(Sam)antha Bridges has spent the last three years teaching ELA in Georgia. She earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Auburn University in English/Creative Writing. As a current student in Columbus State University’s Ed.S program, Sam aspires to become a master teacher through marrying her love for YA Literature with her passion for teaching students how to hone their skills as effective readers and writers in a media-driven society. Sam resides with her husband and daughter in Opelika, Alabama and will begin teaching at the city’s high school in the Fall.
Erinn Bentley is a professor of English education at Columbus State University in Georgia. Her biggest joys come from mentoring educators and spending time with her husband, two teenage sons, and puppy.
Hmmm…I’m not sure if I can teach this text.
We all have probably pondered this phrase at least once. Perhaps our doubts stem from a fear of “getting caught.” By a parent, by an administrator, or by a school board member. Recently, our state passed House Bill 1084, which bans the teaching of nine so-called “divisive concepts.”. Of course, our state is not alone. Researcher Jeffrey Sachs, from PEN America, reports that since January 2021, “...35 states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), encourage us to engage in anti-racist teaching, and affirm gender diversity through ELA curriculum and pedagogy. We are told to find texts that serve as “mirrors” for our students, representing their diverse backgrounds, learning styles, and interests. And we do. Or, at least we try our best to reach every student as we work within or outside of our limitations.
Sometimes, though, our limitations come from within. We may wonder, Will this novel ‘trigger’ my students? Am I really knowledgeable enough about this topic to teach it? Will this issue offend someone? Will this text be relatable and relevant to my students?
Today’s post is a teacher's heart-to-heart. We will discuss two beautiful and powerful novels as well as questions and feelings we have in terms of teaching them.
Regarding a bit of context, both novels were required texts in a graduate-level YA literature course, taught this summer by Erinn. Sam, a high-school English teacher, was one of the class members. Our discussion in this post reflects our individual responses and topics raised in our class discussions.
Wintergirls follows Lia, an affluent, white teen who has teetered on recovery from her eating disorder for the last few years. The novel opens up with Lia’s step-mother breaking the news of her childhood best friend’s death. This news plunges Lia back into the throes of her obsessive thoughts as she tries to process her best friend’s death and figure out how she died. Lia’s grief, eating disorder, and overall mental health take the reader on a tumultuous ride as Lia navigates her ultimate choice: living.
The first time I read Wintergirls I was a Freshman in high school, and though I do not suffer from an eating disorder or come from the same affluence as Lia, I still found myself in her self-hatred and burden of grief. Now, as a teacher, reading Wintergirls a solid thirteen years later, I have serious hesitations about teaching it to my tenth graders. While part of this hesitation stems from representation (I teach at an inner city school where the majority of my students are African American), I am more concerned with how to proactively teach mental health and under its umbrella – eating disorders, self-harm, and grief.
Approaching such sensitive subjects with students and not knowing their personal experience could trigger their past traumas and ruin their whole day, week, or semester. Even though I incorporate free-writes into my classroom and try to allow room for guided classroom discussions, the challenge still remains because not every student is willing to share personal details from their lives.
However, I think I would find the most success in teaching this novel to students if it were a creative writing course. Focusing the discussion of the novel on Anderson’s craft as she paints grief and self-hatred into concrete, beautiful detail would allow more critical conversations to bloom and remove students at least slightly from the brutal reality of Lia’s mind. Instead of in a traditional Literature classroom, where the focus would be more on plot, in a creative writing classroom the discussion would be geared towards how Anderson used language to convey Lia’s mental illness.
Teaching the novel would be a fun and rewarding endeavor in either classroom setting, but I think the decision would need to be based on the amount of time allocated to supplement the novel with well-rounded discussions and additional material on mental health, as well as who makes up the classroom – will your students see themselves in this book? For me, it’s a no, but one day, in the right circumstances, I’ll teach Wintergirls and celebrate Anderson’s impeccable storytelling.
As a white woman, who grew up in a middle-class, suburban family, and as someone who had an eating disorder when I was Lia’s age, I could relate to this character. While my disorder was not severe enough for me to be hospitalized, Anorexia negatively impacted my growth, my physical health, and my mental health.
I have always admired Anderson as a writer, and Wintergirls is masterfully structured. We see Lia’s interactions with family and friends in real-time, we hear her inner thoughts, and we escape with her into an alternate world her mind has constructed. These narratives truly show readers just how fractured and fragile Lia is. Honestly, some passages were painful for me to read because they transported me back to my own fragile time. This one, in particular:
“I’m hungry. I need to eat.
