Using Pressure Maps to Help Middle Grades Readers Develop Nuanced Understandings of LGBTQ+ Characters

This post was written by guest authors Michelle Hopf and Ryan Schey. 

As a middle-grade English teacher (Michelle) and a university teacher educator (Ryan), we know that it is vital to feature LGBTQ+ identities, with respect to literary characters and authors, in our classrooms. In addition to assigning LGBTQ+-themed books or placing them on the shelves of our classroom libraries, we know we need to attend to how students engage with these texts. The interpretive lenses, background knowledge, and other reading practices students use to make sense of LGBTQ+ identities in texts can foster nuanced, compassionate understandings. So too can they contribute to misunderstandings, avoidance, and even disdain.
As a result, we wanted to find ways to support our students, whether middle schoolers or university undergraduates, in developing nuanced understandings of queer lives represented in young adult literature.
We leaned on our content area knowledge of literature instruction and decided that characterization analysis would help us work toward our goals. Michelle and a colleague, Kristina Passi, had been using “pressure maps” to analyze characters, an approach which would lend itself to analyzing two LGBTQ-themed young adult novels for middle-grades readers: Howard’s The Whispers and Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin.
Both novels feature queer identities (gay and transgender identities respectively) and take up themes such as coming-of-age and coming out, mental health, death, and friendship. The Whispers, set in rural South Carolina, follows Riley’s journey to find his mother—efforts that involve repeated questioning by authority figures, a mythical story about whispering voices in the woods, and a camping trip with his friends and “redneck superhero” crush. Eventually, with the support of his friends, family, and some strangers, he comes to acknowledge that his mother had passed away from cancer and did not disappear because she was disgusted with his love for boys.
Lily and Dunkin, set in a Florida suburb, is told from alternating perspectives. Lily wants to publicly transition as she starts eighth grade, and tries to get her parents, especially her dad, to support her in accessing hormone blockers. Dunkin has just moved to Florida and struggles with navigating bipolar disorder and finding friends at his new school.
These two middle grade novels offer rich opportunities to analyze LGBTQ+ characters’ experiences using “pressure maps.” Often with characterization, students use textual evidence to analyze speech, thoughts, emotions, actions, and appearances to determine how a character is developed on the page. The pressure map builds somewhat on that concept by asking students to analyze the internal and external pressures a character encounters.
Internal pressures are phenomena inside characters that make them feel stress, such as a desire to solve a mystery (Riley). External pressures are phenomena that happen outside of characters that cause them to feel stress or compel them to action, such as whether a parent expresses disapproval or love (Lily).
With the assignment, teachers can use weather maps to illustrate for students a range of colors representing different intensities and types of pressures. Just because a phenomenon causes pressure does not mean it comes from a red zone of negativity. Pressure can be positive, such as when it compels a character to engage in self-care.
Furthermore, the idea of pressures can be a tool for readers to use in analyzing larger systemic dynamics, such as homophobia, transphobia, and racism. Ultimately, students create a drawing of the character(s) that includes text evidence and illustrations of internal and external pressures.
Pressure maps can be used in different ways to study characterization in The Whispers and Lily and Dunkin. One way is as a midway or end-of-novel characterization analysis. Students choose a character to analyze and develop a map of that character at a given point in the narrative. Riley in The Whispers offers an ample number of relationships, conflicts, and decisions for students. Both Lily and Dunkin could be analyzed individually because the novel is told from the alternating points of view of the two characters.
Alternatively, students could analyze how pressures change throughout the book. In The Whispers, Riley comes to the realization that his mother died from cancer and did not disappear because of disgust of his love for boys. Creating a map of the pressures Riley feels early in the novel and a map of the pressures he feels as the novel resolves could help students understand how he navigates internalized homophobia.
Similarly, considering Lily and Dunkin together on a map could invite nuanced analyses. Lily and Dunkin become friends and have several pressures in common, including school bullies. However, they are also dealing with bullies for different reasons—Lily is publicly transitioning (and navigating transphobia) and Dunkin is managing his bipolar disorder (and navigating societal norms around mental health and public presentation).
In turn, the relative privilege of both characters’ whiteness and social class shields them from other dangers. By delving into such pressures, both those that constrain and those that compel, rather than only surface level identifiers, students can develop a more complex picture of LGBTQ+ characters. Our hope is that ELA teachers might adapt and expand upon such ideas in their own teaching.

