Guest Post from Lucia Brockway, a preservice English teacher working toward her Master’s of Education at New York University. Lucia is part of the #teachread project within which her work with The Perks of Being a Wallflower can be found.
This post is response to Mark Lewis and Robert Petrone‘s article “Although Adolescence Need Not Be Violent,” published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. In this article, the authors talk about the “invented adolescent,” or the image of the teen teachers have in our minds as a product of the assumptions often made of adolescent students. These students are unfairly categorized as being in a tumultuous, hormone-fired transitional stage, one that is accompanied by poor decisions, angst, and a pervasive exposure to dangerous influences.
School curricula is often designed to reflect this imposed state of being; books rife with risky adolescent behavior are assigned and students are urged to construct parallels between “unruly” characters and their own selves. It is also assumed that adolescents are unfinished adults, searching desperately for their own identities. By homogenizing adolescents in this way, teachers are denying students of their own varied personal histories.
The Young Adult genre of literature is replete with young characters who struggle through adolescence. They are faced with difficult, enormously stressful circumstances and cry out to be heard, loved, or valued by the people around them. This bleak state of existence is conceived as the norm for all adolescents, including the students who read these novels.
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which follows a high school freshman named Charlie, covers an enormous range of issues often labeled as common adolescent problems. In just one year, Charlie confronts suicide, the fear of high school, a budding sexuality, smoking, bullying, physical abuse, marijuana, alcohol, LSD, homosexuality, jealousy, love, sexual abuse, and depression. This novel fits very nicely into the Young Adult genre, where the main character struggles through this “in-between” stage of adolescent, thriving on moments where he is appreciated or feels “infinite.”
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Giving students exposure to Chbosky’s book is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it is a highly enjoyable novel with moments that are quite poignant and beautiful. The problem comes with how we integrate it into the curriculum and what types of assignments we give as accompaniment to reading. If we assume that students will relate to Charlie and ask them to “step inside his shoes” or form parallels, we neglect the actual experiences and personalities of our students. It is important to draw attention to who our students actually are, not who we think they are or who they should become.
I am personally working toward a concept of adolescence in which there is no particular norm for how adolescents act or what they have been through. Several may have had awful experiences and wonderful, inspiring ones. Some may feel lost or empty but others may be bold and confident, knowing exactly what they want in life. Adolescents should not be grouped together as a homogenous unit; it is important not to impose a particular “standard” on our students, thinking that certain traits or experiences are universal. Instead, we should provide them with the skills and tools to express themselves as they are. We must give them the opportunities to make their own decisions and form individualized concepts of self, thought, and creativity.
This stance on adolescence can be reflected in a variety of classroom activities.
- In the before-reading activity Probable Passage, groups of 3-4 students must make predictions of what will occur in the story using only a selection of words from its text. They sort these words into the categories Characters, Setting, Problems, Outcomes, and Unknown Words, and create a GIST Statement in which they predict the action of the story.
- There may often be disagreements about where to categorize a word, provoking conversation and debate. In a group Think-Aloud, students voice their thoughts and questions as they read, creating a constant dialogue with the text. Other students in the group are encouraged to add to their peers’ comments or offer answers to their questions. As they read and break apart the text, they are creating their own literary analysis. These kinds of collaborative exercises keep the responsibility and charge over ideas in students’ hands.
- Another useful activity is Text Reformulation, a process of re-telling the stories in rather personal and expressive ways. Students are able to make their own choices and imaginative decisions as they write, reflecting their varied creativities and ideas. Work is centered on the student, particularly on his or her critical thinking process and personal discoveries.
In each of these activities, the teacher serves as a moderator and supporter while the teens are the true creating force, upholding my earlier notion that teachers must see the value in teens’ own opinions and histories, rather than labeled them as faulty “sketches” of what they will become.
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For a similar conversation about how reading and childhood is being constructed through reading programs and leveled libraries in elementary schools, see Vicki Venton’s blog To Make a Praire.
Lewis, M. A. and Petrone, R. (2010), “Although Adolescence Need Not Be Violent…”: Preservice Teachers’ Connections Between “Adolescence” and Literacy Curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53: 398–407. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.53.5.5