I hate eating.
I need to eat.
I hate eating.
I need to eat.
I love not-eating” (Anderson 145).
Lia’s internal dialogue perfectly portrays how I felt.
At times, reading LIa’s thoughts was triggering. Her words took me to a place I would rather never visit again. Other times, her words were oddly confirming or reassuring - a reminder that I really did suffer from a condition beyond my control. A reminder that I survived.
I believe this novel was appropriate to read within the context of our graduate-level class. As adults, we possessed the maturity to discuss the novel and this very sensitive topic. Some of us commented that there were many times we simply had to “walk away” from Lia for a while. Creating spaces to process and emotionally-distance oneself from a text is not easy to do, particularly for our adolescent readers and particularly for readers who may have a mental illness. For those reasons, I would not teach this novel in a high school classroom. One of my students suggested this could be a really important text for teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors. I agree. Wintergirls lets us inside the mind of a troubled and traumatized teen so that we can, hopefully, help the actual Lias in our lives.
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Girl Mans Up features Pen, a teenage girl who struggles to accept herself and find acceptance among her family and peers due to her gender identity. According to those around her, she does not fit their expectations. As Pen aptly says, “Everyone wants something different from me. It’s like one second, I should be a better dude…Then, it’s the opposite: I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right. I should be a girl…The thing is, I’m not a boy, but I don’t want to be that girl either” (Girard 42). Pen’s parents, who immigrated from Portugal, exacerbate her identity struggles due to their traditional values and worldviews. As Pen grapples with her family relationships, she simultaneously experiences conflicts among “old” friends and encounters with “new” friends that test her loyalty to others and herself. In the end, Pen finds the person she is meant to be through the love and support of those who truly see her.
I personally loved this novel because of how real our narrator, Pen, felt. If Girard has mastered anything in her storytelling, it’s definitely creating likable characters with distinct voices. While Wintergirls presents hesitations in teaching related to mental health, Girl Mans Up presents them in teaching a LGBTQ character.
Girl Mans Up presents a much broader range of representation to students, as Pen embodies topics of queerness, gender identity, and living as a first generation immigrant. While I still might not choose to teach this book to my population of students currently, I think it would be much easier to find an “in” for more of my students than Wintergirls.
Even though Pen’s sexuality is a topic of conversation for many characters in this book, I don’t see it as the driving force of the plot. This book is really all about identity. How we find it, what leads us to it, and how those we surround ourselves with influence it. While Pen’s identity may be more complicated than the average teenager, most average teenagers are struggling with some form of a crisis when it comes to figure out who they are and where they belong.
If I were to teach this book, the theme of identity would be the cornerstone of my lessons, as I think it would allow students to see themselves in Pen and reflect on how they present themselves to the world. Not to mention the richness of Gerard’s character allows students a variety of people, values, and actions to generate meaning in the story and in their own lives. Girl Mans Up is another book I will consider teaching in the future, as the lessons Pen gives us transcends identity and land on what it means to be a brave and good human.
I first encountered this novel when doing research for a previous YA Wednesday post. As I was creating the reading list for my current YA literature class, I wanted to include one with LGBTQ representation. Girl Mans Up immediately came to mind due to how relatable Pen is as a character and how raw her situation is. Often, LGBTQ characters are cast as the “gay, best firend/sidekick” or, if they are a protagonist, they are warmly accepted by their family and friends. Pen is neither a sidekick nor accepted. She is front and center in this gripping novel.
During our class discussions, it was interesting to hear the many ways we each related to Pen. Regardless of our age, race, or gender, we each saw something of ourselves in her: Challenging family dynamics, complicated (and sometimes hurtful) friendships, the expectations of others and society in general, and questions regarding one’s identity. As Sam mentioned, this novel focuses on Pen’s journey to figure out who she truly is. While her journey centers mostly on her gender identity and presentation, her journey is so much more than that. It is the same journey we all traveled in some capacity as adolescents.
As many of us in the class agreed, this novel could be a great read for high school students, depending on the make-up of one’s class and how the sensitive topics are addressed. Pen experiences verbal abuse, survives a sexual assault, and comforts a friend who has an abortion. M-E Girard’s descriptions are viceral at times, which could be triggering. It is the honesty, though, in her storytelling that makes the characters so believable and relatable. Reading through the tough scenes makes the quiet, pensive moments that much more poignant. For instance, this moment when Pen thinks, “People should just be allowed to look in the mirror and see all kinds of possibilities. Everyone should be able to feel nice when they look in the mirror” (Girard 301). I couldn't agree more.