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Accents on English: Spring 2013

The Teaching Zone

For Love of the Book: Jim Blasingame on Teaching

James BlasingameA “perfect storm” is how English Education professor Jim Blasingame describes the brew of the right groups of students and a common love of kids, books and reading. Blasingame is adamant that there are no lost causes in kids, and he dedicates himself to enriching and broadening children’s lives through introducing them to literature.

Blasingame inspires his future teachers with his emphasis on community outreach. He and his ENG 471 (Literature for Adolescents) students partner with local school districts to improve literacy and writing skills among middle and high school students. One such school is Metro Tech High School, a magnet school in the Phoenix Union High School District that is 90% Hispanic. Children are asked what books they have already read, and many answer with A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer and Push by Sapphire—books that tell the stories of children who have overcome abusive backgrounds. Blasingame says these young students can’t be stopped: They give book recommendations to each other and use Facebook, Amazon reviews, and blogs to find their next good read. They are also devotees of Instagrock, an interactive search engine that empowers self-directed learning by finding quality educational content on any topic.

Día De Los Niños / Día De Los Libros is another opportunity for Blasingame’s students to give back to the community. El Día is a nationally recognized initiative that emphasizes the importance of literacy for all children from all backgrounds. It connects children to the world of learning through books, stories, and libraries. The third annual El Día was held May 13 in the Memorial Union and hosted more than 500 children. Featured guests included ASU Regents’ Professor and poet Alberto Ríos, slam poet Myrlin Hepworth, and Mexican-American author and poet Gary Soto.

The art of teaching, says Blasingame, is figuring out how to get students actively engaged in their learning so that the motivation becomes intrinsic and has nothing to do with earning a grade or pleasing the teacher. “I am probably a schemer,” he says, “attempting to put students in situations where their own interest and devotion to English education takes over, and I need to get out of the way, only stepping in if I see a point at which I can help.”

Several years ago, he recalls, he took students to a conference in Utah to meet young adult authors Gary Paulsen and Janette Rallison. The students had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend an entire day with each author and to become their personal friends. These aspiring teachers were on the plane together, rode in the van together, ate together, laughed together, and shared the conference experience. The collegiality they developed on the trip resulted in a new network of teachers who, although they are spread across the state, still connect online and in person to share resources and to support each other as they grow into leadership positions in English education in Arizona. One of the students started a reading circle with ninth graders in a remedial reading class at Coronado High School. She had the students read a Gary Paulsen book, and because of her friendship with Paulsen, she was able to get him to write letters to the kids in answer to their letters to him. Later the Coronado principal sent Paulsen a Coronado polo shirt. “I believe if you put students in the right situations and help where needed, they will rise to the opportunity and grow in ways you hadn’t even thought of,” says Blasingame.

With 20 years of experience as a high school teacher, and 3 years’ experience as a principal, Blasingame earned his doctorate at the University of Kansas and was named ASU’s Professor of the Year in 2008.

—Jane Parkinson

Photo of Jim Blasingame by Tom Story

Flower art image is an oil pastel drawing, with a background of diluted tempera paint, created by a 7th grade student. From The Helpful Art Teacher.