The Power of Books: Teachers’ Changing Perspectives about Using Young Adult Books to Teach Social Justice

Janis M. Harmon
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, United States
janis.harmon@utsa.edu

Roxanne Henkin
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, United States
roxanne.henkin@utsa.edu

 

Abstract

This study examined teachers’ knowledge about social justice and their perspectives and understandings about the use of young adult books to teach social justice. The participants were 14 graduate students in a graduate literacy course. The course provided learning experiences about social justice, including the use of young adult books. These learning experiences were designed to deepen students’ understanding of how to address social justice issues with students in the elementary, middle and high school classrooms. Using qualitative measures, the researchers found changes in participants’ understanding of social justice and the use of young adult books as a powerful resource for teaching social justice.

All four discussion groups noted a change in their thinking with the themes of awareness and acceptance evident in their responses. For two books, Shine (2011) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), what stood out for three of the four book discussion groups were the many social issues evident in the books. In the book Shine (2011), some participants felt that the social issues were not fully addressed, and others focused on the “dark” topics in the book including language usage, sexual molestation, and parental abuse. In their discussion of Trafficked (2012), three of the four groups felt that the book raised their level of awareness and gave them a new perspective about the issue of human trafficking.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) changed the thinking of all four groups of students about Native American culture and reservation life in regard to cultural assimilation and disparities that continue today. However, the experiences of the participants in reading the three books also deepened their understanding that some books address social justice issues in very strong and powerful ways—ways that may result in constraints that need to be acknowledged regarding appropriate classroom use. The participants in our study reported that they acquired a more detailed and more in-depth knowledge base about social justice. This was especially evident in their growing awareness of social justice, in perhaps their personal acceptance of the issues, and in their comments about taking action that might lead to change in existing problems surrounding social justice.

Keywords:

Social Justice, Young Adult Books, Teacher Education, Bullying, LGBT

 

Today’s news headlines continue to show that many people are the victims of unfair and unequal treatment by others. We read about instances of teenagers who are bullied and even killed, women who are abused, police violence, and young people embroiled in gang violence. In the midst of these challenges, we, two literacy educator/researchers, wondered how we could address such social justice issues as teacher educators in our college classrooms in ways that would encourage these teachers to address social justice with their own students. Turning to the rich resources found in young adult books, we investigated teachers’ knowledge about social justice and their perspectives and understandings about the use of young adult books to teach social justice.

We first present how we framed our study within the context of what we know about the meaning of social justice as well as within the context of existing scholarly works about the use of young adult books for teaching social justice. We then describe our efforts and findings in addressing the following research questions:

  • What are teachers’ understandings about social justice?
  • What are teachers’ beliefs and perceptions about the use of young adult books as a tool for social justice instruction?

Understandings about Social Justice

The term social justice appears frequently in a variety of educational contexts. For example, in many instances teacher education programs include social justice in their mission and vision statements to emphasize a fundamental belief in the interest and well-being of all in a diverse society (Hytten & Bettez, 2011). Many of these programs are built upon specific principles and ideas associated with social justice, such as inclusion, equity, promotion of critical thinking, and social change (Bettez, 2008; Hackman, 2005; Michelli & Keiser, 2005, as cited in Hytten & Bettez, 2011). Hytten and Bettez (2011) further emphasize that the phrase is “used in school mission statements, job announcements, and educational reform proposals, though sometimes widely disparate ones, from creating a vision of culturally responsive schools to leaving no child behind” (pp. 7-8). While the term is ubiquitous on this broad level, it also a term frequently used by scholars in the field as well as practitioners.

Yet, it is difficult to pinpoint a precise definition of social justice since it may mean different things to different people. An informal poll of several undergraduate students seeking teaching certification revealed these differences. When asked what social justice meant to them, some replied with general responses about treating all people fairly regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status and upholding equality for all while providing for the needs of everyone. Others talked about social justice as a progressive theory socially constructed to provide equality in the field of education. More specifically, some felt that social justice refers to the treatment of minority groups to prevent discrimination and to ensure that their voices are heard. Still others viewed social justice as a matter of perspective. In particular, a currently popular idea of what is morally just and equitable focuses on societal issues of race, culture, and personal beliefs. The fundamental idea underlying these informal responses about the meaning of social justice, as well as the use of the term in broader educational contexts, is respect for all regardless of individual differences—a respect that leads to fair and equitable treatment. Our knowledge and awareness of social justice encompasses these ideas in that it is a perspective that values equity, equality, and fairness and seeks to understand the complicated issues that lead to social inequality and discrimination.  Social justice education focuses on ways that students can make real change in the world.

Social justice is such a broad term that is also closely related to social responsibility and stewardship (Wolk, 2009).  Wolk (2009) views social responsibility as encompassing a wide spectrum of themes, including caring and empathy for others, existence of social problems, government issues, power and propaganda, historical consciousness, nonviolence, and even environmental literacy. While all of these social responsibility topics warrant careful and close attention, the existence of social problems, or rather social injustices, such as bullying, abuse, and gang-related problems continues to be prevalent in many of our schools today. From an educational standpoint, teachers can be instrumental in effecting change by helping students understand social justice. Young adult books can serve as a potentially effective vehicle for this instruction.

