One day, after her high school students had shuffled out for the day and Stephanie P. Jones was left to tidy the classroom, she discovered a book on the floor.
She began to naively flip through the pages, curious to find out what book, outside of the regular classroom assignments, captivated a student. But what she found in its pages forced her to question how she felt about what students read — and whether it's anyone's place to question books at all. The idea became the focus of her dissertation and upcoming TEDxUGA talk on March 27.
Jones is one of two graduate students from the University of Georgia College of Education who will be speaking at the annual event, which brings together a select group of UGA faculty, alumni and students to share their philosophies and inspiration. The sold-out event will be streamed live; visit http://tedxuga.com/ for details.
The book, she realized, was a violent, sexually graphic novel dropped by a female student. "I'm thinking, 'I need to do something about this. I need to call her mom, do an intervention,'" said Jones, who is a doctoral student in language and literacy education.
But then she stopped. As an English teacher, she realized, if a book captivates a young reader, she shouldn't fight it.
"It was a world I didn't feel they were ready to read about — I wanted to be the one that gave them a proper introduction, or their parents should be the ones that gave them a proper introduction into the world. But I didn't know I was completely off," she said. "They were already in this world. They were reading books about their life — and I got schooled, so to speak."
Jones' TED talk is derived from this realization, which also sparked her dissertation topic. The idea, she said, is to not be afraid to let people read what they want.
Children know right from wrong, she added. They know good characters from bad. And just because they read about an explicit scenario in a book doesn't mean they will act it out on their own.
More specifically, her research focuses on a particular type of genre called "Street Lit," popular among urban black women. These are books by authors such as Sistah Souljah, Wahida Clark and Sapphire, and speak to young women in a way that books written in Europe in the 1800s simply can't.
"I'm gathering information about what these books are helping them navigate as young black women, because they read them and they love them," Jones said. "They don't want to read 'Jane Eyre' and 'The Great Gatsby;' they want to read things that are alive with their own personal narrative."
Originally from Atlanta, Jones graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and then moved back to her hometown to teach. After six years, her former advisor pushed her to go back to school for her doctorate, and she soon found herself juggling a schedule as a full-time high school English teacher and a graduate student. In 2012 Jones won the Doctoral Scholars of Color Fellowship from the Southern Regional Educational Board, which allowed her to focus full-time on her studies. She is aiming to finish her dissertation in time to graduate in December.
As a result, Jones is focusing on telling the stories of young women who lose themselves in a good book — no matter how others may feel about their choice.
"Our kids, our students, are people we love, and they have the consciousness to know what a character did was stupid," Jones said. "It's not a reflection of their life; it's the idea that they are having relationships with the characters in the book. We just have to trust them."
Note: Tickets for TEDxUGA 2015 are sold out, but the event will be streaming live. Visit the TEDxUGA website for details on how to watch.
Related links: Department of Language and Literacy Education