Michelle Hopf, a National Board Certified Teacher, is currently in her eighth year of teaching seventh-grade language arts in Auburn City Schools in Alabama. Choice and independence play a big role in her students’ development throughout the year. She’s worked as a department head and intervention teaching during her tenure. She is also a coadvisor to her school’s GSA club.
Ryan Schey is an assistant professor of English education at Auburn University. His research exBplores literacy and language practices and social change in schools, focusing on queer and trans youth and those who work in solidarity with them. He was recently recognized as the recipient of NCTE’s 2020 Promising Researcher Award, and his scholarship, individual and co-authored, can be found in NCTE journals such as English Education and Research in the Teaching of English. Prior to completing his doctorate, he taught high school English in Ohio and coadvised his school’s GSA club.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Toward Mattering: Popular Culture References in Young Adult Literature

This post was written by NCTE member Shelby Boehm.

“What good is an education if you must shed who you are?”
―Bettina L. Love, We Want To Do More Than Survive

Young people, especially students of color, enter classrooms every day where they do not matter. Through policies and practices that center whiteness, schools continue to enact violence on a personal and systemic level (Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist; Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive).
Bettina Love argued that contemporary schools function as the “educational survival complex,” where learning for survival is the purpose of education for students of color (p. 27). In this sense, young people are not expected to thrive in classrooms—in fact, the system anticipates their failures as explanations for historical and modern economic, social, and political issues.
One way to create opportunities for young people to not only matter in schools, but to thrive, is through revisioning the role of popular culture in the curriculum. As a teacher, my high school students were often current on various popular culture texts, even recommending texts to one another as our classroom community developed. As I transitioned into my doctoral program, I wondered about additional affordances of popular culture in the classroom beyond serving as a “window, mirror, or sliding glass door” (Rudine Sims Bishop) to lived experiences for my students.
Popular culture (also referred to as mass culture or pop culture) is generally recognized as a collection of ideas, cultural practices, and objects that are representative of a certain time in society. In this sense, popular culture captures the experiences relevant to a certain group of people much in the same way young adult (YA) literature contains stories representative of adolescence. Because both popular culture and YA literature have proven valuable separately as a means toward critical reflection in the classroom, the intersection of these two areas should be considered for new possibilities in the classroom.
Below, I describe three potential benefits of highlighting popular culture references in YA literature using Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), which is a coming-of-age story about navigating struggle and empowerment. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas’s novel integrates contemporary socio-political issues, popular culture, and critical conversations about social justice.

Popular culture references in YA literature can help teachers to better understand their own adolescent students.
 “As usual it matches my J’s, the blue-and-black Elevens like Jordan wore in Space Jam. . . .  I hate dressing like everybody else, but The Fresh Prince taught me something.” (p. 54)
Knowing more about students than their academic ability in your content area is an essential part of teaching. Understanding popular culture that resonates with young people is one way toward fully recognizing your students. The above example from The Hate U Give contains numerous takeaways for a teacher considering protagonist Starr as a representation of their own students: appreciation of sneaker culture (e.g., J’s, blue and black Air Jordan Elevens), the movie Space Jam, professional basketball player Michael Jordan, and the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Reading the text while prioritizing popular culture references, either alone or with students, can serve as a reminder of the powerful and persuasive potential of popular culture in your own students’ lives.

By analyzing popular culture references in YA literature, students can better understand and relate to fictional characters.
 “. . . Drake raps from the speakers. I nod to the beat and rap along under my breath. Everybody on the dance floor yells out the ‘started from the bottom, now we’re here’ part. Some days, we are at the bottom in Garden Heights, but we still share the feeling that damn, it could be worse.” (p. 16)
Although Starr’s reflection of her life in Garden Heights is supported by the lyrics to Drake’s popular song, “Started from the Bottom,” the experience of feeling conflicted about their circumstances resonates with many students. Still, some students will have trouble relating to these experiences. The above reference to popular culture can help students to identify with fictional characters through a shared popular culture reference, even if their experiences are different.

A focus on popular culture references in YA literature provides a generative space for considering, critiquing, and revisioning sociopolitical issues.
 “A Tupac song on the radio makes up for our silence. He raps about how we gotta start making changes. Khalil was right. ‘Pac still relevant.” (p. 258)
 While The Hate U Give contains numerous poignant moments appropriate for discussions around police brutality, the book also has potential for conversations around race and class that are supported through popular culture references. The above example alludes to “Changes” by Tupac —a song critiquing the war on drugs and poverty.
In The Hate U Give, Starr reflects “I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me?” (p. 364). For students of color, mattering in school should be the minimum; existing as fully seen, included, empowered, and loved the goal. Centering popular culture references while reading YA literature can be one approach for making sure that students, especially those who don’t feel seen through the traditional school curriculum, know that they matter in school.

Shelby Boehm is a current doctoral student in English education at the University of Florida and a former high school teacher. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @TeamBoehm.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

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Build Your Stack: A Glimpse into the Literature of Iran

This post was written by NCTE member Michelle Bianco and is part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

English courses are always richer when they include works of literature from a variety of cultures; however, students generally have little exposure to modern authors from Iran.