Young Adult Books and Social Justice

Young adult books hold appeal to adolescent readers because they address the issues, topics, and concerns that are relevant to these readers. As young adults are developing their sense of self-identity, which is a major factor during their transition to adulthood, young adult books allow the readers to safely explore various life situations vicariously. These situations resonate with the readers and enable them to consider the potential consequences for particular decisions made by characters in the book. Young adult books as a whole cover a variety of themes and issues dealing with realities of life, ranging from family relationships to gangs and violence (Bond, 2011). Young adult books also address particular issues of social justice, including the reaction of characters who bully others who are different. In these books the characters are different in many aspects, including race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, or culture (Harmon & Henkin, 2014). Many of these books speak to adolescents in direct, open, and sometimes starkly realistic ways.

This study is situated within the context of existing scholarly works that have addressed the use of young adult books as a tool for teaching about social justice. In the words of Glasgow (2001), “Young adult books provide a context for students to become conscious of their operating world view and to examine critical alternative ways of understanding the world and social relations” (p. 54). From this perspective, we note that various social justice issues as represented in young adult books have been addressed by others, such as Simmons’ focus on social action in The Hunger Games trilogy (2012) and gender identity in the book Stitches as a topic in North’s social studies methods course (2010). Moreover, Stover and Bach (2012) view young adult books as an important venue for not only introducing to students social justice issues but also serving as a catalyst for active involvement in service learning or social action as discussed by Simmons (2012).

According to Quinn, Barone, Kearns, Stackhouse and Zimmerman (2003), teaching socialization skills and tolerance can no longer be addressed as part of a hidden curriculum. It must be viewed as part of a democratic classroom where reading and writing are important tools for learning humane behaviors that include respecting others. Unfortunately, such admirable endeavors are at times overshadowed by the political context of today with its strong focus on standards and competition. Nonetheless, there are literacy proponents in the field who advocate the use of young adult books as an instructional tool to teach social justice (Groenke, Maples, & Henderson, 2010) and in particular social responsibility (Wolk, 2009). It is the responsibility of everyone to confront the social problems facing many youth today, especially discrimination because of culture, gender, sexual orientation, and economic class.

However, while Davis (2010) argues for the role of books to teach about social justice and social action in democratic classrooms, he also cautions that such efforts require “genuine dedication…on the part of teachers everywhere” (np).  In a similar vein, Golden (2008), in his interview with Linda Christensen, noted social justice educator, includes her belief that any teaching of social justice is challenging and rigorous. Therefore, it appears that the effectiveness of teaching social justice to students and using young adult books to do so is no easy task and may depend heavily upon what knowledge, awareness, and inclination the teacher brings to the task. This study therefore closely examined what teachers know about social justice and potential changes in their beliefs and perceptions about the use of young adult books as a tool for social justice instruction.

Method

The purpose of this study then was twofold: (1) to investigate teachers’ understandings about social justice; and (2) to examine the impact of course instruction on teachers’ beliefs and perspectives about teaching social justice using young adult books as a resource. The participants were 14 graduate students in a graduate literacy course offered at a large urban university in the southwestern United States. Most of the students were practicing teachers with varied years of experience and varied grade levels. The course, Integrating Reading in the Language Arts, was a required course for students interested in pursuing a reading specialist certification. The course in general focuses on reading processes and instructional practices that promote an integrated language arts curriculum across the grade levels from primary to secondary classrooms. In the following sections, we describe the project on social justice and then discuss our data collection and analysis process.

Course Project

As part of the required course activities, graduate students participated in a variety of learning experiences designed to deepen their understanding of addressing social justice issues through young adult books. The learning experiences included: (1) exposure to young adult books that address social justice issues; (2) personal and critical response to the readings in professional online blogs; and (3) development of instructional tasks to accompany the young adult books. Specifically, the student participants were required to read three novels in which social justice issues played a critical role in character and plot development. The books represented different social justice issues, including poverty, dysfunctional families, human trafficking, sexual orientation, and ethnic discrimination. Furthermore, in following Glasgow’s (2001) notion that young adult books provide critical contexts to help students become aware of their own worlds, these three books represent different contexts and different ways in which characters view and react to the social conflicts in their lives. The books were Sherman Alexi’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Trafficked by Kim Purcell (2012), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (2011).

In Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Junior, the major character, uses humor and wit to tell his story. He leaves the school on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he lives to attend a much better school in a nearby farm town—a school with only white students. In doing so, Junior rises above the expectations of others as he faces discrimination at school and contends with family and cultural issues at home. The context in which Junior finds himself forces him to grow up both at home and at school.

In Trafficked (2012), the issue of human trafficking is brought to light as we come to know Hannah, a Moldavian teenager who moves to Los Angeles to become a nanny for a Russian family.  She quickly learns that she is an indentured servant to this family and has no hope of escape. In this context of being a modern-day slave in a foreign country, Hannah is left to her own devices to change her situation.

