With the explosion in readership of young adult fiction and the wave of talented new writers of young adult novels, demand for graduate level YA literature courses is strong. Yet within this overall demand, the goals of students vary widely. Some graduate students want to take a YA literature course in preparation to teach; others hope to write their own bestselling novels; and yet others anticipate studying YA literature from a critical perspective. How can the needs of all these students be met in one graduate level course? Combining pedagogical, creative, and critical approaches in one classroom can be done—with careful planning, multifaceted assignments, and some online work. The resulting course is richly layered, intellectually challenging, and satisfying to a wide variety of students.
In my course, students self-assign to one of three groups—teachers, writers, or critics. They can (and do) regroup themselves over the course of the semester according to their goals. For example, a student may sit in the teaching group for a novel she anticipates assigning to a future class, but switch to the writing group when we read a fantasy novel because she also writes in that genre. For each class period, students write a 2–3 page response to the novel under consideration. Teachers design classroom activities, write discussion questions, and identify potential pedagogical hazards. Writers focus on an issue of craft and rehearse the creative moves they identify. Critics read an essay (from a provided bibliography) and consider a theoretical approach or critical concern relevant to the novel. All responses are posted to a course site, and students are asked to read them before class. During class, students first meet in their groups for discussion. Then, cross group work begins. In a recent class on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example, the writers focused on the narrative voice and how it is filtered through nine-year-old Bruno. The critics, meanwhile, responded to the controversy over depicting Bruno as innocently unaware of what was happening in front of his eyes in the death camp. Teachers pondered whether their students would know enough about the Holocaust to see past Bruno’s blindness or if they would miss the references to Auschwitz entirely. All three threads of the conversation came together in class, beautifully adding complexity to each approach.
The final project for the course also allows students to focus on their specific goals. Teachers prepare full lesson plans for three additional YA novels (including all classroom activities, common core standards, and assessment plans). Writers compose 25–30 pages of a YA novel and prepare a portion for workshop. Critics write a conference-length critical piece, find a suitable conference for presentation, and submit an abstract. Students share these projects in a conference-style final class session, again allowing the students to learn from the other perspectives.
Paula J. Reiter, Mount Mary University