Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Pausing to Check the Weather, a guest post by Tanita S. Davis

The first series I published – on binder paper, bristling with staples – was The Police Academy Chronicles. Protagonist Deenie Brown was Black, book-smart, and at fourteen, the youngest cadet in her police academy – which was apparently like high school, but with adults. Together with sidekick Danny (whose long, thick lashes did nothing to hide his utter lack of characterization), Deenie Brown’s adventures were legion, and heavily derivative of Encyclopedia Brown (and with the amount of cookie baking going on, Trixie Belden). No gangs, drugs, or violence, Deenie’s cases dealt with priceless art theft and missing princes (commonly found in every suburb) and ended with a loud “atta girl” from Danny and the proud gratitude of the community.  These novellas paint a clear (and endearingly awful) picture of my writer’s mind between the ages of twelve to fifteen.

During this same period, I was frequently told I had “an attitude” in the way I interacted with adults. The object of adult speculation in the form of “teasing” about the number of kids I would have or how early I would marry, I was frequently asked by pediatricians – from the age of ten, as I recall – if I was sexually active. I was mortified when my seventh-grade tumbling teacher wouldn’t spot me one day because I was “too much of a big girl now” to necessitate that. Even as I saw myself as goofy and scattered, bookish and unsure, adults around me seemed increasingly able to see something in me which I hadn’t yet seen in myself.

In 2017 the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a study detailing what they called ‘adultification bias,’ the idea of Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers. The study revealed that even as young as five to nine years old, black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, protection, comforting and care than white girls of the same age, as they’re considered more independent. This bias is strongest in girls ages ten – to – fourteen, which shapes ideas of innocence and experience. Until I read about this study, and the qualitative research conducted in 2019, I had no words for some of the experiences of my tweenhood. Like Deenie and many of my later teen characters, I was not particularly hip or worldly. Even as I leaned into the new requirements and abilities of young adulthood, I was still a child day-dreaming super sleuth adventures and solving imaginary crimes. Mine was not a graceful transition, and I went into teaching determined to grant girls like me more tools to make their liminal stage easier. All we needed, I reasoned, was a pause to check the weather before being expected to face the headwind on a new road.

Most of my first students had criminal records, social workers, parole officers, and a history of truancy. As a very junior teacher, I was to provide one-to-one tutoring and an educational approach that met them at their level, but which wasn’t insultingly infantilizing. With the supervisory support of the County’s independent study teacher, my little group home class struggled toward diplomas and GEDs.  Seeking any enticement to engage them, I hit on reading aloud. My kids would work, and better, urge each other to work, in exchange for a story – despite adultification bias’s claim that they should have “outgrown” that long ago.

We began by reading Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, the story of fourteen-year-old, college-bound LaVaughn, babysitting seventeen-year-old Jolly’s two small children. Resonating with the characters’ fears and intentions, my students listened fiercely as LaVaughn observed, judged, learned and transformed. With her, they were frustrated with, charmed by, and terrified for others. Within the pages of those blank verse poems, my students lived and breathed. The day we finished, my learners, who had listened in near reverent silence, refused to even consider the sequel, voting unanimously that we read it again. They seemed to need to re-immerse themselves in the moments and decisions that led the novel to the powerful hope in its conclusion.

Publishing stories for girls like me, girls who were tender inside, and dreamers, wasn’t as simple. As other Black authors published to well-deserved success, my editors grew disappointed with my work. “She needs to be edgier,” was the most common criticism of my characters. I was encouraged to depict characters with more “street smarts” whose lives were “grittier.” “Your characters are too innocent,” one editor told me bluntly. I couldn’t understand – what did “too” innocent mean? Isn’t every teen, merely by virtue of their age, innocent of a remarkable number of experiences? Despite criminal charges and court dates, my students had limited experience with a world which had already judged them as ‘knowing better.’ When an editor suggested I was more suited to write chapter books for early readers, I was shaken. Much like Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the danger of a single story, I realized that much of publishing had, in essence, defaulted to another single story, that of poverty and pain, a Black girl on the brutal streets, bereft of innocence and old too soon…a story I wasn’t convinced that I was capable of telling.

Still, I reconsidered Partly Cloudy, a book originally featuring a first-year college student, the unwilling subject of a viral video, making a cross-continental escape to her great-uncle’s house on the West Coast. In my rewrite, seventh-grader Madalyn arrives at Papa Lobo’s in a slightly more organized fashion, though she remains conflicted by the push-pull challenges and growth of interracial, intercultural friendships at her new school. How do we make friends with others raised to think and react differently than ourselves? How do we decide what has value, where we should put our energy, what is worth fighting for, and what is best allowed to fade? Junior high friendships can be fast-changing and painfully fraught. In Madalyn I wanted readers to feel nurtured by her relationships, and with her, take a moment to pause and process, to determine what friendships feel like, and to grow deliberately into the adulthood they’re so often assumed to have.