In the coming of age book Shine (2011), sixteen-year-old Cat tries to figure out who perpetuated a terrible hate crime against her gay best friend. Set in a small southern community where everyone knows each other, Cat exhibits great courage as she confronts serious issues of drugs, intolerance, and poverty, all of which contribute to what had happened to her friend. She does so within the context of her own past experiences with others in the town, especially one encounter that has left her withdrawn, despondent, and alone.

For each book, participants wrote personal comments, impressions, and insights in individual blogs on the Google-site. These blogs served two purposes: (1) they allowed students to interact with each other online, and (2) they provided a springboard for entry into small group and whole class discussions of the book during class sessions.  In this way, class members had an opportunity to think about and articulate their own questions and insights before the group discussions began.

The students then developed a unit based upon an appropriate social justice theme of their choice. The unit included an explanation and rationale for the social justice issue, ways in which the unit could be implemented into the curriculum, descriptions of critical literacy instructional activities, a sample lesson plan, and an annotated list of at least four high quality picture books as well as at least four high-quality, longer children’s books (both fiction and/or nonfiction, trade books and/or informational books).  Students were given guidelines on book selections that included choosing high quality books with recent publication dates.  They were also asked to follow the guidelines for culturally appropriate books found on the wowlit.org website.

Data Collection

Our data collection came from several sources. During the semester, we collected data from teacher pre- and post-questionnaires about social justice issues and the ways in which teachers envision teaching social justice issues. (See Figure 1 for the questionnaire.)

 

Figure 1

Pre and Post Questionnaires

Pre Questionnaire

What is social justice?

What different issues or themes do you associate with social justice?

What are the responsibilities of an individual in regard to issues of social justice?

Should social justice be taught in schools? Why or why not?

If so, whose responsibility is it to teach social justice?

How should it be taught?

Can books serve as a vehicle for social change? Why or why not?

If so, what are some examples of books for children and young adults that address social justice?

How would you teach social justice with the children’s and/or young adult books?

Post Questionnaire

What is social justice?

What different issues or themes do you associate with social justice?

What are the responsibilities of an individual in regard to issues of social justice?

Should social justice be taught in schools? Why or why not?

If so, whose responsibility is it to teach social justice?

How should it be taught?

Can books serve as a vehicle for social change? Why or why not?

If so, what are some examples of books for children and young adults that address social justice?

How would you teach social justice with the children’s and/or young adult books?

What have you learned by participating in the social justice books unit?

The learning experiences described previously served as the intervention of the study across six weeks. In addition, another data source included the completion of a language chart for each book in which groups of students discussed their responses to the readings of the young adult books. A sample of the language chart for one book is in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Sample Language Chart Used in Group Discussions for Trafficked

 

Questions Group #1 Group #2 Group #3 Group #4
What stands out to all of you about the book? The current issue of domestic slavery stands out and especially the fact that many people have no clue about it. Also, Hannah’s naivety and how she did not stand up for herself stood out. Sergey and Lillian played on her ignorance to keep her contained as a slave. Her efforts to improve her life stand outs but yet she struggled so much and was constantly pushed back down. A girl can want more opportunities by coming the U.S. but can end up becoming another statistic. She had innocence about her and seemed oblivious to what was really going on. She started to live the dream until she got into the home of Sergey and Lillian. The main character never considered herself as being trafficked.Sergey was tender toward her; he seemed like not such a bad character; he seemed to help.The neighbor Collin stood out. Also,The innocence and ignorance of the character–Hannah and the children stood out.Females are really the villains.
Has the reading of this changed your thinking about human trafficking? In what way? The book raised awareness of how bad an issue it was.We saw how they manipulated immigrants using fear. The book gave us a completely new perspective on human trafficking. Previously we thought of it as kidnapping but not the type of living like Hannah was experiencing. The prevalence of it was also shocking. We didn’t really connect with it or thought it could really happen to someone coming to the U.S. from a different border other than the Mexican border. This “face” of trafficking was different. The majority of the time we only think of the “sex traffic” part. It make us think of how close we are to it and how well hidden it is.
Is the book appropriate for classroom use? Why or why not? Yes.It should be used for small books circles and self-choice readings.Grade level: high school Yes.It is relatively tame for the topic level. It is a prevalent issue to study with them.Grade level: upper high school Yes.It can show students how another person’s kindness can change a life whether they know it or not. It is an occurrence and is real so if students see a different perspective, they can relate.Grade level: high school Yes.It is a good jumping off point for awareness and research.The sexual content is not as explicit.Grade level: 9-10Upper levels–use as resource–language too simple
What are the constraints for using this book in the classroom? How could you get around them? The constraints are the graphic content and serious topics—sex and abuse.Allow individual choice.Warn students about the upsetting content ahead of time. You will possibly need parental consent.It would be interesting to do with a gender study. One constraint is the graphic words used.We could ask parents to read it first to give them an idea of it. We could get parental consent. The topic of sexual abuse is a constraint. The book demands a mature audience Old-fashioned, classic literary teachers may not use this book. There may be objections from parents. The book could be anelective read. Teachers could use excerpts that lead to discussions but would need parental notice.

 

We collected these class assignments to analyze for themes about social justice and related instruction.

