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Six Questions with Young Adult Literature Expert Joellen Maples

November 20, 2018

This fall, the New York State English Council named Dr. Joellen Maples its collegiate 2018 Educator of Excellence. The Council, which brings together language arts educators at all levels pre-K through college to offer professional development and share best practices, praised Maples for her leadership in the classroom, mentorship of teachers new to the profession, and for inspiring her students to become skillful readers and writers.

Joellen Maples

An associate professor in the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education, Maples is a noted expert in young adult (YA) literature. She taught English at the middle school level before coming to Fisher in 2008, and has focused much of her work on educating teacher candidates on how to use novels to facilitate discussions of difficult topics in the classroom.

Her vast knowledge of YA titles earned her a seat on the judging committee for the Amelia Walden Book Award, which honors novels that are engaging and relevant to today’s young adults. Her reputation among alumni and teachers for selecting thought-provoking literature spawned the “What is Dr. Maples Reading?” Book Club at Fisher.

“Alumni would contact me and say, ‘What are you reading in your courses? I need good books!’” explained Maples, who at the moment would recommend Mercy Rules by Tom Leveen; Long Way Down by Jason Reynold; and Refugee by Alan Gratz. “I am meticulous with my book choices, as if I am sharing my very best friends with my students, and in a way, I am.”

College News sat down with Maples to learn more about the philosophies that shape her teaching, the people that inspired her own love of literature, and the novelist she’d love to see write her biography.

CN: As an educator who is teaching students how to become educators, what behaviors or skills are most important for you to model in the classroom?

JM: Interest. Interest in who they are. Interest in who they want to be. Interest in their day to day.

Care. Care about them. Care for them. I had a professor once who made you feel like you were his favorite because he was so present every time he interacted with you. When he passed away, there were so many students at his funeral and we all thought we were his favorite.

A lifetime guarantee. Letting students know you are there for them. Day or night. Now or 20 years from now. My first group of middle school students are about to turn 40, and I have held to that promise. I have helped them when they were homeless, in prison, needed advice, have gone to their weddings, etc. That guarantee is the transition from teacher to family.

Being human. Having a sense of humor. Laughing with them. Being compassionate.

Challenging them. Pushing them to be more than they thought they could be. And adding just enough dash of rebellion in them so they advocate fearlessly and ferociously for their future students.

CN: What does it mean to be a skillful reader or writer and in what ways do you help foster that in your students?

JM: Well, this sounds really simple, but to become a skillful reader and writer you have to read and write often. So I encourage that by providing them with literature that challenges their world views, makes them uncomfortable, and keeps their interest. As for writing, I have them write in all sorts of ways—academically, creatively, and in different genres as a way to test their skills and improve them.

CN: What’s the one assignment you love to give your students? What skills does it build within them?

JM: I love to give the multi-genre essay, which is a writing assignment that requires students to present research about a topic through different genres rather than a traditional research paper. On the surface, it seems easier to them because they think, “Oh! I don’t have to write 10 pages.”

In actuality, it’s much harder as it requires them to do the same research they would for a paper, then they have to infuse that research into creative writing and the designing of a particular genre that showcases their writing. It pushes them, but they end up really enjoying the process.

CN: What's the one piece of advice you always tell your students about teaching literature?

JM: When selecting books to discuss with their students, I tell them the following:

  • Do right by kids all the time.
  • Books do not harm children.
  • If not you, then who?
  • It’s ok to be uncomfortable.

I tell them these precepts because I want them to fight the censors and the scripted reading programs and get good books into kids’ hands. To do that, they have to be guided by their ethics of doing right by kids. They have to know that books won’t harm their students. Books only transform and liberate them. And yes, teachers have a lot of pressure on them in schools, but if they won’t read and talk about the hard topics, who will? With that comes the burden of being uncomfortable. And that is ok.

CN: What authors or books most impacted you as an adolescent?

JM: I have to give credit where credit is deserved here. It wasn’t so much an author or book that most impacted me growing up. It was my parents’ attitude and modeling about reading. My father was and still is a voracious reader. My mom took me to the bookstore and library often, and NEVER censored what I read.

When I was 14, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and the main character, Howard Roark, impacted me as much as my parents and my teachers in who I am today. An individualist. A nonconformist. A renegade. He never compromised his values.

CN: If you could pick one YA author to pen your biography, who would you select? Why?

JM: Ellen Hopkins. I like her writing as she only writes in verse. And her writing is raw and real. A punch in the gut. I’d love to see how she would write about this wonderful life of teaching I have lived!