While I was teaching a children’s literature course for future educators at a local college, my adult students were assigned to read a middle grade book, Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. I opened class discussion by asking, “What did you notice? What is worth talking about?” I expected to hear responses about the graphic novel format of the book. I thought they might talk about the story being set in the '70s. Perhaps there would be mention of the story jumping back and forth in time, a device that helps tell the story of Sunny’s summer with her grandpa in Florida while flashing back to the events that led up to her visit.
Instead, one student became emotional and shared how she could relate to Sunny, whose brother is struggling with a drug addiction, because she had lost her brother less than two years earlier to addiction.
Another student chimed in by sharing that she could identify with Sunny’s family, who continuously supported her brother despite his lousy actions while under the influence of drugs. She had a cousin whose addiction to heroin had caused him to put family members through misery over the course of multiple years while he drifted in and out of rehab.
Her comments seemed to open the door for a third student, who confessed he had suffered from a heroin addiction himself for many years before getting clean six years earlier. He claimed that after reading Sunny Side Up, he dropped everything to call family members, including his mother and younger sister, to apologize for what he had put them through. The book had opened his eyes.
Each of these readers had entered the book heart-first, and the emotional responses they shared immediately invited others, whether or not they had personally connected with the story, into a community of readers for which books deeply mattered.
Having never worked in a classroom setting with adult learners before, I had been worried about how I might establish a community of readers. It turned out to be exactly like building a community of readers in a classroom with children. All it took was the shared experience of reading and discussing text.
It is that simple: Readers + Text + Conversation = Community.
The success of this simple formula, however, relies largely on meaningful text selection. When choosing a text with the purpose of building (or sustaining) community, here are some things to keep in mind.
When trying to reach a large group of readers with a single text, it is essential to consider the complexity. Selecting a text that is too challenging may isolate less experienced readers. Selecting a text that is far too easy is likely to bore experienced readers. The goal is to find a text all students are interested in and able to access independently.
Graphic novels and books written in verse lend themselves well to engaging a wide range of readers at a variety of experience levels. The vocabulary and storylines tend to remain somewhat sophisticated, and images and/or fewer words on a page offer support for readers who need it. Another option is to offer an audiobook format for readers who prefer an alternative.
The number of pages and amount of words per page also make a difference. Community building usually takes place at the start of a school year when many readers are beginning to rebuild stamina after summer break. Carefully selecting a text that will not tax readers intellectually allows them to enter the text as humans first instead of as readers, which is likely to lead to richer conversation.
You may choose to select a novel, but perhaps a shorter text would fit better into your plans. With eighth-grade readers, I have experienced a quick, powerful invitation into community with the NPR This I Believe essay “Remembering All the Boys” by Elvia Bautista. In this essay, Bautista writes about her belief that everyone deserves flowers on their grave. She tells the story of her brother who died in a gang-related shooting. It is a short, provocative piece that compels a human response.
Like Sunny Side Up, the NPR essay triggers emotions in the reader. Emotions are the gatekeepers of memory—we tend to vividly remember experiences associated with strong emotions. Because community building is about creating a lasting connection among readers, emotion is a powerful foundational tool.
Keep in mind that the emotion need not always be sad. Humor can be just as powerful an emotion as sadness. My eighth-grade students always remember giggling over the Scholastic Scope magazine edited version of the “How to Fight Monsters” passage from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian or the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Potential fodder for building community can hide in all sorts of places.
Selecting a text that is well crafted is one final way to ensure all readers can be part of the conversation. Those who do not have personal connections to the content of the story itself may find themselves in admiration of the author’s use of imagery, unique format, or poetic language.
Alexie’s list of “Spokane Indian Rules of Fisticuffs” contains repetition that keeps readers in stitches while making a sobering point about cultural pride. Sometimes discussion about craft becomes an open door leading to more intense discussion about personal connections.
Perhaps just as important as triggering emotions is selecting text that conveys a universal message. Text about big ideas like family relationships, overcoming challenges, and feeling like an outsider contain entry points for all readers.
Sunny Side Up is a story about family relationships, particularly how one family member’s addiction affects others. When I first started teaching, I was trained to run support groups by Jerry Moe, national director of the children’s program at the Betty Ford Clinic in California. He suggested that every single support group, whether for social skills or anger management, include one session focusing on how children can take care of themselves when a family member suffers from addiction. Initially, this seemed like an extreme idea. Surely addiction would affect only a small fraction of our student population. Then the table of adults I was sitting with at the training began to speak. Only a single one out of the dozen people at the table had not been affected by a loved one’s addiction.
Sometimes ideas that don’t seem universal turn out to be more connective than we could have predicted.