Data Analysis

After compiling the questionnaire responses, we used a constant comparative data analysis technique to examine all the data (Merriam, 1998). We first read the responses to the open-ended questions in the questionnaires individually and then came together to discuss our findings, address differences, and arrive at consensus. In addition, we tallied the frequency of occurrence of specific topics that the participants discussed. For example, in the pre-questionnaire where participants were asked to define social justice, we noted 31% focused on the topic of action. One participant stated that social justice was “ensuring that people are treated fairly and with equality.” Another comment categorized as action was “standing up for what is right, even if society does not accept it.”

We followed this same procedure with the instructional artifacts developed and completed by the participants. These artifacts included instructional tasks developed by the instructor to support participants’ engagement with the young adult books as well as the instructional activities the participants developed with their own self-selected books. We examined this assignment closely to determine if the instruction was an appropriate match with the young adult book(s). For example, one participant focused on slavery for her instructional unit. She selected several quality young adult books, such as Sold by Patricia McCormick (2008) and Copper Sun by Sharon Draper (2008), to represent various forms of slavery for an eighth grade class. The unit contained several activities that engaged students in responding to the readings through writing and discussion. The culminating activity for the unit involved a visual aid representing a form of slavery and consideration of realistic ways in which to take action against modern-day slavery.

Limitations of the Study

We acknowledge the limitations inherent in this study. First, the instructor of record for the course was one of the researchers. While this had the potential to influence the outcomes, the responses to the questionnaires were anonymous and were not administered by the instructor/researcher. In addition, we realize that students typically learn something when they participate in a university course. However, given that the unit of instruction was focused on social justice, our goal was to capture the nature of this learning and the students’ own acknowledgement of what they learned. Finally, we realize the pitfalls associated with self-report data but also understand that these data can be a rich source of descriptive information that may inform future investigations.

Findings

We discuss the findings in terms of two major strands of data that were collected and analyzed in this study. The strands are the following: (1) participants’ growing understandings about social justice; and (2) the nature of instruction about social justice. Across the two strands we noticed that the themes of awareness of social justice, acceptance of others, and the need to take action were evident.

Participants’ Growing Understandings about Social Justice

We documented participants’ growing understandings of social justice through several data sources (e.g., questionnaires and in class discussions) and found changes in the ways in which participants defined social justice. We present the findings for this section, highlighting participants’ growing understanding of the meaning of social justice, changes in their thinking about social justice, and their recognition and appreciation of the responsibilities associated with social justice.

Defining social justice. Initially, approximately one third of the participants provided more generalized responses with references to issues facing those in leadership and government positions as well as issues relating to how groups of people are treated in society. More specifically, in the pre questionnaire, participants focused on issues, such as educational opportunity (14%), race relations (10%), and economic hardships (12%). In contrast, in the post questionnaire, the participants provided more specific issues in that bullying, racial inequality, and sexual orientation accounted for 40% of the responses about social justice issues.

The number of issues also changed, with participants mentioning ten different descriptions in the pre-questionnaire and 29 in the post-questionnaire. These differences were not only in terms of topics that participants associated with social justice but also differences in terms of the depth of understanding about social justice. The depth of understanding changed as illustrated in this general pre questionnaire response: “Social justice deals with issues that are continuously dealt with by leaders and people from government.” In contrast, in the post questionnaire one participant defined social justice as “an all-encompassing topic including such issues as bullying, race relations, and equality of education. Social justice discusses, speculates, and researches ways to implement understanding and solutions of these issues.”

We also noticed that the definitions provided by the participants in both questionnaires fell into distinct categories, including awareness, action, and equality. For example, while initially 31% of the participants defined social justice from an action standpoint, they did so in terms of what is done or should be done to others. In contrast, in the post questionnaire, the 15.3% of the participants who talked about action did so in reference to actions that need to be taken against unfair treatment and wrongdoing. Another difference was that some participants (15.3%) in the post questionnaire talked about social justice in terms of developing an awareness of the issues–something not evident in the pre questionnaire.

Changing ideas about social justice. As described previously, participants’ definitions of social justice changed from general ideas to more detailed understandings of the concept. Other changes also occurred. For example, 18% of the participants reported that they learned about the widespread use of the term social justice. They came to realize that social justice included not only bullying but also other issues such as lying, cheating, and stealing. Moreover, one student commented that social justice is “so much more than just being aware of an issue. We have to learn to take action.” In addition, 22% of the participants felt that they now realized the value in using engaging books to help students grapple with the issues of social justice. One participant commented that “literature brings humanity into the situation. Most people need to view the situation through others’ eyes in order to better understand the issues of social justice.” Still another noted that “the more we can identify with book characters or story lines, the more we can see where there are problems that need attention and hopefully [lead to] correction.”

Thirteen percent of the participants mentioned their understanding of the multiple ways to address social justice with students. One participant wrote “I have learned several different ways to present social justice issues to students. I have also learned that social justice issues can be taught to all students regardless of ability or age. All students have a voice.” Another student learned that “there is more to social justice than what’s going on in my class. It involves entire communities…with some issues that can be corrected through awareness and knowledge.”

