Paul Hankins, The English Companion Ning, and Teachers Who Teach Teachers

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I'll try to keep this brief: In September of last year, I was invited into a classroom of eighth graders by a teacher for whom I have enormous respect. I was there to talk about Nothing but Ghosts, but mostly I was there to do one of the things that I most love to do, which is to hang out with young people and talk with them about the books they read, the things they write, and the lives they dream of living.

(Okay, this is not auguring brief, but I go intrepidly on.)

At the close of that session, the teacher suggested that I look into something she called the English Companion Ning, an award-winning online social networking tool for English teachers that advertises itself, in part, as "a place to ask questions and get help... a cafe without walls or coffee: just friends." I do teach, of course, but at a university. The time I spend in middle school and high school classrooms is frequent, but sporadic. I don't actually fit into this community, in other words, but I was welcomed in, and I have gained enormously from the Ning conversations that carry on. Mostly I have gained a great appreciation for how right so many English teachers try to make their classrooms, how much they care about the books their students read, and how creative they are in their responses to educational needs and learning styles.

Recently, as you can imagine, there's been a conversation about the now-infamous Wall Street Journal article, "Darkness Too Visible," by Meghan Cox Gurdon. I don't need to review well-trod ground: Gurdon wrote, among other things, of her concern that YA work is getting darker, and that such darkness may be dangerous, noting: "Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures."

The essay was, of course, a lightning rod, provoking all manner of response and reigniting that familiar debate about what YA should and could be. I have my own reasons for writing the kinds of YA books that I write—will be forever grateful to Laura Geringer who invited me into this YA world in the first place. Laura didn't mind that I love language and that my stories always seem to revolve around bright, seeking, big-hearted young people. She didn't marginalize me because I do not have within me a vampire tale or even (I'll be honest) any actual vampire or dystopian knowledge. She said, "Write and see what happens," and what has happened is that I have met, through my books, an astonishing group of young people who have entered my life as a second family.

The point I set out  to make today does in fact have to do with that aforementioned English Companion Ning. It has to do with the quality of conversation now ongoing in response to Ms. Gurdon's WSJ essay. Back and forth these teachers go, in all civility—suggesting, defending, opposing, reformulating, teaching each other and me about the books they introduce into their classrooms, the books they hope kids will read on their own, and the conversations they sometimes have with parents about books in which darkness pervades.

At the center of this conversation is one Paul Hankins, a Ning administrator, an ALAN board member, a Facebook treasure, and one heck of a teacher/reader whose path has crossed mine from time to time. I fervently hope that Paul does not mind me pulling a small quote from his Ning comments today. If anyone wonders what real teachers do, please think of Paul, and be grateful for him. Think of all the teachers who care.

Less than 80% of my students will have passed the GQE (graduation exam) when they come into Room 407 next fall. Last year, I had eighteen (remember our school is small) students with special needs. In one room alone, six of the twenty-eight students required some form of assistance and an aide was assigned to work with me in helping these students to navigate works like The Crucible, Of Mice and Men, and Tuesdays with Morrie. But we also tackled Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. And many more texts.

Using a 40 Book Invitation, I was able to advise readers as they moved through genres like Plays, Memoirs/Autobiographies, Poetry, Historical Fiction, Non-Fiction, Graphic Novels, Illustrated Texts/Picture Books, and American Classics. At the end of the year, my 150 juniors read almost 4000 titles. We celebrated this at the end of the year.



Melissa Sarno said...

Holy Cow. 4,000 titles. That is so exciting. I'm glad this dialogue is happening, that it can happen. When I was in high school, we didn't read young adult books. I went straight from the Babysitter's Club to something like The Scarlet Letter (oh, boo) I'm glad there are so many options for teen readers and teachers today.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I don't know Paul beyond Goodreads, but I know this man is committed to children and books. It is so satisfying to know people who push kids to make connections and fall in love with literature.

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