Interview: Dr. Sandra Eckard from East Stroudsburg University Discusses YA Literature in the Education Classroom
In this series of guest posts, a variety of experts in children's and YA literature from state system universities will discuss their perception of the role of children's and YA literature in state system higher education curricula.
This post is brought to you by Dr Sandra Eckard of East Stroudsburg University in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education; in it Dr. Eckard answers questions about her own use of YAL in the HE classroom, as well as sharing her opinions about the wider role of YAL in higher education.
[Views and opinions expressed here are the authors' own, and not those of the Universities or any other organization.]
Sandy Eckard began at East Stroudsburg University in 2005. She has also taught at West Virginia University and Frostburg State University. While at FSU, she served as a Reading Specialist, coordinated tutoring and study skills programs, and taught literature and writing. Dr. Eckard directs the Writing Studio at ESU, the hot-spot for writing tutoring on campus. In addition, she works with education students and teaches a variety of writing and literature courses. Her specialty is teaching with popular culture. In addition to presenting and publishing on tutoring pedagogy, she has published her dissertation, The Ties that Bind: Storytelling as a Teaching Tool for Composition Classrooms and Writing Centers.
Why do you think children’s literature is important to higher education? What do students gain from studying this topic?
My focus, or specialty, is not what I would call Children’s Literature, but rather Young Adult Literature--which is the specific literature designed for teenagers that are adolescents, starting at age 12. I have studied the history of this specific genre, how it has evolved over time, and why it is useful for teens. The audience for my work is the future teacher—specifically middle school and high school teachers who could not only incorporate these texts into lesson plans or add them to their classroom library as options for readers.
The more I study this genre, the more valuable I believe it is. Future teachers can benefit from seeing how different types of books and resources could be used in the classroom, and especially in today’s society, it helps them to consider new ways to reach not only reluctant readers but also students who might be going through difficult situations.
What tends to be your focus when you teach children’s literature, and how do students tend to respond?
I teach a specific course at ESU that is designed for this audience—middle and high school teachers. It centers on learning to define Young Adult Literature, understanding the usefulness of the genre for readers, and assessing the quality of books for their own needs as a teacher. We spend time looking at what they read when they were younger, we learn characteristics of YAL, and read landmark texts from each stage of the genre from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird to current popular favorites like Thirteen Reasons Why.
This course is one of my favorites to teach, and students respond very well. It helps them think of the needs of their students and how, as a central figure in their lives, they can help students navigate the bumps from adolescence to adulthood. Students can really personally connect to the material and often learn about not just the classroom but themselves as well. Many tell me that they believe it is one of the most useful education courses that they take here at ESU.
What role does the study of children’s literature have outside of education and library studies?
I think that parents, coaches, family members—basically anyone who works with or lives with teens—can benefit from studying Young Adult Literature because it can be a bridge to important conversations or help people connect when they have trouble expressing themselves or their emotions. Death, suicide, and mental illness are a few of the tough situations that teens are often exposed to for the first time during their adolescence, and many times, adults don’t know what to say. Perhaps a book can help on both sides—whether that is for the teen to grasp or for the adult to better understand a teenager’s perception or needs.
What do you see the future of children’s literature studies being in state system higher education?
I don’t know how this would be different in a state system or a private school. However, I believe that learning the different genres of literature, and their themes and usefulness, can always benefit teachers. We are constantly learning new ways to engage students in the classroom and help them build their reading and thinking skills. Outside of the future teacher audience, we often have students who might enter University unprepared or under-prepared. They might lack confidence or the ability to successfully read a tough piece of literature. Having success sometimes hinges on feeling proud of an accomplishment or feeling comfortable with the task. By incorporating YAL into entry -level classes as a bridge, say to practice skills or simply “warm up” to successful reading habits, can often mean that a student turns the corner and, once successful with a book that interests them, can now approach a more difficult text like a classic with more enthusiasm or sense of preparedness.
What are the greatest challenges pertaining to teaching this subject in state system higher education?
