We are thrilled to welcome Rupsy and Alice to the blog today so that they can share their ideas for teaching social justice with young adult literature. Especially since COVID-19 began, it has been difficult to connect with others, yet students' development of empathy is crucial. We must find ways to help students read meaningfully and understand different points of view. Planning for these goals, and using young adult literature, can help!
A bit about today's authors: Rupsy Bajwa was part of the founding cohort of residency teachers for the Kern High Teacher Residency Program, and is currently finishing her third year as an English teacher at Ridgeview High School. She is also a member of California Association of Teachers of English. Dr. Alice Hays received her Ph.D. in English Education from Arizona State University in 2017. Prior to embarking on her PhD career, she was a secondary English teacher in Arizona for 18 years. She is currently an Assistant Professor in Teacher Education at CSU Bakersfield.
Young adult literature for social justice by Dr. Alice Hays and Rupsy Bajwa
Education has changed post COVID, we have realized that all of the things that seemed to be working before are not working anymore. With this in mind, I began my third year as a Freshman English teacher, and I promised myself that I would uphold the following principles:
- Incorporate more engaging activities
- Spark curiosity
- Prioritize listening and speaking skills with student led discussions
- Have fun!
With these principles in mind, I developed a unit inspired by Dr. Hays’ book, Engaging Empathy and Activating Agency. We began the year with defining privilege. The privilege for sale activity was my hook for the unit, and I hoped to spark curiosity.
Before diving deep into the problems that our community faces, I wanted my students to first understand their own identities. It was important for them to understand what their stories are and how they fit in this world. We watched The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to understand how stories are told from the white perspective and how stereotypes define who we are. After watching the TedTalk, students worked on the single story project where they created images of their face displaying adjectives or phrases that showed how others see them on one side and how they see themselves on the other side.
Here’s where the fun came in! In order to define and answer essential questions like what is equality in America and what is activism, students read various articles on equality and youth activists that they chose. We then practiced academic discussion and started doing Fishbowls. Students who were typically shy came out of their shells and also made personal and community connections with the topics. Immigration, for example, is something that students have personally experienced.
From there, I moved on with surveying my students to find out which social issues they were most interested in. According to the results of the survey, the following topics were most popular in all of my classes:
- Racial equality/discrimination
- Gender equality
- Mental health
- Abuse (domestic/drug & alcohol)
While we wanted to provide lots of choice for students so that they were able to both focus on their issue AND find a book they really enjoyed reading, there are a few books that the students seem to be particularly engaged with depicted below.
The first book is the graphic novel, Hey Kiddo by Jarret Krosoczka. If you want to know how to pronounce his last name in addition to finding out a bit of the backstory on this book,, you can find a link to his book talk of Hey Kiddo here.
The power of this book comes from the images and realistic story-telling. The main character has a mother who is an addict, and he feels as though his life is out of control. Although his life is difficult and his mother is unable to be the parent he needs, he is surrounded by love and is able to feel some control over his life through art. Students who have chosen this book in the past tend to be reluctant readers, but highly enjoy reading this book. One of Rupsy’s students was talking to her group members about how she personally had not been through some of these things, but it helped her relate to her step-brother who has been through those difficult topics.
This is the empathy we are hoping to develop.
Another book is The Border by Steve Schafer, which is about four teens whose family is murdered by criminals, and their only chance at surviving is to flee Mexico. Students are loving the story, and have frequently asked to continue reading the book (which is always music to our ears). Interestingly, several students have opened up and shared stories of their own family members who have had to cross the border for their own safety. Ms. Bajwa feels as though the book is providing a sense of safety for those students, as they had not previously shared their stories with her.
The third book is Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas. While The Hate U Give has received critical acclaim and notoriety, Concrete Rose is an exploration of how the story came to be. Maverick is the son of a King Lord, although he has goals to escape the gang life. Fate, however, throws up barriers, and we see how Maverick navigates the harsh reality he faces. In the literature circle discussions, students talk about how Lisa (Maverick’s girlfriend) assumes that Maverick is just another drug dealer while another student chimes in and makes the connection that this is how America sees black people, they see them as thugs or people who do drugs. The student also mentions how wrong this is and the injustice it creates for black people in America. Student also talks about how he liked the part where Mavrick cries and it shows that he is not heartless. Another student brings up how he was stressed from caring for a newborn child, so that’s why Maverick is crying. Students show empathy for these characters in different ways.
There is nothing better as a teacher than to have students enthusiastic about reading a novel and taking subsequent action after the fact! This approach lends itself to students having a sense of purpose, joy, identity, criticality and intellect in addition to the typical skills taught in class. We’d love to share with you if you have other questions! Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com .