BY: LIZ KEIPER
The West Virginian students I teach cannot get enough of Kwame Alexander. In a recent survey conducted in all grades at Spring Mills High School where I teach, we asked students the title of their favorite book that they read during the first semester. This applied to either whole-class novels or independently read books. Though virtually all SMHS English classes hold students to some sort of an ongoing independent reading initiative, the top four titles were all books that various teachers use in a whole-class novel format: The Glass Castle, The Hate U Give, Looking For Alaska, and Of Mice and Men. Coming in fifth overall and first for novels read independently or in small group literature circles was The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Instances of other Alexander titles such as Booked, Solo, and Swing all appeared throughout the reading surveys as well.
It would seem that SMHS students are drawn to Alexander’s work, and from what I have myself experienced in Alexander’s novels along with seeing my students’ reactions to an Alexander encounter, I can vouch that this reaction is not particular to Spring Mills High School. In fact, I would venture to say that if your students do not currently have the opportunity to read Kwame Alexander, they should. Here are some reasons why teens from all walks of life, including Appalachian students, both enjoy and learn from Alexander’s work.
- It’s Written in Poetic Style
If you are unfamiliar with Kwame Alexander’s work, his novels are written in poetic style, which is a genre growing in popularity. I think that one reason why students, especially struggling readers, enjoy this style of storytelling is because in poetic style, there are fewer words on a page which seems less daunting to young readers. Students enjoy what feels like a fast-paced story because they are less likely to get bogged down and stuck in the prose.
- The Poetic Style is Both Accessible and Purposeful
Alexander’s poems make use of more than syntactic moves and line breaks—Alexander is an architect who builds poems on a page and considers font, sizing, spacing, and proportion. For example, on the first page of The Crossover, he uses the word “slipping,” but he writes one letter per line and indents each line sequentially so that the word appears diagonally down the page as if it were… slipping. Because Alexander goes above and beyond what we sometimes think of as poetic moves, this also aids struggling readers with analysis. While it is harder to analyze authorial intent in line breaks and punctuation, adding an element of spatial use on the page gives readers a poem that is bursting with analytical possibilities and helps them build confidence in understanding the author’s intent in constructing a poem so.
- It’s Deep, Man… Deep
Alexander’s stories are always FAR more than what they seem on a plot level. They are rife with symbols, archetypes, and motifs which give them infinite layers of analytical possibilities. If you do an Alexander text as a whole-class or small group novel, this can be a great medium to challenge your students to think about the story on a symbolic level, or it can make a great connection to other pieces. Reading about bird or flight imagery in Romeo and Juliet? Connect it to Josh’s “hair like wings,/ each lock lifting me higher and HIGHER” (page 24) in The Crossover. Digging into Homer’s epic tale of Odysseus’ long journey home? Connect it to Blade’s quest to West Africa to find his mother and true heritage in Solo. From poetic construction to theme to symbol, there is nothing surface level about Alexander’s novels.
- It Gives Students Both Windows and Mirrors
As English teachers, we know that it is important that sometimes books act as windows and that sometimes they act as mirrors for students. If students never read about characters with whom they identify (mirrors), they draw faulty conclusions that they cannot relate to literature or that “people like them” are not significant enough to be written about. On the other hand, if students never read about people who are different than themselves in literature (windows), they become myopic. Great literature often has the ability to simultaneously provide mirrors of themselves and windows to the world outside of their own, and Alexander’s work is no exception. For example, most students in America, let alone in West Virginia, probably cannot relate much to Blade Morrison’s extravagant upbringing as a child of a rock star in Solo. However, Blade’s father’s substance abuse and neglect are all too familiar to many of our students, as are Blade’s feelings of pain at the death of his adopted mother and his feelings of abandonment upon learning that his birth mother placed him for adoption when he was born. Alexander’s brilliant development of characters makes them relatable in some way to a wide audience of students.
Whether you’ve never heard of Kwame Alexander before or you’re a long time fan, here’s the good news—he will be speaking at the second annual WVCTE conference held in Morgantown, WV! Come meet him for yourself and get inspired about how to use his works and many others in your classroom.
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- How do you use Kwame Alexander’s books to engage students in reading in your classroom?
- What excites you most about the 2019 WVCTE conference?
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