Literary Theory for Youth, About Youth

As an English major in college, I learned about literary theory and it not only became my favorite way to analyze a novel, but my go-to for analyzing any text or art I encountered. As a reader, it was rewarding to think deeply about how a work perpetuated societal expectations of women, represented race, or glorified specific social classes. However reading with lenses remains an ambitious skill to teach because it is different from reading comprehension: it is teaching critical thinking. Asking students to read with a critical lens requires them to first, deconstruct and extrapolate stereotypes that exist around groups of people, second, identify if and when those stereotypes occur in the literary work, and lastly, decide if the text supports or challenges those stereotypes. For many reasons, I see this type of critical thinking as the most important skill I teach. Of course, I acknowledge that comprehension is the foundation of all reading activity, but to stop discussion of a text at comprehension and character analysis denies students the opportunity to explore and evaluate the relationship between the text and their world.

The reality of having a passionate belief in teaching critical thinking is that I spend a ton of time reading, wondering, and talking about how to do it well. I knew before I went into a teaching program that figuring this out would be a personal mission of mine and my investigations of this were mostly theoretical. It wasn’t until a course I took on reading and teaching Young Adult Literature that the lightbulb turned on about how I would actually put it into practice in a classroom. In their article, “The Youth Lens: Analyzing Adolescence/ts in Literary Texts,” Lewis, Petrone, and Sarigianides (2014) describe the teaching of a Youth Lens, which readers use to examine the stereotypes of young people. These researchers argue that a “universal” experience of youth does not exist, meaning all people have been young, but their experiences and selves during that time are not cut from one adolescent pattern. Their article asks readers to scrutinize representations of youth in texts (Lewis, Petrone, Sarigianides, 2014). There it is, I realized; I could start my students’ critical thinking about texts by examining how they are represented in the text. It works because the experience of being young is shared among all students in the classroom.

Two years after learning about the Youth Lens, I was fortunate enough to student teach in a classroom with a teacher who wa and still is on the front lines of putting this theory into practice in her classroom. I was amazed to hear what seventh grade students had to say about representations of youth in The Outsiders during my student teaching experience and I was eager to bring the Youth Lens to my own classroom.

So, here I am, at my first year anniversary of my first English teaching job and I am teaching Youth Lens to eighth grade students. I get so excited about teaching Youth Lens because I see the empowerment at work in my students as they speak up about how they are more complex and less predictable than they are portrayed in the media.

I begin our study by asking students to make a list of character traits that describe themselves. A few days later, I ask students to compile a list of words the describe junior high students in general. We move from individual to small group lists to a whole class list. These lists are usually made up of words that are predominantly negative.

Student-created list of words that describe junior high students.

I remind students of the list of words they made about themselves, which is usually more positive, or at least, more varied in either direction, than the list describing junior high students. I ask them, “How are these lists so different? How do you see yourselves so differently than the way you see the group you belong to?” This is how we begin discussing stereotypes: centered around the idea that teens are stereotyped. While reading The Giver, I ask students to annotate the text when they see a stereotype about teens reinforced OR broken. As a final project, I ask students to write a short essay answering the question: Does The Giver support or challenge stereotypes about young people? 

What I love about this unit is that it truly challenges all students to think and use the text to support their thinking in writing. My students are currently working on writing their essays and I am ecstatic to read what they have to say.

Thanks for reading! I would LOVE to hear what you’re doing to teach critical lenses at any level, so please share! Stay critical, my friends!

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