All participants except one admitted a change in their thinking about social justice. These changes were varied. For example, 15.8% were more open to the different issues associated with social justice, 21% claimed to have an increased awareness of social justice, and another 21% felt their knowledge base of social justice had broadened and deepened. One student wrote: “I previously saw this as an issue best addressed in higher grades. I now realize the importance of starting younger as well in order to prevent injustice.” Another stated that “I have always felt strongly about issues and have always felt passionate about standing up for others, but it made me realize how common certain issues are and how these can be discovered through books.” Still another wrote: “I feel that these are important issues that many people push aside. If we bring it up more often, perhaps children will discuss the issues.”

Determining responsibilities associated with social justice. While the importance of taking action was mentioned in both the pre and post questionnaire, one major difference was an individual’s responsibility to bring awareness of social justice issues to others. This awareness was not mentioned in the pre questionnaire. After the course unit on social justice, however, all participants felt that the topic should be taught in schools and that it was the responsibility of the teacher to teach about social justice.  In particular, in the post questionnaire 23.9% of the participants stated that the responsibility of teaching social justice issues rests on the shoulders of not only parents but all those who work in schools (e.g., teachers, administrators, counselors). In fact, after the course unit, a few more participants who had not included parents initially now felt that parents are responsible for teaching social justice—an increase from 14.8% to 19.6%.

Nature of Instruction about Social Justice

In response to how social justice should be taught, most participants initially focused on general instructional procedures, such as by example, through modeling and explanations, and through the use of multimedia. In contrast, in the post questionnaire, participants provided more specific suggestions involving the use of multimodal traditional and multimodal digital tools. For example 16% felt that visuals, such as posters, photographs, movies, and video clips, were useful for teaching about social justice. The use of visuals was discussed in whole class discussions and used by the instructor and students in class.  Another 20% stated that active participation in classroom activities is important for teaching students about social justice.  Again, active participation was modeled in the course. These activities included skits, plays, and other dramatizations as well as discussions and even dance.

In both the pre and post questionnaire, approximately the same number of participants mentioned the use of books for teaching about social justice (24% and 25%). However, when asked directly about the use of books for teaching social justice, only two participants in the pre questionnaire were not sure about the use of books to teach social justice. By the end of the course unit, however, all participants stated that books can serve as a vehicle for social change. The reasons especially focused on how books enable the reader to relate to characters. For example, one participant stated:

Yes, many times books can help us see things that we may have never paid attention to before. It can help give us empathy by putting us in someone else’s shoes. Many times children may ignore a history lesson, but a book they can relate to may help to see similarities that they never saw before. Books can make us aware of more issues to where we want to work towards creating a world free of discrimination.

Another stated:

Many students might not know how to talk about a certain issue. Reading a novel can help open the door to what can be talked about. It gives students the opportunity to step into the issue and really live it & experience it while learning.

Initially, 30.4% (7/23) did not know any book titles addressing social justice. Those who did provided titles of fairy tales and well-known titles such as the Harry Potter series, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969). At the end of the course unit, as expected, participants provided a variety of current, quality book titles that address social justice issues, such as Jennifer Brown’s The Hate List (2009), The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002), and Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky (1999). After the course unit, more participants (41.2% compared to 33.3%) mentioned the use of book discussions. While in both the pre and post questionnaires participants talked about the use of videos and drama activities, only in the post questionnaire did participants (10.3%) mention the use of writing.

After reading the three young adult novels that focused on different issues of social justice (i.e., trafficking, inequalities, and sexual orientation), participants initially shared their individual responses to the following questions in blogs and then discussed their thoughts in small groups.

  • What stands out for you about the book?
  • Has the reading changed your thinking about _____? In what way?
  • Is the book appropriate for classroom use? Why or why not?
  • What are the constraints for using this book in the classroom? How could you address these constraints?

We report the findings from their collective group responses in categories based upon the questions previously listed and also include examples from the blogs of their individual thoughts to support the findings. These categories include what stood out in the readings, changes in thinking about social justice issues, and classroom use of the books.

What stood out in the readings. For two books, Shine (2011) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), what stood out for three of the four book discussion groups were the many social issues evident in the books.  In the book Shine (2011), some participants felt that the social issues were not fully addressed, and others focused on the “dark” topics in the book including language usage, sexual molestation, and parental abuse. For example, one participant wrote “the book also did bring to light for me how the stigma of being gay is still incredibly shameful for many people and how that can be exasperated by your upbringing and community.” Another noted the following about Shine:

The bullying definitely took center stage in this book. There were so many instances of bullying, such as verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. The author put a lot of issues into this book, but I think that young adults can relate to most of those issues. The language was a little harsh for my taste, but honestly it made the story line seem more real to me.

On the other hand, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), participants in all four discussion groups mentioned their new awareness of the many issues found on Indian reservations, such as extreme poverty, death, eating disorders, racism, bullying, and prejudice.

