Children’s Lit: The Purpose and the Problem
The 200-level Children’s Literature course I teach is required for all Elementary Education majors at my institution. The purpose of the course is to acquaint students with a variety of books they may wish to share with their future students and to invite students to respond to children’s literature in a variety of ways. I occasionally get students taking this course as an elective, but for almost all students, satisfying a requirement of their major is their only reason for taking the course.
Now that I have taught this course for several years, I have a better sense of who my students are and consequently a better sense of what they need. They are going to be teachers. They are passionate about children. But many of them are not readers. Not yet. Not anymore. Some of them haven’t read a book in years. For most of them, this is the first, last, and only literature course they will take. This is it, the end of the road. If they don’t become ardent readers now, they may never do so.
At the same time that I’m teaching students who may not yet be ardent readers, I’m also teaching future teachers. I have seen in my own children’s classrooms what happens when teachers aren’t readers: kids don’t become readers either.
My students who are going to be elementary teachers need to get hooked on reading, so that they can then devote their professional lives to hooking others. Not only do they need to find enjoyment in reading, they also need to have extensive knowledge of children’s literature. They need to read widely and passionately themselves; they need to know books; they need to know kids; they need to know how to make those book matches.
The unspoken goal for this course, for me, has always been to encourage lifelong reading, but I don’t think the course has been nearly as successful as it could be in reaching this goal–and probably because it’s been an implicit rather than explicit goal.
It’s time for a deep revision.
The Learning Outcomes
The language in my course learning outcomes suggests what gets in the way of getting hooked on books: all the stuff we do in school to and with books besides read them. We analyze them, evaluate them, describe them, explain them, categorize them, research them.
Here’s the set of learning outcomes I inherited for the course.
- Read a variety of literature written for or commonly read by children and adolescents.
- Demonstrate the ability to derive personal meaning from the children’s literature they read.
- Research the authors, illustrators, and poets who write them.
- Read the major genres and discuss relevant issues.
- Evaluate books using various methods of analysis.
- Discuss the role of the literature within the community of an individual classroom and across the curriculum of grades K-8.
- Recognize the cultural lenses through which all people, including children, view the world and process their experiences.
- Identify both the unique and universal themes in literature and in life.
- Explain the contributions made by individuals and groups to both our pluralistic American culture and our global human culture.
- Examine the deeper social and political issues raised in the literature and address possible ways to take action on these issues.
If I weigh each learning outcome equally in my course, we will spend only 1/5 of our learning time actually reading books.
None of these outcomes suggests that reading might be pleasurable or delightful. Why isn’t that considered important? I read constantly for one reason only: it is a great pleasure and delight to me, and it always has been. We lose sight all too often in school of that primary purpose for reading. I don’t believe kids can become lifelong, ardent readers unless we prioritize the delight of reading, unless we invite them to read books for pleasure, illumination, escape, adventure, knowledge, experience, play.
Outcomes 6-10 have always seemed especially problematic to me. A couple of them don’t make sense, most are difficult to assess meaningfully, and a couple seem outside the scope of a 200-level course on children’s literature (solving the world’s social and political problems, for example).
But Outcomes 1-5 are problematic too. They can be easily taught, but I notice that the more I focus on them, the less my students read and the less they love reading. The more I focus on these outcomes, the more I end up loading the syllabus with assignments that end up being busy work for students.
I don’t want my course to be yet another school experience that distances readers from books, that substitutes requirements and activities for an engaged and personal literate life.
Assignments and Projects
I have also noticed that even assignments that seem to be part of an authentic literate life turn out not to be once they’ve been transformed into a graded school assignment.
Research projects on authors and illustrators, for example. Often–though not always–I do a bit of quick research after I finish a book I really like. I might look up other books by that author or illustrator and add them to my TBR list. I might survey the author’s website. I might read a profile of the illustrator. Nonfiction books often send me out into the world with questions I want answered and resources I want to explore.
But the research I do is going to be personal and focused on what I need to do to grow my reading life. I want to answer my own questions about the book, topic, author, or illustrator–not canned questions created for me by someone else. I’m not going to look for information I’m not interested in and don’t need.
Research projects on authors and illustrators has been an assignment I have a hard time fully giving up. What I want students to experience from this assignment is something similar to what I experience when I become interested in knowing more about an author or illustrator and I set out to gain some expertise in their work. But the poor quality of most of these research projects shows me that it’s not a meaningful assignment for my students, and I suspect that they see no transfer of skills between these projects and the kinds of research they might do to grow their reading lives.
What do I know about myself as a reader that might help me develop curriculum?
- I know who I am as a reader–favorite authors, favorite genres, beliefs about reading, strengths & weaknesses, personal reading history.
- I have plans–lots of plans. I keep lists of what I want to read; I join challenges; I set goals.
- I know how to find books I enjoy reading, and I use many different strategies and tools to identify books I want to read.
- I know how to find books that will challenge me, and I make sure to read challenging as well as easy and just right books.
- I have a few trusted people whose book recommendations are almost always reading gold for me.
- I talk about books with face-to-face and online friends and share what I’m reading, what I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy and why.
- I track my reading–keep lists of what I’ve read and what I want to read; compile stats at the end of the year; identify trends in my reading life.
- I use this “data” to reflect on my reading and set new goals for myself.
- I know how to find answers to the questions I have about authors, illustrators, and books.
- I have an extensive knowledge of children’s and adolescent literature that helps me find just the right book for other readers.
- I read outside my own comfort zone/personal interests to expand my knowledge of children’s and adolescent literature.
- I join reading challenges that support my personal and professional reading goals.
- My reading life includes self-selected independent reading and shared reading with my family and students.
- I occasionally participate in online book clubs.
- I write about the books I read, which usually helps me think more deeply about them.
The Bottom Line
Books–lots and lots of good and great books–are the foundation of my reading life, so it’s clear that we need to read a lot in Children’s Literature. But reading isn’t all we need to do. When I observe my own reading life, I see other supports in place: community, goals, accountability (self-defined and self-imposed), response, reflection.
And so this is the Children’s Literature class I want to create. One where students develop a reading community inside and outside the classroom. Where learning is a challenge and an invitation. Where students determine their own learning goals and reading challenges. Where we read for pleasure and delight–for immersion, knowledge, experience, discovery. Where we reflect on what we’re learned and share our learning with others. Where we respond to literature. Where we think deeply about books. Where we ask meaningful questions. Where we learn how to find useful answers. Where we build the kinds of literate lives that will sustain us as teachers and as people.
Image: CC-BY Theory