First I was a reader, then an English major, then a high school teacher, then a writer and home schooling mother. As I plot out the curriculum for my kids (aged 12 and 14), I ponder all the stuff I read and taught. I know I should expose them to Great Literature so that they can learn from the inspiring themes of the past poets, playwrights and storytellers.
But then I think, “I’m pretty sure they’d enjoy that indie book by Michelle Isenhoff or Alan Tucker more…” I’m torn. Do I stick with the famous, or go with what I’m sure will ignite their imagination?
This two-fold message is for the teachers out there—whether you’re in a brick-and-mortar school or sitting around the kitchen table.
#1 ~ Seize the Teachable Moment
I team-taught an integrated Language Arts/Social Studies class for freshman a million years ago (according to my kids). Because I was the anchor personnel for language arts, I got to work with a few different social studies teachers. One in particular taught me as much as she did the kids. Her name was Casey. She was very tall, totally no-nonsense, and had a voice that could peel paint off the walls. And she was a genius at grabbing the teachable moments. It didn’t matter what had just happened in the news nationally, or in popular media, or school activities; Casey could tie it into the lesson and use it as an analogy to understand the dry world geography lessons we’d otherwise have to present. I never knew which angle she’d take as she presented her portion of the lesson each day because she always grabbed it right out of what was happening now. But I awaited her lessons eagerly. So did the kids. She was just cool that way.
#2 ~ Integrate Subjects
Casey taught me the importance of using a variety of sources and subjects to drive home an idea, and there’s no reason tween literature can’t be one of those. To illustrate, let me grab just a few titles from our own Emblazoners catalog…
Elise Stokes’ books starring Cassidy Jones may seem, on the surface, to be just a fun superhero action series. However, there are healthy doses of science in each (some real, some speculative) that could spark an interest in students to do some further research into the possibilities and probabilities of certain inventions. Students could learn about everything from phlebotomy to animal behavior, and all kinds of things in between.
Stephany Jefferson’s books about Princess Kandake could enhance a unit on Africa’s ancient tribal customs or the wildlife there. Additionally, they provide the opportunity to discuss the changing roles of women in leadership over the centuries. This could even be a way to analyze why different cultures develop based on where they live on the planet.
Christina Mercer’s series includes a great deal of information about plants and their various medicinal properties. Though some of the plants are fictional, a unit on how plants are used today in the health industry would be significant for both biology and chemistry students. They could learn the history of how different medicines were discovered and developed, or compare homeopathic/naturalistic remedies to their synthetically produced counterparts.
Alan Tucker’s fantasy series of Mother Earth provides a great springboard into discussions about the environmental impact made by everything from agriculture to industrial pollution. Students could learn about how one link in the food chain affects the rest of the ecosystem, and how a balance in nature can be restored and/or preserved.
Any of Michelle Isenhoff’s historical novels for tweens will prove extremely engaging and educational. The books immerse the reader in the period by including cultural tidbits from daily life as well as overarching socio-political issues of the time. All of them are sure to stir an interest in a time before video games and speeding cars. Units on either the Revolutionary War or the Civil War in particular would take on new meaning if they included reading her books.
Susan Kaye Quinn’s Faery Swap makes it clear that mathematics and physics are magic. Doubt it? Look at all the inventions we have today that would have seemed like magic 100 years ago. They all required a knowledge of numbers and how things move in space and time. The story even addresses the rapid advances made in the last century, and how math and science played a role in creating the “magic” we enjoy today.
I’d like to think my own Magian High could be used in a unit about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and what the whole process of desegregation might have been like—even though the story is set in modern times and deals with a different kind of separation altogether. Tweens are full of ideals, but sometimes the logistics of overcoming obstacles to reach those ideals are elusive. This story shows both the good and the bad of dramatic social change and what it takes to make things right.
Of course, these books do not take the place of science or social studies lessons, but they can certainly enrich them. The stories bring the concepts to life and spark interest in young readers to know more about what inspired the themes in the books. Having taught a variety of subjects in an integrated way, I know that it really works with youth. It ties all the courses of study together in a relevant way and helps them see how all knowledge connects. That big stumbling block–“What does this have to do with anything? I’m never going to use this!”–goes away.
Stories show knowledge in action, and that makes learning exciting.