One participant reflected about these issues at a deeper level as evidenced in the following comment:

Sherman Alexie truly brings to life the impact of robbing someone or some group of their hope. He has truly opened my eyes to the ramifications of Americanization and of forcing someone to give up their culture and heritage. Previously, I have been involved in discussions about the power of hegemony and of Westernization and the dominant culture. However, I now understand that those were surface-level conversations and did nothing to open my mind’s eye or heart to the life-altering impact those powerful concepts can have. It took a work of literacy and seeing the world through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy for me to truly understand.

Two groups also commented about the author’s use of humor to lessen the harshness of these issues as well as the use of illustrations to depict character development.

For the book Trafficked (2012), the literary element of character made a strong impression on all of the participants. The groups mentioned several things that caught their attention as they read the book. Three groups noticed Hannah’s innocence and naivety and the fact that she did not stand up for herself. One group felt that Hannah probably did not see herself as being trafficked and another commented on the futility of her efforts to improve her life. To illustrate this point, one participant wrote in her blog:

The thing that stood out the most to me was the fact that Hannah herself did not realize she had been trafficked until someone else mentioned it. She was willing to come over from her home and do whatever was asked of her in order to live in America and have the opportunity to become a doctor. She went on accepting that there was a chance she would not be a nanny but would end up being a prostitute…The fact that she would be willing accept such a life even for a short time and not even consider that she was being trafficked leads me to think that it is possible that the ones most likely to become victims are the ones least prepared to recognize the danger.

In addition, one group mentioned that Sergey and Lillian capitalized on Hannah’s innocence to keep her contained as a slave in their home.

Changes in thinking about social justice issues. All four discussion groups noted a change in their thinking with the themes of awareness and acceptance evident in their responses. For example, in their discussion about Shine (2011), three shifts in thinking resulted for the groups—one on the topic of bullying and hate crime, the other on acceptance, and the last on communication. Two groups talked about how their thinking changed about bullying. They had never considered the varying forms of bullying, including physical, verbal, or relational (Harmin & Henkin, 2014). One participant stated, “This book has changed my thinking about bullying. There are so many different ways a person can be bullied…from the area they grew up in, to their sexual orientation, to the size of their bodies, etc. This book relates to many different forms of bullying, [such as] the ‘hick’ terms that are used throughout the book.” One group focused on changes that involved the uplifting experience that comes with forgiveness and acceptance, and another group felt that proper communication could have prevented the major problems in the book.

In their discussion of Trafficked (2012), three of the four groups felt that the book raised their level of awareness and gave them a new perspective about the issue of human trafficking. One group commented on how well hidden such trafficking is while another group felt they could not accept the idea that such trafficking could happen to someone coming to the United States from another country other than Mexico. As in the words of one participant,

Reading this story changed my thinking in how we address these issues with young adults today either in school or at home. I think most of the time these controversial topics are ignored because we think that something like that could never happened where we are….While this topic is ugly and un-glorified, I think that it still needs to be addressed to teens. We need to stop hiding the fact that it does happen and that in order to do justice to others, we need to attempt to help them and get them out of situations that are beyond their control. I have always been a believer in bringing up controversial topics, and I have always thought that these books make the best reads. However, I have not always promoted them to their targeted audience of young adult…We need to trust them [young adults] more and trust their instincts and provide them with the knowledge they need to be informed about what happens in the world.

Another participant wrote:

This book has changed the way I look at trafficking. I have heard the term but had never really thought about it on a deeper level… I feel like I could relate to the character and this made me feel unsafe. The kind of unsafe feeling that you know you will never be the same again because you have been made aware of something that you can’t take back. I feel like this is happening and in many times right under the noses of unsuspecting people.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) changed the thinking of all four groups of students about Native American culture and reservation life in regard to cultural assimilation and disparities that continue today. One group wrote, “The feelings you get from reading the book are far beyond what you would get from a history lesson.” This quote illustrates how young adult books can contextualize events within social, cultural, and historical settings enabling readers to broaden their understandings about diverse populations and cultures (Groenke, Maples, & Henderson, 2010). The following written response about this book from one participant represents this change in thinking about social justice issues:

I reflected back to a professor I had who taught Navajo Indians for many years and shared her experiences with my class. The most important lesson I took from her stories was that the Navajo’s (sic) taught her far more than she taught them. When I think back to that and pair it with this novel, I see the vast differences between the two. The lesson that will now always be at the forefront of my mind is that attempting to conform others to be like us is wrong in so many ways. Instead, we must actively seek to learn from others who are “different” from us to avoid having a “part-time” identity.

This is such an important insight.  As educators, it’s important to build on the students strengths and to see their culture as important and valuable.

Classroom use of the books. The two major topics covered about classroom use were the appropriateness of the books and the ways in which constraints for classroom use could be addressed.  For the book Shine (2011), three of the four groups felt that the book was inappropriate for classroom use. Their major concern was the many controversial topics included in the book, topics such as molestation, drug use, physical abuse, strong language, and hate crimes. In addition, one of these three groups raised concern that, because too many of the issues were left unresolved, class discussions could lead to “uncomfortable and unpredictable situations.” One participant noted the following:

My first inclination is to declare this novel as inappropriate for classroom use. Shine contains extremely mature content. The combination of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, drug use, and coarse language seem to me difficult hurdles to pass. If it were used in a classroom, as with all books that deal with such issues, the maturity of the students needs to be kept in great consideration.

