If you’ve poked around my Teachers Pay Teachers store, my Instagram, or my Facebook page, it’s probably no surprise that I love teaching young adult literature. It wasn’t something I’ve always done, however.
When I started teaching, my school had no curriculum for me. I was completely on my own! Now, that freedom sounds like heaven. But back in my first year, I had no resources to fall back on, no district friends to steal from, and absolutely nowhere to start.
The only resource I had at my disposal was the list of literature sets in the school library. I had to build my whole year from a random list of books that previous teachers had requested. Plus, I still had to figure out everything else about how to do my job.
As I’ve mentioned before, my first year was not smooth, nor particularly successful. In fact, the only glimmer of student engagement came from a unit on John Green’s Looking for Alaska. So when the district released a standardized curriculum, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The curriculum took a lot of weight and decision-making off of my shoulders. I followed it to the best of my ability for a few years.
But then I realized I was bored.
Worse, so were my students. All the literature in my classroom was more than fifty years old; the students had a hard time connecting. It felt like all we did was build comprehension.
Most of my students are far below grade level, making understanding older texts even more difficult. It seemed like we never even got to skills because we were just trying to understand the individual words and sentences.
I started my journey to add young adult literature to my classroom when I finally ran out of patience for our outdated African American unit. The updates went so well, I’ve begun branching out into my other classes and units. I have found that young adult literature is especially great for engaging my at-risk students.
Better yet though, it’s engaging for me. When I’m teaching more contemporary novels, I’m more thoughtful and engaged in my teaching.
After a few rounds of young adult units, I’ve discovered some awesome benefits to teaching this genre. So, here are the reasons I have found to love teaching young adult literature.
Teaching Young Adult Literature Means Skipping Most Comprehension Issues
Now, classic literature has its place. Students should definitely be exposed to complex, difficult tasks. However, when I’m teaching A Modest Proposal, I spend the whole time defining individual words, breaking down Irish culture from two hundred years ago, and summarizing each key point again and again.
Who’s doing the work there? Who’s learning?
Breaking down Jonathan Swift’s satire step-by-step could be a really great undertaking, but when I only have a few days to teach the whole essay? Well, we skip a lot. All of our class time is devoted to surface-level comprehension with no time for deeper understanding.
When we read a piece from The Onion, however, students can put the pieces together. They understand the words individually. They can summarize the article. That means that we can do the work of grappling with the message between the lines. Students can focus on getting the joke, instead of getting out the dictionary.
The same is true for young adult literature. In your unit, is the text complexity the focus? It may be if you’re teaching students how to pass an AP test. An honors course may very well choose to focus on reading pieces beyond the average Lexile score.
But if text complexity is not a primary focus of your unit, then you lose nothing by choosing something simpler. There is so much great young adult literature out there now. You can still discuss rich, metaphorical language, deep themes, and subtle shifts in mood and tone, without having to define every word.
Not to mention that there is still a lot of complex vocabulary and sentence structure in young adult novels! But without having to build an understanding of historical and cultural settings that are often necessary when teaching classics, students can devote more time to the rich vocabulary of a young adult novel.
Teaching Young Adult Literature Increases Student Engagement
Let’s face it: we like reading about people like us. Teenagers are more likely to relate to novels that are about people their age. Young adult literature provides an easy foothold for students. And when the characters’ ages are so close to students’, you’ll have a harder time losing them when the story takes place in a foreign setting or culture.
I also find that a lot of young adult literature feels less sanitized than the classics. That’s probably because we’re harder to shock nowadays. But nothing perks up my students’ ears like some good old fashioned swearing and sex. They are teenagers, after all.
Of course, I don’t mean you should pick the most shocking piece of literature you can find. Depending on where you teach, you may not even be able to teach some of the more scandalous classics!
I do feel, however, that there is a point at which we can no longer shelter our students. They hear and often use, course language every day. Many are exposed to or engage with, sex, drugs, and adult situations.
And great literature reflects real life. How then, can we expose them to great literature if we refuse to expose them to books with these subject matters? I, for one, would rather have a courageous conversation about sex, drugs, or profanity in my classroom, rather than leaving students on their own to navigate those issues themselves.
Teaching Young Adult Literature Makes Incorporating Diverse Perspectives Easy
There are plenty of diverse classics out there. Finding one that suits your class’s needs, however, can be difficult.
Our district’s American Literature unit, for example, is pretty white. There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The only person of color mentioned is Langston Hughes, who contributes a couple of short poems to our district’s supplemental text recommendations.
But we know as educators that our students need to be exposed to more. They need to see people that look like them grow, succeed, and face insurmountable odds. Perhaps more importantly, they need to feel empathy for people who do not look like them at all!
With the #weneeddiversebooks movement and publishers choosing to diversify their authors, it’s easier to incorporate diverse voices now more than ever.
Teaching Young Adult Literature Makes Units Feel Authentic and Immediate
If you want to talk about modern-day problems, it’s going to be difficult to incorporate titles from the literary canon. Sure, you could use Fahrenheit 451’s addiction to TV to segue into a conversation about reliance on social media.
But I’d argue that #murdertrending by Gretchen McNeil would also address these concerns.
Young adult literature has the ability to make problems immediately relevant to students. I found that my students had a hard time connecting to Maya Angelou’s struggles in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Although Angelou is strong, admirable, and weaves a beautiful story, her America isn’t the one my students wake up to.
Starr from The Hate U Give, however? My kids get her. They know her. They are her. Her struggle is real to them. Her problems feel urgent.
Incorporating Young Adult Literature into the Classroom
If you’ve never tried teaching young adult literature before, I encourage you to try! Always make sure to get permission for curriculum modifications from the proper channel. But then go bananas!
When choosing young adult literature for your students, you want to look for the same traits you would in any reading. The text should be meaningful and offer your students a way to learn or reflect on life. The writing should be rich, with characters, settings, and plots that capture the imagination. It should expose students to alternate ways of thinking.
Be brave and try adding some newer texts. I think you’ll be surprised at how much fun your students–and you!–can have!