Perhaps the idea that the genre of YAL is often seen as less important, less scholarly. It is an actual field of its own—countless books and resources are dedicated to defining this genre, learning how to apply it to the classroom or to teens, and ways that it can be valuable. However, it can often be seen as the poor stepchild of golden literature studies. But I would argue it is extremely valuable. If we can get students to read, to read more, to read with enthusiasm or purpose, then that means we have helped shape a student into a reader. That, in the end, is our ultimate goal. If you learn how to read and process information, then you can apply these skills to any text successfully.
How do you feel the teaching of children’s literature should develop to keep pace with the changing nature of state system higher education?
I believe we are getting there. The fact that ESU has a class that studies the specific genre of YAL for teachers is important and shows that the genre is valuable. I would like to see additional education majors take it; you don’t have to be only an English teacher to learn how to build a class library. Guidance, administration, and pretty much any area from Social Studies to Language Arts could benefit from thinking about what books could help not just the teacher understand the needs of the teen, but also how to help teens process all the emotions and situations that are sometimes overwhelming or difficult at that age like sex, death, mental illness, absent parents, or even challenging friendships. Problem novels—books that focus on a specific issue that is unique to teens—like first love or an abusive relationship—can present ways to problem solve without feeling preachy. And it can help teens learn how to better communicate about their feelings, perhaps by talking about it outside of themselves through the characters of a book.
Could you recommend a text or lesson idea?
I center my course on the characteristics of Young Adult Literature and the themes that make a quality young adult novel. I have found that Michael Cart’s Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism to be a great starting point for educators. He not only discusses the trends in YAL, but also the usefulness that this genre can have for teens. He also provides sample book titles and ideas for a teacher to chew on.
One of my favorite activities in class is to pull the four characteristics of what makes a book a successful YAL text from Herz and Gallo’s book From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between YAL and the Classics. This text is terrific for not only providing a thorough deconstruction on the value of YAL, but also how to connect these texts to classics or to thematic units that many educators have in the middle school or high school curriculum.
It is my understanding that choices for teachers in classrooms can be quite restrictive; how does this impact on the types of text you choose for study with your future teachers?
Yes, there are required texts and often very little money to purchase large quantities of books or novels that students could read as a class. However, having a chapter or two from a book can showcase how important another text is. For example, I have my teachers read Warm Bodies, a popular rom-com film from a few years ago that was originally a deep text about finding yourself and your purpose in life. About three quarters of the way through, I ask them what the text reminds them of. Most don’t see that it is really a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. They definitely get a kick out of that! So, instead of reading the whole book, you could pick a scene or a few chapters that are direct correlations and do the same thing with high school students. They might then feel more like Shakespeare can connect to them—or have a better grasp of the relevance of the themes. So, many times, it doesn’t have to be a whole book that a teacher uses. Depending on time, curriculum requirements, and student needs, the teacher can find a way to incorporate the usefulness of YAL in a variety of ways from one lesson to part of a unit to a classroom library that students can opt to choose from for in-class, or out-of-class, reading time.
In a previous question, you mention uses for YAL in the traditional humanities subjects - do you think there is also scope for use of YAL in non-humanities subjects, such as mathematics, hard science, business, etc.?
I often have math teachers in my class, as in middle school, you can teach a variety of subjects rather than just one content specialty—especially in the younger grades. The skills that you learn with reading definitely can benefit any subject: reading for meaning, learning new vocabulary, or exploring different themes or life lessons. Students need more exposure to reading and critical thinking in order to be successful in any subject. So, getting back to math, one element that many students struggle with is how to tackle word problems. Many of my future math teachers see a correlation between practicing math skills and reading critically. So, I believe it would be true to any subject. You could read a YAL book about a student struggling in math—and how she/he overcomes obstacles or wins a tournament. I’m sure that, if any teacher wanted to find some way to incorporate a YAL book, or an excerpt of one, either in warm up activities or foundational reading activities, there would be books to choose from.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.