The teachers’ hesitation to use Shine reflected their reluctance to discuss controversial topics in their classrooms.

One group in particular stated that teachers may be reluctant to use the book due to the mention of faith and religion.  In contrast, one group felt strongly that the book was appropriate for high school classrooms. They argued that the types of bullying portrayed in the book mirrored reality and that students could engage in discussions that addressed bullying from these different angles.

As one participant stated:

I think it’s appropriate for 8th or 9th grade. I think it’s very engaging; students won’t want to put the book down. I think the message it brings is very powerful. Your emotions are transformed to that of the characters. You feel how lonely and hurt Cat is. You feel her braveness and it makes you feel proud. You can feel how annoyed she was with Robert but also how patient she was with him. Students can get into this book and also learn from it.

Another noted:

I feel this book is appropriate for classroom use. There are some instances such as when Cat gets attacked by Tommy at her house, and how the dad’s (sic) in the story either had alcohol, drug, or mental issues that will need to be discussed while or prior to reading this book.  I feel like many students will relate to the book, which might make it easier to talk about and or express feelings they may have about certain issues.  The grade level that I would choose would be 9th-12th grade. I think you might want to get parents(sic) permission due to the level of homosexuality that is discussed in the book. Sadly, many parents do not want their child discussing homosexuality and I don’t know how reading a book about it would make them feel.

For the book Trafficked (2012) all groups agreed that the book was appropriate for classroom use in grades 9-12 despite the constraints of the serious content of sexual abuse and the use of graphic language. One group recommended the book for self-selected independent reading and another group felt that the book could be used as an introduction perhaps to an inquiry project on human trafficking. Similarly, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), two groups of students felt that the mature content of the book was better suited for high school students despite the simplistic reading style used by the author. The other two groups felt that the book was appropriate for eighth grade students. However, all four groups voiced concerns about the sexual content and strong language used in the book. As one participant noted:

I am truly torn about whether or not I would feel comfortable using this book in the classroom. While I think it is a transformational piece of literature, I think it requires an audience of a certain maturity level. I wouldn’t want to use it below a high school level…I would primarily be concerned about the frank discussions and descriptions of masturbation in the book. I am certain that there would be parents (myself included) who would not want their children exposed to this kind of endorsement. I do recognize that I come from a very sheltered life and that I probably didn’t even know the meaning of the term when in high school. Thus, I realize this has an impact on my perspective. On the other hand, the book is such a powerful tool in transforming one’s thought processes about accepting those who are different, that I think it would be a wonderful thing for students to read.

To address the constraints imposed by controversial topics and graphic language, participants in all four groups mentioned the need, first of all, to seek parental consent to use the book in the classroom as a required assignment. One noted that for the book Trafficked, “I would agree that at some high grade level, probably high school, this book could be used for instructional use in the classroom but it may require parental permission because it has some sexual content.” In addition, participants also felt it was appropriate to include the books in a classroom library. In this way, students would have the option to select the books for independent reading.

Discussion

This study investigated the changing perspectives of graduate students in a literacy education course about the learning and teaching of social justice. We did not set out to have the graduate students develop their own strict definition of social justice, a murky concept that can mean different things to so many different people. Rather, given that social justice has no firmly established meaning agreed upon by all and can be a controversial topic to many, we wanted our participants to grapple with the complex and broad issues related to this social concept. The instructor, using the books as a medium to guide the social interactions among the participants, served as facilitator rather than erudite professor with an agenda about social justice.  Therefore, with no solid, concrete definition for social justice leading the experiences in the course, the participants were able to individually generate their own personal understandings of this concept and did so through reading and discussing young adult books. For example, in her response to the book Shine, one student wrote:

…This book was much more than a story about the atrocities of an anti-gay hate crime. It was more about contrasting the negative impact and overwhelming power that hate and self-loathing can have on a person’s life with the liberating glory, joy, and light that can come from forgiveness and acceptance. For example, we can trace Cat’s journey from darkness, hatred, gloom, and loneliness to forgiveness, acceptance, joy, and love.

This response illustrates how the books mediated the participants’ developing notions about social justice. It may be that this book enabled her to think more deeply about the meaning of life and the lessons that can be learned from life’s events.

We also wanted them who? to focus on the use of young adult books for teaching social justice to students. The participants did report that they understood how books can serve as an important instructional tool for teaching about social justice as illustrated in this student’s comment about the book Trafficked:

This book is appropriate for high school kids. I would focus on a small group or individual reading assignment so that the discussion of the controversial issues would be a little more intimate than a whole class discussion. I bet most students are not familiar with trafficking (I know I wasn’t in high school) and this book would be a great opportunity to open their eyes to this issue.

