Yesterday with our pre-service PJ and JI literacy classes we explored the use of literature circles as part of a literacy program. The student teachers had read the novel Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos and in small groups took up the literature circle roles outlined by Harvey Daniels. After the student teachers had completed the literature circle activity the class came together again as a large group to consider and discuss the following questions: what did the student teachers think about the literature circle approach, would they use literature circles in their classroom teaching, what reactions did they have to the novel selected, and would they consider using this particular novel with their students. The student teachers engaged in an insightful and serious discussion of the questions posed. Reaction to the novel was mixed. Many of the student teachers appreciated the authors attempt to narrate the story from the perspective of a child labeled with an exceptionality (ADHD). However, student teachers also voiced their discomfort with various aspects of the novel such as the depiction of the young protagonist Joey’s interactions with various adults in the text, the issues of labeling and medicating children, the portrayal of abuse, alcoholism, and dysfunctional family dynamics in the novel.
Over the past few years Clare and I have intentionally selected this novel for use in the literacy course, in part, because the novel raises a number of serious issues teachers face in a classroom context. Each year student teachers communicate diverse reactions to the reading of this novel. For instance, we have had both student teachers who themselves have been diagnosed with an exceptionality, as well as, student teachers who as the parent of a child with an identified exceptionality tell us that aspects of novel truly resonated with their experience. In contrast, we have also had student teachers communicate their dislike and discomfort with aspects of the novel. At the end of class yesterday Clare and I reflected upon the rich class discussion, and once again asked ourselves if we should continue to use this novel with student teachers in the literacy courses. Our answer was yes. We do understand how and why the topics dealt with in the novel and the author’s portrayal of child-adult interactions are contentious and troubling. Yet, we also recognize the value of asking student teachers, who as educators will be work closely with children and families, to deeply consider the difficult and complex dimensions of a teacher’s role. As Lisa Delpit astutely reminds us “we do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs.” As educators we must continue to challenge our beliefs about what it means to teach and to learn.