look at the standards and what they say,” she said, “nowhere in there does it say, ‘Kill the love of reading.’ ”

Susan Pimentel, who led the team that wrote the language arts standards, said she thought that reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was valuable, in part because it contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students’ reading comprehension skills.

Reading the G.I. Bill along with “The Odyssey,” however, gave her pause.

“It does sound curious to me,” she said, while adding that she would want to see the unit itself. “There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.”

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“Inside Out & Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai,  about a Vietnamese girl whose family who fled their country after the war, is paired with informational writings about Vietnam.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

If some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and abstruse, other choices — like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading— seem based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in, said Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University.

Without guidance from the Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts “very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”

Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.

“There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department,” Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)

Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.

“I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn’t leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security,” she said.

Some teachers, too, said they did not mind cutting back on some canonical works of literature to replace them with contemporary nonfiction that engaged students more.

Angela Gunter, the dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, Ky., said she assigned a “Beowulf” excerpt to her 12th graders that was shorter than the one she used to assign, to make time for them to read a nonfiction book of their choosing later in the year.

She said the decision was driven partly by the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction and partly by her recognition that students just were not that interested in “Beowulf.”

“If we had to get rid of some fiction,” Ms. Gunter said, “that was one that I was willing to part with.”

3 Strategies to Improve Student Writing Instantly

Edutopia

Ali Parrish

Educator, Educational Consultant

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Editor’s Note: A version of this post first appeared on Techie Teacher and Character Coach.

“But Miss Parrish, I can’t think of anything to write!”

Haven’t we all heard similar lines in our classrooms? We see hesitant writers sit with a pencil in their hands and a paper on their desks, almost as if they have been handicapped by the task we asked them to do.

How is it that some students have so much to say when talking out loud, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle and have nothing to say? How can you help those hesitant writers eliminate the “handicap” or barrier that suddenly appears when asked to write?

The answer is to simply have them produce “writing” without technically “writing” at all. That’s right, the way to get hesitant writers to produce as much “writing” as they do “talking” is to have them do exactly that — talk.

Strategies That Work

1. Student Talks, Teacher Writes

  • Have your student stand up while you sit in his or her seat.
  • Pick up the student’s pencil and simply state, “You talk, I’ll write.”
  • This usually catches students off guard and takes them a minute to realize that it’s a real option for them.

2. Audio Record It

  • Identify a way that your students can audio record themselves “speaking” their essay rather than “writing” it. This could be a tape recorder, digital audio recorder, student computer with a microphone or even an audio recording feature on your phone.
  • Hand that recording device to your student and say, “Step out in the hall and ‘write’ your essay using this.”
  • See confusion, sheer awe, and then signs of relief come over the face of your student.

3. Audio Transcribe It

  • Identify an app or tool that will transcribe speaking into text. Some options for this include PaperPortNotes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro, VoiceTranslator, or a text-to-speech tool that is built into many smartphones. Try one of these to your phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Before I had an iPad in my class, I usually opened a blank email on my iPhone, touched the text-to-speech button, handed my phone to my student and said, “Go ahead — ‘speak’ your paper.”
  • Next, see confusion, sheer awe and then signs of complete relief come over your student’s face.
  • After speaking/typing it, the student can simply email him- or herself the text and work on the draft from there.