However, the experiences of the participants in reading the three books also deepened their understanding that some books address social justice issues in very strong and powerful ways–ways that may result in constraints that need to be acknowledged regarding appropriate classroom use. The same student who made the comment just mentioned above also had this to say about the constraints for using the book Trafficked in the classroom:

This book has some horrific scenes of abuse. A few times a sexual encounter is referenced, but not really [explicitly] described and then toward the end, the sexual encounter between Sergey and Hannah is fairly graphic for adolescents. However, I thought the author kept it pretty clean overall. I would ask parents to preview the book before asking their child to read it and, of course, be open and willing to discuss anything that makes a student feel uncomfortable.

This comment illustrates that, on the one hand, participants learned that the issues need to be out in the open and discussed with students, but, on the other hand, discussion of such controversial issues may create other problems that need to be addressed. This is not a new dilemma that many teachers face when making decisions about what texts to use with students (Golden, 2008). Yet, we believe that teachers want to create a safe environment where difficult issues can be discussed openly. In this way, students can hopefully be equipped with a variety of ideas and strategies for addressing the challenges they may be encountering in their own lives.

The importance of teaching educators about social justice must not be overlooked. We hope and believe, that in any course students take, they should learn something. Thus, after participating in the social justice unit of instruction, it appears that the participants in our study reported that they did acquire a more detailed and more in-depth knowledge base about social justice. This was especially evident in their growing awareness of social justice, in perhaps their personal acceptance of the issues, and in their comments about taking action that might lead to change in existing problems surrounding social justice. Overall, these educators appeared to value their newly gained knowledge about social justice that might lead to changes they could personally make in their own lives and, as mentioned above, in the lives of the children they teach.

We advocate that children and adolescents need to be taught about social justice, but we also realize the challenge this may present and the questions that arise. As teacher educators, we believe that all those involved in the field of education need to address the issue of social justice in ways that can evoke change.  Hence, teacher preparation programs with a mission to transform practice need to consider the inclusion of social justice as part of these programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Furthermore, we advocate that teachers consider the use of young adult books as an instructional resource for addressing social justice in the classroom. These books can be vehicles for transforming the lives of the students we teach as well as a springboard for future change in society.

 

References 

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Bond, E. (2011). Books and the young adult reader. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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Glasgow, J.N. (2001). Teaching social justice through young adult books. English Journal, 90(6), 54-61.

Golden, J. (2008). A conversation with Linda Christensen on social justice education. English Journal, 97(6), 59-64.

Gorkski, P. (2013). Reaching and teaching students in poverty. Strategies for erasing the opportunity gap.  N.Y., N.Y: Teachers College Press.

Groenke, S.L., Maples, J., & Henderson, J. (2010). Raising “hot topics’ through young adult books. Voices from the Middle, 17(4), 29-36.

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Henkin, R.  (2005). Confronting Bullying:  Literacy as a Tool for Character Education, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

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Books Cited

Alexi, S. (2007).  The true diary of a part-time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Angelou, M. (1969).  I know why the caged bird sings. New York, NY: Random House.

Brown, J. (2009).  The hate list. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Chbosky, S. (1999). Perks of being a wallflower. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Collins, S. (2008). The hunger games. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.

Draper, S. (2008). Copper sun. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Huser, G. (2003). Stitches. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood.

Lee, H. (1960).  To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

McCormick, P. (2008). Sold. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Myracle, L. (2011). Shine. New York, NY: Amulet Books.

Purcell, K. (2012).  Trafficked.  New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Sebold, A. (2002).  Lovely bones. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

 

Author Bios

Janis M. Harmon is currently a Professor of Literacy Education and serves as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Student Success in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Practice from The Ohio State University and an M.Ed. and Educational Specialist Degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.  Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature and effective middle school and high school literacy programs with a special emphasis on vocabulary acquisition and instruction. She has written articles that have been published in such journals as Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of Literacy Research, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the Middle School Journal, the Elementary School Journal, and the National Reading Conference Yearbook. She served as co-editor for Voices from the Middle from 2006-2011.

Dr. Roxanne Henkin is a Professor Emeritus in the Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Department at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her doctorate from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Henkin’s research interests include multiliteracies and multimodal digital literacies, confronting bullying through literacy, critical literacy for social justice, writing process and instruction, and in-service staff development. She has published many articles and two books, Who’s Invited to Share: Using Literacy to Teach for Equity and Social Justice and Confronting Bullying: Literacy as a Tool for Character Education, (Heinemann.)

Dr. Henkin is President-Elect of Whole Language Umbrella. She was also the lead co-editor of the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle (2006-2011) and the Director of the San Antonio Writing Project (2006-2016). She has helped to create and teach writing projects in South Africa, India and the Philippines.

For more information see Dr. Roxanne Henkin’s BlogAcademia.eduResearchGate, and Confronting Bullying website.

 

Reference Citation:

MLA
Harmon, Janice, and  Roxanne Henkin. “‘The Power of Books: Teachers’ Changing Perspectives about Using Young Adult Books to Teach Social Justice. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-power-of-books-teachers-changing-perspectives-about-using-young-adult-books-to-teach-social-justice/.

APA
Harmon, J. & Henkin, R. (2016). The power of books: Teachers’ changing perspectives about using young adult books to teach social justice. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2)http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-power-of-books-teachers-changing-perspectives-about-using-young-adult-books-to-teach-social-justice/