Archives For The Bean Trees

There are standard “core” texts taught in English Language Arts classrooms, but should that text be the ONLY text students should be reading? Generally speaking, the pace for a book taught in class may be slower for some members of the class. There maybe a text, specifically a play by  Shakespeare where students cannot be expected to read by themselves. 183 teaching days in a school year does limit the number of texts a class can read as a group. Of course, a teacher can adjust the speed of unit dedicated to teaching a text, but occasionally a unit can stretch over seemingly endless weeks. Interruptions to a schedule (snow days, assemblies, etc.) can contribute to the “drag” on teaching a particular text.

So, how does a teacher keep up with student reading skills when the unit slows down? What to do to keep students reading independently? What to offer higher level readers when a taught text is lower than their reading ability? What to offer lower level readers when the taught text is to high? Use satellite texts!
Satellite texts are books that are connected to a taught text either by context or theme or author.  I wish I had coined this name, but full credit belongs to Stephanie, our grade 11 English teacher. In using satellite texts, she selects a multitude of texts and offers these to students to choose to read in conjunction with a taught text.

The core text or whole class novel for the Native American Influence and Culture unit in Grade 11

For example, for her unit on Native Americans Influence on Culture, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees is the core text or whole class novel. Students are offered 10-15 other titles to read independently including (but not limited to)  Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or  Reservation Blues; Larry Watson’s Montana 1948; Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee; Kingsolver’s other two novels Pigs in Heaven and Animal Dreams; and Codetalker by Joseph Bruchac.

Independent reading choice or satellite text

Independent reading choice or satellite text

Independent reading choice or satellite text

Independent reading choice or satellite text

There are several ways to effectively use satellite texts to complement a taught text. The most obvious use in the above scenario is to have students compare and contrast the contexts, themes, and/or  characters between a whole class novel and the text they have chosen on their own. Stephanie can choose to have students work in literature circles, work with a book-buddy or communicate through blogs; she can have students work independently.
Satellite texts are the books that students can read during scheduled SSR period. Students are encouraged to set reading goals based on the number of pages in a text and their reading rate which is usually determined after reading the first 20 pages in a text. Satellite texts are not designed to provide assessments the same way that a taught text would; quizzes and tests should never be the focus. Instead, a satellite text is designed to increase opportunities to practice reading. Students may record their progress on an index card (# of pages read at a location, # of minutes) as a means of assessing their reading progress and reflect on this data.
Ideally, students should be able to draw comparisons (plot, character, theme, setting) from their satellite text to the text being taught. These comparisons can be made in class discussions or in written responses to the taught text. For example, students can draw conclusions about setting on a character’s coming of age or notice similarities in an author’s writing style. Contrasts can be made in recognizing differences by evaluating language or theme from the taught text to the satellite text.
Using satellite texts can expand a unit by an additional week, however, this additional time can provide some flexibility for a teacher in transitioning from one unit to another. Students in a class can be still be engaged in a book while the needs of a few students who need individual attention to improve understanding, or who may have make-up work, or who need more time to finish the taught text can be addressed. Using satellite texts is ideal for employing mini-lessons, or for transitioning from one unit to another that may overlap in theme or content.
Our classroom libraries are loaded with satellite texts purchased through the used book markets (thrift stores, public library book sales, online used book vendors) that sell books for $.50-$4.00. After two years of collecting, there are roughly 5-20 copies of each of the texts listed above; our total investment for this unit has been under $300.00.
Employing satellite texts in a classroom is a way to increase reading in the classroom and provide (limited) choice in texts. These books allow teachers the opportunities to expand reading beyond core texts…to increase a student’s reading experience….to infinity and beyond!

The Wamogo classroom libraries have many new titles, so perhaps an explanation as to how these titles are allowed into the classrooms at Wamogo for independent reading is in order.  Most of the books in the classroom libraries are books already available in the school library’s main collection. Unfortunately, like most schools, there have been, on occasion, challenges to titles taught or made available in classrooms in grades 7-12. Book challenges are made when a parent or guardian objects to content in a book, and there are some titles that receive challenges more frequently than others.

There are two steps that our English Department members employ in order to meet the requirements of a reading curriculum with the requests of parents or guardians. The first step is to offer students a choice in selecting independent reading or to offer an alternate core text. Because of our extensive used book collection, (see our book flood!), our English teachers are often able to offer another title instead.

The second step employed is the focus on lessons that develop skills rather then then lessons that dwell on content. Our curriculum incorporates activities and prompts that address similar themes or topics, so that the difference in titles does not impact a lesson. Prompts such as, “What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change?” are designed so that students do not always need to be reading the same text in order to participate.  For example, the Contemporary Native American unit in Grade 11 is centered on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the core text. Titles offered as alternates or for independent reading include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or  Reservation Blues, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, and Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. Students can choose a different book in this unit and still answer the prompts and participate in activities individually or in literature circle groups. One topic that connects these titles is how Native Americans view others and how they are viewed by others in society.

Unfortunately, book challenges are often in schools made against many of the books that are in the classical canon of literature.

A YouTube compilation quickly lists the top 100 banned books:

In fact, it would be impossible to teach a survey of American literature without incorporating at least one challenged title; most are on the Advanced Placement Literature recommendation’s list. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of book challenges throughout the United States.  There are lists of books that have been banned; one such  web page  is titled The Top Ten Banned or Challenged Classics.

The reasons for challenging a book are as varied as the books themselves. The entire Harry Potter series has been challenged for a number of reasons dealing with witchcraft; one challenge called the series “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly challenged for containing profanity. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was recently challenged in Connecticut for the repeated use of a derogatory term. These challengesdiffer from the specific objections leveled against Nabokov’s Lolita which has been banned for the obsessive relationship of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s with the 12 year old “Lolita”. These examples illustrate the breadth of topics than can result in book challenges or having the book banned entirely.

As a result, most teachers “self-censor”, choosing materials that they consider not objectionable, harmful, or insensitive for students.  However, there are instances where a teacher may not anticipate a challenge; what one group of parents deems inappropriate may not concern another group of parents.

Our solution is to offer a student choice in reading materials which necessitates that more titles representing a wide variety of reading levels are made available to students. Book choices for students are often advertised on websites such as Livebinders  or on a class wiki which is public.  Concerns about the merits of a book should be weighed by all stakeholders- parents, students and teachers- if there should be a question about a student selecting a text. Having a title available may not be enough of a reason to incorporate the book into a lesson plan or unit. Confronting concerns immediately in the teaching of any text is a priority.

In order to draw attention to book challenges in schools and public libraries, the American Library Association publicizes a Banned Books Week. This year, banned book week will run from September 24- October 1, 2011.They organize activities and materials in order “to highlight the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings.” Educators are often the first to encounter challenges for book removal. Offering choice may be the most successful way to accommodate the parent and still engage the reader.