Throughout the semester as students select books for independent reading (for which they complete a reading portfolio), they also must use one of those books to write an ALAN Picks review. ALAN Picks is a publication from the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) that highlights YA and middle grades (MG) book reviews including a pedagogical analysis, culturally relevant teaching strategies and ideas for student engagement with secondary, university, and library communities. For ALAN Picks students can use YA and MG texts that are either current Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) or were published no earlier than March 2020. For my course, I also require students use a book that is considered diverse through using the definition provided by provided by We Need Diverse Books (WNDB):
We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. *We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
It’s important for me to be explicit with students about what I mean when I say diverse and using the WNDB definition helps guide their text selection more successfully for their reading portfolio and for their ALAN Picks submission. In using the guidelines of selecting a diverse book, diverse as defined by WNDB, and the dates of no earlier than March 2020 set by ALAN Picks, it requires students to research new titles. While students are researching their potential title selection, I remind them that they will also be writing to suggest these titles to be used in secondary classrooms so to bear that in mind when selecting their text. Students last semester brainstormed some overarching guidelines they wanted to consider when selecting a text: less representation of trauma for BIPOC, use of different formats than traditional novels (e.g. graphic novels, verse novels, comics, etc.), avoid selecting texts with racist, ableist, and sexist tropes, include empowered characters, and position adolescents as capable. When considering including this assignment, or something similar, in your future classrooms, see what your students brainstorm as guidelines to help them with text selection.
As students move from selection of a YA text to drafting their writing, they are allowed to work with a partner to craft their review using the guidelines posted on the ALAN Picks website:
- Text details: Title, author, publication date, publisher, page number, ISBN and genre
- A brief synopsis (no more than one paragraph)
- A comprehensive review of the text
- Thematic connections and possible essential questions that support the close reading of the text
- Culturally responsive and sustaining teaching strategies and activities that encourage student engagement with the text.
- Culturally responsive formative and/or summative assessments that could be used with the text
To prepare students, especially non education majors, to apply tenets of culturally responsive teaching strategies to their selected YA text, we first define culturally responsive teaching. I share Gay’s (2010) definition of the way teachers teach:
Then, I have students identify activities that they’ve engaged in throughout the semester in our course that would be considered culturally responsive. I ask them to reflect on their educational journey and what activities they enjoy when they discuss texts, what activities they wish they would have opportunities to engage in more, and what activities may have been harmful that they definitely won’t suggest. As a class, we write a mock ALAN Picks review for our only whole class text, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, to give students practice engaging in this type of writing before going off on their own. I allot time in class for students to write, conference with me, and peer-review. Students also read recently published ALAN Picks reviews to understand the types of activities and level of specificity they’re expected to provide (they just published their first review from a teen, which is incredibly exciting for secondary teachers to be able to use as an example). This makes it less intimidating to the non-education majors to begin to grasp what culturally responsive teaching is and how they can suggest activities that are considered culturally responsive in conjunction with the text they’re reviewing.
I require that to get full credit for the assignment, students must submit a screenshot of their submission email along with their review. The publishing aspect of this assignment is particularly important in demonstrating to students what authentic writing is vs. school writing. On the Writers Who Care blog, Lindblom (2015) discussed how authentic writing assignments ask students to analyze their intended audience, practice writing in formal and informal tones, and understand the conventions required for different genres. In composing their ALAN Picks submission, students must engage in all three of those aspects of authentic writing. They must be cognizant of their audience (educators), write in an accessible and informal tone (compared to formal academic papers they’re used to writing), and understand how to use brevity and clarity to get their ideas across for the genre of a book review. The submission of their writing to ALAN Picks also requires students to engage in a task “that [requires] the student to produce a quality product and/or performance, for a real or realistic audience and purpose” (Wiggins, 2009, p. 30)-- a hallmark of authentic writing. I tell students how their peers in previous semesters have successfully had their work published on the ALAN Picks website and they understand they’re not simply imagining an audience of educators reading their work, but, rather, it is a real possibility their words expand beyond their submission to me on Canvas. NCTE’s position statement on the teaching of writing also advocates for educators to “involve writing for a variety of purposes and audiences, including audiences beyond the classroom.” All of these rationales for authentic writing, helped inform my decision to put the ALAN Picks assignment on my YAL syllabus as it’s a valuable experience for students to engage in.
Overall, including the ALAN Picks assignment has been one of my favorite assignments on my YA syllabus and has staying power for the foreseeable future (it’s already on my spring 2024 syllabus at USF). It’s rewarding for students when they see their work published on the website with their name and their school name and it’s rewarding for me to see our work expanded outside of the university classroom setting. If you have the flexibility to include this assignment, or a modified version, clearly, I would recommend it.
If you’re looking for other avenues to publish student writing, I recommend checking out the Literacy In Place Rural Teen Writing Contest for secondary students, submitting book reviews of K-12 texts to the journal First Opinions, Second Reactions (appropriate for secondary and university level students), submitting book reviews to Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature (more appropriate for university students, but with the correct scaffolding anything is possible for secondary students!), and maybe in the future Dr. Bickmore’s YA Blog can even carve out some space for the voices of adolescents and young adults reading the very texts we advocate for.