June 14, 2012

YA in the Classroom? Yes You Can!

I recently read a post asking a great question: where are YA on the reading class lists? I decided to create this post in order to get a discussion started among teachers, librarians, and bloggers. This post is how I have found ways to include it in my classroom even though it is not officially a part of the curriculum.

As a fan of YA and as a classroom teacher, I know there is quality writing in the YA community. Yet, many teachers shy from including it on their reading lists. Instead, they stick with the literary cannon rife with great reads, but many students are having a hard time connecting with them.

For many of you reading this, you would love to have more YA into your curriculum. You pine for the opportunity to have at least ONE added to your reading list, but there are those who believe it is not worth classroom time, and there are a lot of them. I am going to share with you ways that I have been able to sneak YA into my classroom. I do not formally teach it, but I still incorporate it, even in my AP class.

I have taught everything from remedial English 9 to Senior English and teaching students who claim they do not read becomes quite taxing. It would be awesome if all of our students walked into our classroom readers, but that is not reality. At least, not in the area I teach.

For nine years I taught regular English 11, and I was always looking for ways to connect to the material I was teaching to my students so they would understand that what I was teaching did matter. Enter YA novels. Seriously.

I’m not 100% sure when I started to read YA. I cannot even tell you my first YA novel as an adult. What I can tell you is that it came from a recommendation by a student.

I began holding book talks about YA novels I was reading, a lot of times connecting it to the literature we were studying, and do you know what I noticed? Students wanted to read those books. On purpose. For fun.

Teachers have asked me, “How do you get your kids to want to read?” I have two suggestions that have worked for me:

1. Speak to them as if they are voracious readers, not students who hate to read. 

    Introduce books to them and tell them why you feel they would enjoy them. Show them that you care enough to take time to know what they like and will want to read. Remember, this has to be 100% about them.

2. Become a book whisper. No, really.

This was a nickname some of my students gave me. When a student said, “I don’t like to read,” I ask them a few questions about what they like to do when they are not in school, which has nothing to do with reading. Then I walk to my classroom library, sometimes asking them to follow me, and begin the search for “the book.” A lot of my students will talk to me about why they enjoy certain books, so when I hand off a book to a non-reader, I tell them why other students have loved the book. What that non-reader really hears me say is, “Other students like you have enjoyed this book.” Once they are willing to take the book from me (and sometimes it takes me a few books to finally put one in their hands) I simply say, “Give this a shot and let me know what you think.”  Most of the time, I have a winner. I am not 100% on this – but I am close.

Now, let me tie this back into how you can incorporate YA in the classroom, including AP.

For the last three years I have taught AP Language & Composition. Students read so much literature. By the time April arrives, they are exhausted, so I like to give them a chance to allow their brains a chance to heal. April is the month of their final outside reading project of the year, and I allow them to choose their novel. Their task with that novel is a bit time consuming, but by allowing them a choice, they tend to do a stronger job on it. They essentially create a marketing campaign and write two journals based on their chosen novel. It is in those journals where I see if students have truly learned to become stronger readers, writers, and thinkers. It is in the marketing campaign that students are able to be creative and share their passion for their chosen novel. I am going to create a separate post on this particular assignment in the next couple of weeks, so watch for it.

This past April when students informed me of their novel choices, I had a lot of requests for YA novels. I was so surprised because this is freshman composition and we are talking YA. At first I was uncomfortable with doing so many YA reads. The previous year I only had a few requests, so I was not sure how I felt about allowing so many AP students work with YA titles. Then I considered the amount and level of work that was required, and I decided it did not matter if it was a YA novel or Nietzsche, so I granted all requests.

I know there are some teachers who will thumb their nose at me and say, “I cannot believe you allowed students to work with YA novels in an AP class,” but let me tell you something: my students worked harder on these projects than anything from the literary canon I gave them all year. And the majority of my students did pick novels from the literary cannon.

I am a teacher who believes in hitting all student strengths. I do not believe that every student walking into my classroom is going to be an English major and should be treated as such. I believe they all have amazing talents, and I use literature to show them how to embrace those talents. This project is one example of this, and YA choices were appropriate ones.

My point? As long as the work itself is significant, it does not matter if the novel they choose is YA or from the literary cannon. It is about the level of thinking that goes into that read.

And YA novels do fit the bill. As a matter of fact, the last two summers I have noticed YA novels creeping into the summer reading kiosks at Barnes & Noble. I always smile and think, “I wonder what school is doing Thirteen Reasons Why for summer reading.” Besides, if you look at the summer reading for children and tween, you see a lot of contemporary literature. Why can high schools not do the same?

With all of that said, I am going to share with you three specific ways I have incorporated YA novels into my classroom on a regular basis.

1.   Book talks

This is the best way to bring YA into your classroom. These can be conducted by you, your students, or both. If you are studying a certain theme in your classroom, find two or three YA novels that would fit. You don’t necessarily have to have to read the novels to book talk them with your students. Or better yet, if you use literature circles in your classroom, require students to hold a book talk as well.

I have had more books checked out through book talks than any other method, period. The favorite for my students to book talk has been Spanking Shakespeare by Wizner. It is always fun to hear how creative than can get, especially with this particular book. And what better way to advertise a book than to have a student stand up and say, “Guys, you have got to read this book!”? 

