Thank You, Mrs. Benson!

“Thank you, Mrs. Benson.”

That’s how I ended my brief tribute to my senior English teacher, Barbara Benson, and her bold choice “to teach” Richard Wright’s Black Boy (Journey Book VoiceThread, ECI 521: Learning Through Literature with Young Adults).

I have to marvel all the more about Mrs. Benson’s bold choice because she was fresh out of then High Point College and we were her first senior English class.  She was a mere four years older than us but in many ways a lifetime ahead.

I do believe that she “opened a mind” – mine – and is directly responsible for how I teach this course and my encouragement for my students to make the bold choices and make them wisely.

print of adult reading with child

Standards-wise, I see Mrs. Benson’s influence in my efforts to develop a framework for learning through literature with young adults.  She probably gave me my first lesson in social justice as we read and discussed Richard Wright’s plight as a black man in the segregated South.

I’ve endeavored to place social justice and critical literacy at the heart of the “Learning Through Literature with Young Adults” Framework by beginning with a review of crucial literacy, literature, and learning theories so that we can all envision how literature can serve to “open minds.”  And because of my lifelong interest in creativity, I was thrilled to see the social justice/critical literacy and creativity link through Dan Pink’s inclusion of empathy as an element of creativity.

I think beginning with the theoretical basis for how to create the conditions for students to become more conscious of social justice and critical literacy has led naturally to connections made throughout our collaborative critical inquiries, particularly in our inquiry into multicultural literature.

I hope to bring more of a global literature perspective to the course, and that’s one reason I was so excited to read Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock.  With Finnikin, Melina has written an epic fantasy that reads as if the characters are contemporary refugees that we see on TV or YouTube as they struggle to survive starvation, disease, and massacre.  When Froi holds up the refugee baby, I see an icon representing thousands of babies in numerous countries around the world.  Such a bold choice for Melina, an award-winning author of contemporary problem novels, to choose to tell this story as an epic fantasy.  She succeeds beautifully.

I mentioned my interest in creativity and I do believe that to create is a drive not far behind food, thirst, and sex.  I’ve really enjoyed Dan Pink’s latest book, Drive, and his theory that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are necessary to encourage creativity.  I’m working to build in more opportunities for these in the activities I design.  I’ve been so impressed by ECI 521 students’ bookcasts and their Action Learning Project multimedia reports, both by the meaning (one of Pink’s creative elements) and the storytelling (another of Pink’s creative elements).

In terms of my own literacy development, the luckiest break I’ve had was meeting Teresa Brantley, the then Newberry Club facilitator, through Frances Bradburn.  It just occurred to me that Frances is ECI 521’s fairy godmother.  Teresa’s Newberry Club began partnering with our class each year and morphed into a Printz Club when Frances chaired the first Printz Committee.  And Valerie Nicholson became the Printz Club facilitator – a mom, trained medical professional, and book talker-extraordinaire.  She really knows how to keep a group of fun-loving teen readers engaged and well aware of their power as literary critics.

I never had the chance to read YA lit as a teenager.  Didn’t know it existed.  I don’t think I would be teaching this course now if I’d not met Teresa and the amazing teens from the Eva Perry Printz Club.  They’ve kept me green and growing and up-to-date on the latest and greatest.  It’s the best job in the world that requires that I read YA lit.

I do think that YA lit is at the cutting edge of literature.  As well it should be.  Young adults are just beginning to ask the tough questions about issues that challenge society and humanity.  Literature can be a cognitive tool for thinking critically and creatively as well as empathetically.

Now about the virtual self.  You’ve met 2B Writer in the introductory video.  She’s my avatar in Second Life – the one with the hot pink streaked hair.  She’s my virtually immersive self and she is fearless in Second Life.  There’s something about speaking to a live audience and not seeing the whites of their eyes that makes you selfless and intent on “the moment.”

My online virtual identity is someone I’m working to evolve.  Basically, that self is one borne of text and not image and voice.  I’ve always loved to write but there’s a pressure when writing is your own means of communication that can make you stress over every word.  In a very real way, you are re-inventing yourself when you create your online identity and I’ve not felt it nearly as much in online forums as I have in learning to blog.  A blog is a very personal endeavor, and I hope to make mine a home away from home.

You may have sensed that I enjoy integrating a great deal of technology in this class.  I do this not to challenge you or myself but make sure we have the opportunity we need to learn new literacies and new competencies that we’ll need to model for our students.

I’ve hinted at my goals for the class.  I hope that taking this course open will lead to a more global focus on young adult literature.  My dream would be to have participants from around the world meeting in virtual book clubs.  I also want to use the open Web tools to encourage all of us to expand our personal learning space/environment so that we develop those new literacies/competencies that we need.  Finally, I want to share what you all teach me this spring about virtual book clubs and bookcasts with others so that online courses for middle and high school students can become more compelling.  There are 70,000 students in North Carolina alone taking online courses, and we need to make certain that these students learn about social justice/critical literacy and creativity through literature.

Whew!  I got pretty inspired there by my goals.  I’d not really written those out before.  It always surprises me when I complete a piece and learn something new or realize something through the focus and reflection that was just below the surface.  I think I learned through this writing that my efforts to make the course open really fit into the unspoken overall goal of creating a space where educators interested in young adult literature from around the globe could meet and talk about books and learning through literature with young adults.  And that we can then share this type of connected learning with our students.


About criscrissman

so serious about really blogging this time
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