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Nine Ways We Use Books and Literature to Foster Learning
Jim Morrison

The journey through a typical day at Nueva is intrinsically linked to the pages of the books our students and teachers are reading. The conflicts, characters, and themes within inform, educate, and reflect our own lives and inspire questions about the lives of others.

From Lit Clubs to twelfth-grade electives, here's a snapshot of nine ways books are coming to life in our classrooms. 

1. To amplify the voices of marginalized communities

Students reading the book Breaking Through

The sixth-grade writing curriculum explores mentor texts that shed light on marginalized voices to provide a different perspective on our own history. To start the year, we read Francisco Jimenez’s autobiographical collection of short stories about his experience growing up in a Mexican-American migrant family. Students examined the book through a social justice lens as they learned about stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that the Jimenez family faced.
 
How does connecting to, and engaging with, marginalized voices illuminate my understanding of the American experience?
 

“Reading this book allows you to see America from different perspectives, which deepens your understanding of what it means to be American and the experience that comes with it. It also illuminates the different experiences in America, and how, depending on things such as gender, race, and religion, your experience in America might be different.” — Jaisimh R., Grade 6

2. To provide choice and foster authenticity and student engagement

Students participating with high engagement in a lit club

Our seventh- and eighth-grade students get to join a thematic Lit Club. Over the course of a year, they read and discuss books related to that group's theme. Some of the offerings include:

  • Space 
  • Perspectives 
  • Books About You 
  • Revolution
  • Future Worlds (Utopias and Dystopias)
  • Phillip Pullman: Fantasy and mystery
  • Asian American Authors 
  • Return to Hogwarts 
  • Stand Up, Stand Out: The dangers of groupthink 
  • Lost Dreams and Found Identities : The immigrant experience in America
  • "Historical" Fiction 
  • Climate Change & the Environment. What are the facts, and what can we do about it?
  • Chinese Fantasy 
  • "Don’t Read These After Dark!": Why do people read scary stories? 

Students from Kim Harris’s Climate Change & the Environment group shared their reflections on the experience so far:

  • “I really enjoy having topical Lit Club this year. We are able to take control of what we want to read and learn about, and I really like the books we have chosen so far.” 
  • “Most books about this topic can be pretty depressing — here are the facts, it is the end of the world. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is optimistic and shows us ways that we can help, both in our communities and on a larger scale.”
  • "[Drawdown] does a great job quantifying the issue." 
  • “I like our Lit Club because we are taking a heavy topic, which can be difficult to discuss with a large group, and talking about it in a way in which we can slow the conversation down and find solutions.” 
  • “Having the opportunity to meet more than once a week allows us to broaden our view and get through all of the topics we want to discuss.”

3. To explore perspectives different than our own

A stack of memoir books

In Jen Neubauer’s twelfth-grade English elective, Seeking Truth in Amalgamation: The Memoir, students focus on personal narratives as a means for exploring and connecting with perspectives beyond their own, reading across time, geography, and culture. As they read, they ask:

  • What is the status of “truth” in the stories we tell about our lives? 

  • What can memoir teach us about the nature of memory? 

  • How do we use our own stories to make meaning?


"Increasingly innovative, memoir often defies traditional narrative forms, blurring boundaries between reality and invention, fact and fiction," Jen says. "Together, we investigate those amorphous spaces of the texts we read together."

Students have opportunities to select memoirs and read in smaller groups (selecting texts such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Daring to Drive, and Educated, among others). Their final two texts of the semester are Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Students also have opportunities to use the literature they read to inspire their own personal narratives. We all have stories worth sharing.

4. To provide a thematic base for our interdisciplinary studies

Student holding up literature-inspired drawing

For the past three summers, the Lower School Expedition program at Nueva Summer has provided campers entering grades one through four the opportunity to spend the week immersed in a thematic, interdisciplinary academic deep dive. Through literature, dance, theater, coding, and design engineering, participants have explored outer space, habitats of animals, and civilizations of humankind.
 
Each day of camp begins with Lit Club, where students share in the reading and discussion of amazing books, chosen to inspire projects, conversations, and experiences across all aspects of camp. Reading together is a great way to form community and make meaningful connections, an aspiration at the heart of the Nueva Summer experience.

5. To build community and strengthen our friendships

First grade students reading

Students love stories. We can see ourselves reflected in stories and literature. Books invite us into another world. In first grade, Reader’s Workshop is a huge part of students' day. If for some reason we do not have Reader’s Workshop, there is a revolt in the classroom.