If I am reading a great book that I think my students will enjoy, whether I’ve finished it or not, I talk it up. The trick is to not summarize the book but focus on the main idea. Maybe read a favorite line, passage, or page. But do not spend too much time on the book. I try to stay at a minute – two max.

One example of how I book talk if I am in the middle of a piece of literature is Hamlet. I always discuss the many controversies and theories surrounding the play, asking students to hunt for evidence of their own to support or refute. One instance is the “suicide” of Ophelia. At the end of Ophelia’s funeral, I ask students, “Did Ophelia commit suicide? Find evidence to support. Did Hamlet really love Ophelia? Find evidence to prove it.” After our discussion I show them Ophelia by Klein and discuss the basic idea of the novel: she was in on everything. We then discuss how this could be a plausible idea in the play, and I usually get at least one student in one of my classes to take the book off my hands to read for herself (it is usually a girl that wants to read it).

And don’t forget to have the book with you. Many do not remember book titles, but they do remember book covers.
2.   Free Reading Fridays

More popularly known as SSR, but I use free reading Friday instead because it appeals to my students a lot more.

What I do during this time: allow students to read anything of their choice, but my #1 rule is that I must read with them. If I am going to ask them to sit there quietly for thirty minutes to read, I can do the same. Modeling is the technical term, right. At the end of their free reading time, I always ask, “Did anyone read something interesting they would like to share with the class?” If no one volunteers, I share what I am reading. BUT, I always share what I am reading.

This is the time I really bond with students, even those that say they hate reading. We are able to hold discussions on a variety of topics that they choose, not me. This is when it gets “real” because they are able to express themselves about their own reading, and a lot of times their own lives. And they think it’s awesome that their teacher reads, especially when it’s books they like to read too.

I will have teachers say, “I need that time to grade papers.” That’s a valid point, but don’t you think your students can find something they need to be doing during that time as well? How can we ask them to sit quietly for thirty minutes of reading time if we do not do so ourselves?

I have to be honest here: having students sit quietly for thirty minutes has not ever been an issue for me. I will have an occasional student who wants to put his head down, but I fix that by walking over and getting a copy of Captain Underpants to put on the desk. I mean, who can resist those books?

But in all seriousness, you will have to feel out your kids for this. The most important thing I do not do during this time: grade them. I do not ask them to keep a journal about what they are reading or to complete some assignment. I do that enough with all of the literature I teach. This is 100% free reading time for them to read for pleasure, or to catch up on reading if they were absent.

I have found that if I am willing to sit and read with them, and occasionally give them “the look” if they are not following the guidelines, all is well in my classroom. I have a director's chair that I use during this time so I am "up" and can still see my students.

3.   Classroom library

I am in the process of working on a better organization system because mine is not great, but here is a post on an amazing way to organize it. She does a great job organizing hers and I am going to use some of her ideas.

In my classroom library, I have a little bit of everything. I would guesstimate that 95% are YA novels, but I also have graphic novels, comic books, Dumbest Criminals books, picture books, sports facts, etc. There are always going to be kids who do not read books. Having easy, quick reads like this in your library allows students to still participate in free reading time. The point is to allow them to read something of their choice.

When I was in library school, I read many articles that discussed teachers not keeping their own class library because it took students away from the library. In my particular school, students do not like to visit the library for a variety of reasons which I will keep between me and them, so having a classroom library is an absolute necessity in my situation. Otherwise, students do not have access to quality YA reading.

Each of the above strategies depends on you, your students, and your time. I teach under a block schedule, and I have students for 96 minutes a class period. It is easier for me to give them thirty minutes of free reading time because we still have time to go through the day’s lesson. You have to do what works for you, but ultimately, you can make it work – even if you have to sneak it in.

I would love to hear from you. What do you do in your classroom to incorporate YA reading?


  1. I just finished writing my final grad school paper on reading engagement--how to get kids to read. Interestingly, everything you are doing (and what you have discovered on your own, no less) aligns perfectly with the research. The research says to model reading yourself, allow for SSR time, give choice in text and task, and have a print-rich environment. Keep up the good work!

  2. Great post! I can't wait to read about your end of AP project you assigned. I'm curious to see if it's something I can do with my Sophomore Seminar students at the end of next school year. I'm glad you mentioned reading with the students, because that really is key during SSR time. I like doing it because my students get to see what I'm reading and we often talk about it when we're done, or sometimes even during SSR when they just have to know :)

  3. I do many of the same things you do, also. Whether I have done it in seventh grade or with seniors, book talks are the way to get kids hooked on a book. I've been saving book trailers to a Pinterest board and am figuring out a way to share those with kids next year. That will help with the books I haven't read. I have found that the book I am reading during class is the one my students want to read next.

  4. I was at B&N today checking out the summer reading kiosk and discussed this with one of the booksellers who is also an English teacher. YA novels I noticed on SR for middle school: Legend, Hourglass, The Book Thief, Thirteen Reasons Why, Eldest, Twisted. There were more, but these are the ones I remember off the top of my head.

    Where do you think the disconnect between middle school and high school happens?


I would love to hear from you