The following works allowed me to present students a glimpse into the lives of Iranians in a more intimate way. They share stories of individuals, stimulate curiosity, and provide an introduction to a culture that US students may not be familiar with, beyond brief mentions in the media.

The Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi could easily be turned into the next Oscar-award-winning trilogy. It was written between 977 and 1010 CE and it follows a mythical creation of the world up until the Arab conquest of the 7th century.
The modern translation by Dick Davis makes the poem format easy to break up into smaller stories of certain characters that illustrate the moral code. The tales contain warriors, battle scenes, fantasy creatures, and complex plot twists. For example, the Simurgh, a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion, is said to have seen the destruction of the world three times over (Davis).
Some characters and storylines can be compared to famous Greek characters, and students might find it interesting to question which came first—the Persian or the Greek.
A thoughtful view of the complex changes that Iran underwent after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah can be discovered in the works of Azar Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a fascinating personal memoir of a teacher exploring forbidden literature with a small group of students.
Nafisi is a crafted storyteller who helps the reader to understand the cultural shift and repressive laws that became modern Iran, with details of public executions and what she calls political abominations. There are free study guides created by various educators available on the internet with chapter-by-chapter analysis and historical relevance. This Reading Lolita in Tehran guide was written by Filiz Turhan, an assistant English professor at Suffolk County Community College, New York. My favorite activity is the “Pick One” challenge, in which students select a book by either Azadeh Maoveni or Firoozeh Dumas, then participate in classroom discussion following the reading. These authors create a fun and complex female perspective.
Maoveni’s Lipstick Jihad is a compelling memoir of youth and life in Tehran. As one study guide states, “Azadeh is in many ways a typical teenager, trying desperately to fit in with her peers. She is embarrassed by her Iranianness, especially in the wake of the hostage crisis.”
Firoozeh Dumas’s light-hearted memoir Funny in Farsi is a highly comedic look at cultural difference. Dumas moved to America as a child in 1972. She chronicles hysterical stories of game shows, fast food, and cultural differences. Interviews, Youtube videos, and study guides for both of these authors can easily be found to share with students.
Modern Persian poetry is beautiful and rich in meaning. Forough Farrokhzad is an acclaimed poet with a tragic life story of divorce, love affairs, and death. The New York Times describes the author this way: “Farrokhzad was one of Iran’s pre-eminent mid-20th-century writers, both reviled and revered for her poems, which often dealt with female desire. Throughout her life she struggled with how her gender affected the reception of her work in a culture where women were often confined to traditional roles, but where there are few higher callings than the life of a poet” (2019).
I use the following quote in an essay prompt to encourage reflection and meaning:

In a Silenced land, rebellion is the voice of voiceless people, Its holler reverberates through the ups and downs of this silent land, only to enlighten the heart with the sound of love (Farrokhzad).

It is worth noting that author Tamin Ansary’s West of Kabul East of New York An Afghan American Story was an overwhelming success in the classroom. His memoir of immigration and cultural changes at the height of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is fascinating. He takes a harrowing journey through the Islamic Middle East to reunite with his Afghan family only to discover himself and his changed perspective. The story begins with the 9/11 attack and an emotional email he sent that would be shared with millions.
Someone once said it is the English teacher’s role to allay ignorance and open minds. Current events can and will drive interest in topics and cultures with which students are unfamiliar. Over the past ten years, I have used Iranian literature in my courses and have always asked students to donate their books, but these books were so well received that no one ever donated them! For more information on day-to-day lesson plans, feel free to contact me. (See details in bio below.) 

Works Cited 
Ansary, M. T. (2002). West of Kabul, east of New York: An Afghan American story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dumas, F. (2008). Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Ferdowsi, A. & Davis, D. (2016). Shahnameh: The Persian book of kings. New York: Penguin Classics
Moaveni, A. (2009). Honeymoon in Tehran: Two years of love and danger in Iran. New York: Random House.
Moaveni, A. (2006). Lipstick Jihad: A memoir of growing up Iranian in American and American in Iran. New York: PublicAffairs.
Nafisi, A. (2003). Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books. New York: Random House.
Nafisi, A. (2008). Things I’ve been silent about: Memories. New York: Random House.

Michelle Bianco is full-time faculty for the Composition Department at Purdue University Global. She teaches undergraduate courses in composition and participates in outreach programs and curriculum discussions. Bianco taught for 12 years before going into administration as a director of curriculum and instruction; she has expertise in Course Management Portals, A-G Requirements, and Articulation Agreements. Reach her at [email protected]

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It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.