By Gianna Macchia
Today’s YA fiction is brimming with real word content, raw issues, engaging plot lines, perfectly crafted fantasy worlds, differing perspectives, and characters of immense depth. Above all, it is honest and unapologetic, with titles seemingly for everyone (and if not, I believe we are consciously working towards this goal). So how do we get fiction of this magnitude into the hands of teenagers and into our classrooms? How do we use this rich content to bridge often-cited classic texts with relevancy and social issues?
We are at a pivotal moment in education. Last summer’s renewed movement for Black Lives Matter, in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, created a ripple effect and put social welfare and justice at the forefront of conversations. Now topics and issues that were historically shied away from in classrooms have been brought front and center, creating a perfect opportunity to reflect, adapt, and change our current practices to include culturally responsive teaching. There is power in representation and visibility. There is power in tackling tough conversations that lead to meaningful discussions. Let’s challenge the status quo.
I understand disrupting a curriculum is a massive undertaking. We are going up against years of canonical tradition, systemic racism, and colonized education. Focus on what you can control in the four walls of your classroom. I believe that small shifts can create big change.
Before reimagining your classroom canon, make sure you have a solid foundation for the shift. Having worked with 9th-12th graders for the better part of 11 years, I can tell you that building strong relationships and providing engaging content (with student voice and choice) are the cornerstones of positive classroom culture and academic success.
First and foremost, you have to know your students. This means seeing and respecting them as individuals with different cultures, abilities, beliefs, identities, experiences, and feelings. You have to understand their strengths, interests and shortcomings, and how to support them accordingly. You have to know when to push and when to pull. Teenagers are complex and wildly interesting people. They are full of angst, passion, and questions, and if you can manage to engage and harness that power via your curriculum, you will be in for a truly magical experience.
I would like to help you create that magic. Let’s take engaging YA lit and pair it with classic high school English texts to create a socially conscious, diverse approach to teaching and learning.
To do this, I have outlined the steps I take when creating modern pairings:
- Recognize and address the possible roadblocks. A change to the curriculum is sometimes met with fear of deviating from tradition, lack of budget or funding, cultural and racial biases, or limited resources. These are all very real possibilities. Do not be deterred and start small in whatever way you can. The important part is that you recognize a need for change and try!
- Start with what you have. What books are currently included in your curriculum? Are these flexible? Do you have to teach all of them? When you reflect on the authors, ask yourself whose voices and stories are celebrated and whose are left out? Do the texts provide windows (or opportunities for students to observe, learn, and empathize with others), and mirrors (or opportunities for students to see themselves reflected)? If you notice your curriculum is lacking diversity, or key voices are missing, ask yourself, how can I fix this?
- Once you have surveyed your required reading, and identified the possible gaps in representation, review the titles. Ask yourself in what way are they all connected? What are the overarching themes or messages of the required texts? If you force yourself to move away from teaching in chronological order or fixating on content alone, the possibilities of connections become easier to make. When in doubt, you can always fall back on the connection lens: text to text, text to self, and text to world.
- Then, research possible modern pairings. You can start with a simple Google search, ask colleagues for recommendations, read book blogs/reviews, or use the last YA book you have read as a starting point. Now combine this research with your content area expertise and brainstorm possible pairings. Think outside of the box, and focus on the universality of humanness and intersectionality to make unlikely connections. We are alike in more ways than we are different. Remember, these connections should encourage students to think critically about ideas that supersede the content on the page. I suggest beginning with 1-2 pairings per classic text.
- Here are two examples:
- Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, paired with Trevor Noah’s YA edition of Born a Crime, and Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates. What are the overarching messages of these texts? This is where intersectionality is key. When I look at these texts I see the power of father and son relationships, the commodification of bodies, the systematic removal of humanity and dignity, and prejudice as a tool for power. You could also explore the author’s craft and the importance of memoirs as historical texts.
- J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye paired with Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez. What do these texts have in common? To start, the characters/narrators are on a coming-of-age journey, all trying to find their voice and place in this world. With these novels, you can explore the teen experience and how time, place, relationships, and identity lead to reflection and personal discovery. Using this lens will show you that a wealthy white teen boy, a Mexican American teen girl, and a Black teen rapper can all have something in common.
- Here are two examples:
- Once you have solidified pairings for your required reading, consider the types of writing, creating, discussing, and listening that can take place with your new diverse cannon as a base. Will you focus on whole texts or key excerpts? Will you teach them in lit circles or entire class novels? What type of extension assignments can you create? What real-world happenings can you tie back to the texts? How can you encourage students to reflect and connect?
You have taken the first step. You have acknowledged the need for change in your classroom reading material and in turn, positively impacted the curriculum. Remember that we are always learning and growing. You will make mistakes, you will have questions, you will sometimes be uncomfortable and vulnerable. All of these are normal. The important thing is that you are consciously aware of the inequities in representation that exist and you are trying your best to create meaningful moments and opportunities for all students in your classroom. Our students deserve to go to school every day and be seen, heard, valued, and empowered to be the first best version of themselves. What pairings will you dream up?
Follow Gianna Macchia on Instagram to check out more modern YA pairings at @required_reading_revisionist.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.