Taking a Risk with Risky Literature: Finding the Right Book for your Classroom



A blog post on how some of the riskiest literature could be the one that reignites your passion for teaching and your students' for learning.
Take a Risk with Risky Literature

I don’t know about you, but our district’s curriculum is old. I graduated high school from this district, and they are still using the same textbook that was twenty years old when I went–not that our school, the alternative school, gets those textbooks, but that’s beside the point.

Luckily, I do work at an alternative school and the head of the district’s English curriculum is a goddamn gem. These two things grant me some flexibility. I emailed her earlier in the year asking if there was any way I could possibly teach something a little more modern and relevant than They’re Eyes Were Watching God or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (don’t get me wrong, I love a little Angelou, but my black students have more immediate problems today than the Great Depression). Apparently, others had expressed the same concern, so my curriculum chair sent me some books to look at.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon was my first read. It was a great book (and I’ve since ordered several copies for my classroom library) about a shooting told from many perspectives–different witnesses, the shooter, the media, etc. But it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So then I picked up The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I had looked at this title several times, but at 444 pages, it’s twice the length of anything I’ve dared to teach to my ADD youths.

But. Hot. Damn. You. Guys.

This book.

I couldn’t put it down. The beginning starts off funny–the characters will sound just like your students–and I knew immediately that my kids could relate. But when I made it to the Khalil’s death, I was sold. Let me show you the quote that made my heart stop, and ache, and told me my students needed this:

“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees…. The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me” ~ Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

It only gets better from there. The book is painfully real at times, but the main character Starr a black girl is compassionate, intelligent, and has a wonderfully quirky and completely imperfect family. The perspective is balanced too–there are good and bad white character, good and bad black characters, good and bad cops. It’s a great examination of how choices shape us and how we can speak out against injustices.

Engage your students with risky literature: how one teacher found the right book for her classroom
Click here to see it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store

I set to work planning and trying to figure out how to pull off this massive text. This is especially tricky in my school, where our unique program doesn’t allow us to assign homework, meaning all the reading has to be done in class.

Mid-planning, the Maryland School shooting happened and adolescent voices took the media by storm. It was a sign. I had to teach this book. I had to talk to my students about the power they have.

You guys, I have never been so fired up to teach anything in my life.

I’m usually a big proponent of don’t work harder than you have to, but I may have to modify it to don’t work harder than you want to. I spent hours planning out the curriculum for my new African-American unit and I was excited about it. The format is different than anything I’ve ever done.

First, because of the time constraints, I had to scrap the essay. This was painful. I teach English. It’s a given that there will be an essay. I spoke to my instructional coach–was I crazy, not having them do an essay? Was I crazy to abandon my perfectly find Caged Bird unit, and create all this work for myself?

I figured that we would have to read an average of 45 minutes, three times a week to get through the book before the end of the quarter. That is a lot. I can’t hold these kids’ attention for five minutes, let alone forty-five. And that doesn’t include discussion, reviewing, summarizing, answering questions, and all the questions students ask that have literally nothing to do with the lesson (you know what I’m talking about).

I was going to have to take a risk: is this book going to engage the students the way I hope?

If it does, then maybe they’ll follow along, do the work, answer each others’ questions, and we’ll have a prayer of making it through the book. If not, if we start the book and they’re not interested, I am completely screwed. I will be dragging these kids through over four hundred pages, kicking screaming. Not fun for anyone.

So I need an assessment. Back to my instructional coach (who hasn’t read the book, but had complete faith in my enthusiasm for it, haha). There are heavy, intense topics in this book. My kids are going to have something to say. They are going to have stories to tell. They are going to have some strong opinions. I want them to talk and form their ideas–can that be the assessment? A discussion? My coach seemed encouraging, so I kept rolling with my ideas. We don’t have time to write down quotes and plan answers–maybe they could just write in their books? Highlight important quotes?

This was a long shot.

We are not a rich school. We are a Title I building, meaning most of our kids live in poverty and they all receive free breakfast and lunch. I can’t rely on them to bring pencils to class–I was never going to get them to buy their own book. This semester I have small classes–it would only be a total of 25 books for two courses, but if I choose to repeat this, it could be 60 books each semester. Could I get that kind of funding? Is this a sustainable unit? I was worried I was thinking too big.

But my instructional coach loved the idea. The district was buying me my first class set–how I get the books after this year will be a future problem. I figure let’s see how this goes and I’ll worry about the money later.

So I had my book, and I had my summative assessment–we would focus our reading on five big essential questions. At the end of the unit, I will break my classes into smaller groups, and each will have an adult facilitator (me, my instructional coach, or the librarian) lead the discussion and grade students on their responses and ability to support their opinions. As we read, students will highlight important passages and quotes with a color highlighter that corresponds to the essential question. That is going to be a challenge. Our students’ skills are low and they need a lot of scaffolding–text coding (or close reading) on a scale like this just isn’t done in our school. This is like the assignments I did in my honors classes when I was a student.

So, on to the next snag.

No essay means no writing. But our students’ writing skills are abysmal. I had to include some writing practice. What if students had to regularly respond to the reading? I could grade short paragraphs on a regular basis and students would get more frequent feedback. The focus would be less on organizing longer pieces and more on mechanical skills, which unfortunately my seniors still lack.