“Often students in my class connect for the first time through the books they are reading,” first-grade teacher Diana Friedman says. “They make new friendships and strengthen their existing connections through reading and story. There is so much excitement and enthusiasm when you discover a common interest with a friend.”

Borrowing its name from Lucy Calkins’ research related to best practices in teaching literacy — methods the first-grade team puts into practice — calling the time Reader’s Workshop brings a sense of purpose and seriousness to the students’ efforts.

“We are readers and thinkers — not only reading the words. We are thinking, reasoning, asking questions and developing that practice of reading as an active process. We notice new words and share our wonder. Many of our structured word inquiry (SWI) explorations start with questions that come up during Reader’s Workshop,” Diana says. “The time presents constant opportunities for future discoveries, friendships, and a life-long love of reading.”

6. To reimagine the world of Shakespeare

Seniors performing an adaptation of a Shakespeare play onstage

During the second semester of their senior year, all twelfth graders choose a seminar focused on one of Shakespeare's plays. During the course, lead by the twelfth-grade English team, students study the play in depth, explore well-known adaptations, and develop their own adaptations. These adaptations have become one of the capstones of the senior experience, and the productions keep our students engaged through the last days of school. Before voting on which adaptations will be selected for production, students are asked to submit a “Hollywood pitch” to their peers. Some of what is required includes:

  • A brief window into the world in which your adaptation will take place
  • Think about setting (time and place) as well as tone, “topic,” and message
  • A sense of how the main characters will manifest in this world
  • A sense of how the plot of the source play will be updated into the adapted world
  • A sense of how song fits into and manifests in this world
  • A sense of the thematic carryover from the source play to your adaptation
  • A sense of the intended impact of your adaptation for a modern/Nueva audience

7. To travel the world through stories and images

Students checking out books with librarian

The library’s mission is to develop a community of dedicated, passionate, literate readers who experience joy in reading. When students visit the library weekly, the librarians aim to acquaint them with stories that speak directly to individuals and enable readers to experience gratification, competence, and pleasure in reading as they interact with text and images to create meaning.
 
Librarians continue to look for picture books that win recognition for their aesthetic appeal as well as the story or information they convey. Some picture books are targeted for older audiences and help readers visualize and learn about historical events, people, and places long ago and far away. Some are targeted to entertain. We believe children can travel the world through stories!

8. To face our own fears and challenges through those of the characters we meet

Books on display

Last week, all third graders read Dr. Seuss’s Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! as a way to introduce standardized tests ­— something they would all be doing for the first time starting this Monday!
 
"We often use picture books in this way," says third-grade teacher Erin Metcalf. "At least once a week, we gather together to read a book that introduces new curriculum, provides an example of characters facing issues that mirror our own struggles, or one that shines a light on their lives and experiences of others." One such book was The Front Desk by Kelly Yang, which tells the story a young Chinese American immigrant to Southern California in the late 1990s. Earlier this fall, the third graders even got to meet Kelly Yang when she visited the Hillsborough campus!
 
Separately, this year the third-grade team is developing a new unit focused on executive skills and have found pictures books that help them coach the skills.

9. To understand how the past, present, and future intersect

Afrofuturism class

From W.E.B. DuBois to Octavia Butler to Janelle Monae, Black artists have been reimagining the past while simultaneously envisioning a far different and more just future. In reading Afrofuturist short stories and novels in Alegria Barclay’s twelfth-grade English seminar, students gain a better understanding of the history of racial injustice, the legacies of colonialism, Black liberation movements, pan-Africanism, science fiction, and futurism. 

“Literature in this genre asks us to consider in powerful terms how the our collective racial past continues to live, at times, side by side with our present moment,” Alegria says. “It also opens up imaginative pathways on how we can not only envision but make real different futures that are committed to liberation and innovation.”

Through grappling with these widely varied texts, spanning from the 1920s to the present, students engage with key essential questions:

  • Who is the future for?
  • How, when, and why do the past, present, and future intersect?
  • How does Afrofuturism explore/expose significant sociopolitical, cultural, and environmental concerns? 

In doing so, they broaden their understanding not only of the Black experience in the United States but also the understanding that we all carry the past within us in profound ways and have the power to impact the future in an equally visionary manner.

 



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