And what comes of such deliberation? Clarity. I see now that like Deenie, I wanted strongly to fix things, and restore what was broken or lost. Like Madalyn, I wanted to safely and honestly navigate friendships, to cut through distraction and find genuine connection. And like them both, I wasn’t gritty and street smart – I’m still not. I had to learn pragmatism and resilience, neither of which come easily, especially if you’re seen as “grown” and not in need of comfort or help.

I hope that this September we welcome tweens of all colors into our learning communities in the spirit of honoring what is within them. We can lend them all our nurture, protection, and comfort. And as Black girls pause among the books to check the weather, I hope we’ll be on hand to give them a loud “atta girl,” as they choose to open the door and step into the storm.

Meet the author

Tanita S. Davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Serena Says, Peas and CarrotsHappy Families, and Mare’s War, which was a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book and earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. She grew up in California and was so chatty as a kid that her mother begged her to “just write it down.” Now she’s back in California, doing her best to keep writing it all down.


Website: www.tanitasdavis.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tanita_s_davis/

About Partly Cloudy

From award-winning author Tanita S. Davis comes a nuanced exploration of the microaggressions of middle school and a young Black girl named Madalyn who learns that being a good friend means dealing with the blue skies and the rain—and having the tough conversations on days that are partly cloudy. Perfect for fans of A Good Kind of Trouble and From the Desk of Zoe Washington.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn’t always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebrating.

ISBN-13: 9780062937001
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Information Literacy Skills in the Digital Citizenship Classroom: Teaching Lateral Reading, a guest post by Jennifer Hanson

How do you teach information literacy skills in a remote class setting? When the pandemic hit last spring, all of my digital citizenship classes suddenly became asynchronous classes. This gave me the opportunity to redesign how I was going to teach information literacy skills in my 8th grade classes. Without the face-to-face interaction, I knew I needed some solid videos to explain evaluating information. I could either make those videos myself or use something that already existed. Through the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program, I was familiar with the Stanford History Education Group Civic Online Reasoning lessons. I really liked their video from Crash Course with John Green explaining lateral reading.

If you are unfamiliar with lateral reading, the basic concept is to open a new tab or tabs on your device and search for information about a website. Rather than scrolling down a webpage or reading the About Us page, lateral reading provides other sources of information about the website you might be viewing.

For my asynchronous lesson, I put together a Google Form lesson with a series of videos for my students to watch, asking them evaluate a source for its authenticity using lateral reading, then applying their new lateral reading skills to another video. Because the activity included no interaction with a teacher, students struggled at the end to provide evidence for whether or not this video of a snowboarder being chased by a bear was real or fake. I asked them to watch the video, then read laterally to determine if the video was real or fake and provide evidence of their decision. Of the 39 students who completed the assignment, 15 noted their strategy to read laterally and cited Snopes or National Geographic as their evidence the video was fake. The other students tried to analyze the video itself, determining if the bear looked real and if the girl was bothered by the presence of the bear.

I felt like this lesson had some merit, so when we returned to school in the fall, I modified it a bit. The fact that we now had a Zoom-based synchronous class helped me provide a level of guidance and context that the asynchronous format did not accommodate. In order to practice their lateral reading skills more, I added an activity from the Stanford History Education Group lesson “Intro to Lateral Reading.” After analyzing the snowboarder video as a class and practicing lateral reading to provide evidence of whether the video is real or fake, I ask students to complete an activity about the Odyssey Online website. This activity is more challenging than the snowboarder activity as it asks students to evaluate the reliability of a website that has published an article about the minimum wage.

One challenge students faced immediately with the Odyssey activity was the first question of “who is the sponsoring organization?” Sponsor sounds like advertiser, and lots of ads pop up at the top and on the right side of the page. Students were responding that the sponsoring organization was a variety of advertisers like The New York Times and Starbucks instead of the organization Odyssey. If big names like The New York Times and Starbucks advertise on the site, it must be good, right? This gave me the opportunity to help students understand the difference between sponsor (the owner of a website) and advertisers (other entities who buy space/time in a variety of venues without vetting everything their advertisements are attached to). The second time I taught the lesson, I prefaced the activity with that discussion so that students didn’t get off track from that central question.

In December, I attended Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins’ ISTE presentation “Evaluating Bias and Truth in the Fake News Era.” One question LaGarde asked during the session was “how do we teach students to read laterally on mobile devices?” Since then, I have added a discussion on reading laterally when we are on Instagram or Snapchat, emphasizing that lateral reading isn’t just done on a laptop or for websites, but for all media we consume.

Teaching remotely, both in an asynchronous and synchronous environment, pushed me to reevaluate how I was teaching information literacy skills with my students. I think the changes to my instruction have been positive overall and have given students stronger evaluation skills. How have you adapted your instruction this past year? What strategies will you keep?

Meet the author

Jennifer Hanson is the Director of Library Services at Worcester Academy and has over a decade of experience teaching information and technology literacy skills. She is also an Educational Consultant for the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Eastern Region Partner at Waynesburg University and has written for School Library Journal.