I have recently been enamored with some workbooks that much more talented educators have created and put up on Teachers Pay Teachers. I don’t know why, but I love the idea of students having a little workbook for a novel. Maybe because it’s something I would have enjoyed as a student, but I often have to remind myself that I am a different student than the ones I teach. The things I think are interesting are lame and the things I always found to be redundant and wastes of time, are often helpful to my students now.

I had then in my mind an image of a workbook–more like a reading journal or diary–where students could respond with their own feelings and experiences to the situations and emotions that Starr goes through. I became ambitious. What if there were activities in this journal, too? Something to keep them entertained during long bouts of reading?

I never worked so hard on anything in my life, and I’ve never created anything for my job that I’m so proud of.

I talked my way into some funding for post-its and highlighters and ran to the store for gallon Ziploc bags.

Yesterday, as students walked into my classroom on the first day of the fourth quarter, Tupac played from my speakers and each student was handed a bag with everything they’ll need for this unit: a copy of The Hate U Give, their very own reading journal (with a reading calendar, place for notes, six journal responses, crossword, word search, coloring pages, and other relevant activities), five highlighters, post-its, and a piece of candy (I still had leftovers from Halloween and thought maybe some chocolate would ease the sting of seeing eight weeks of work before them).

Overall, the response was good. I had sent letters home to their parents letting them know that we were about to read a controversial book with mature language (the purpose for this letter was twofold–one, to genuinely alert parents and hopefully garner some engagement between them and their children, but two, to peak my students’ curiosities). The letters had been received and the kids were intrigued.

When I told them the book was theirs to keep (“Yes, after this semester you get to take it with you!”) most students were genuinely grateful. They were, after all, beautiful hardcovers. One girl flipped through the reading journal and pronounced it, “cool” which made me proud of the hours and hours I put into assembling it. They took notes in their new journals on the history of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and more modern events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The intro went well; I had them intrigued.

But today we starting reading and that was the real test.

They would like it, or they would hate it, and their response will color the rest of the quarter. I gotta say, I was fucking nervous this morning. I worked so hard, but would they even like it? Maybe the book was only good for me because I was seeing through the eyes of an educator, not an adolescent?

We started reading and immediately there were giggles. Relief. After the first swear word, kids who weren’t even pretending to work put away their phones and opened up the book. When we came to the end of a page, every. Student. Turned. The. Page. I don’t know what happens in your classroom, but here, that’s amazing. Every student is following along?!

By the end of the chapter, the students were pointing out quotes they found and connections they made WITHOUT ME PROMPTING. Let me say again, I didn’t even ask them if they could think of a connection THEY JUST STARTED TELLING ME. And it wasn’t even just in their heads–they had added a post-it and jotted down their thoughts. After a few examples, the other students who had been hesitant to write in a pristine book were taking their own notes, noting their own connections, writing in the margins.

Fuck me, it looked like an actual educational setting in there!

After the first chapter I had this exchange:

Student: Are you going to teach this next year?

Me: Well, I don’t know yet. I told you guys that you were my guinea pigs. It depends on how this goes, if you like it, and if we can get through it.

Student: Well you should. This is the best book I’ve ever read.

My heart was so full!

After chapter two, when an officer kills a young black man, my students were pissed. They were having emotions. About a book. Is that even real life?

Now don’t get me wrong. This was still a class full of teenagers and it wasn’t perfect. The closet-racist was the only student who never opened his book. Not once. Not even to copy down some notes or highlighting for the freebie points. We’ll work on this–he will have to eventually if he wants to graduate in nine weeks and hopefully, the different perspective and wide variety of characters will help to make the kids a little less racist in the future.

We also read about fifty minutes today which, no matter how awesome a book is, is beyond the reading stamina my students have developed and by the last five or ten minutes, phones were coming out a little more and I could see them starting to zone out.

All in all, though I have high hopes for the remainder of the quarter.

Today was the litmus test for the new curriculum and I don’t think I could have hoped for me. I am working on putting together a Teachers Pay Teachers bundle so watch for that. In the meantime, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of The Hate U Give and make it accessible to your students. Its subject matter is important. They need it.

You can read more about my adventures with  The Hate U Give in Week 2 of The Hate U Give or The Hate U Give: The Most Important Book I Ever Taught. If you’re looking for some teaching strategies to use with the novel, you can see my advice for Close Reading a Novel or using Authentic Assessments.


A blog post following one teacher's journey to revamping a curriculum, finding the right book, and navigating the pitfalls of teaching "risky literature." #itslitteaching A blog post following one teacher's journey to revamping a curriculum, finding the right book, and navigating the pitfalls of teaching "risky literature." #itslitteaching A blog post following one teacher's journey to revamping a curriculum, finding the right book, and navigating the pitfalls of teaching "risky literature." #itslitteachingA blog post following one teacher's journey to revamping a curriculum, finding the right book, and navigating the pitfalls of teaching "risky literature." #itslitteachingA blog post following one teacher's journey to revamping a curriculum, finding the right book, and navigating the pitfalls of teaching "risky literature." #itslitteaching

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I love how you are so “real.” I just bought a bunch of “The Hate You Give” novels and now I have students from all over my hs asking if they can borrow a copy! I put in a request at Donorschoose and was successful! I am planning on using this as a book club (Project Lit) novel and then taking my students to the movie! Can’t wait… Finally, something everyone can relate to!

    1. Aw, thank you! Being real is one of my goals! You are so brave for putting this book into your kids’ hands! Keep up the good fight for relevant literature!

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