Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why I Don't Have High School Students Read Middle School Books and Why You Shouldn't Either

There is a trend today in education to fit the book to the student. In many ways this is a welcome trend in furthering to customize a child's education and meet them where they are at.
(Although is meeting them where they at the goal, or should we really be showing them where they should be at and providing them the tools and engagement to get there?) This allows both student choice in what type of genre and content to read.  It also enables the teacher to determine what reading level to steer a child towards when choosing a book.  I gleeful enjoy the notion of leveled reading, especially as used by Fountas and Pinnell and the balanced literacy approach in younger grades. There really is no better way that I have found to properly diagnose a child's reading level or prescribe them a book that would be appropriate to their abilities.  The system is brilliant. Unfortunately, lexile leveling not a full replacement for the Fountas and Pinnell leveled reading once a child graduates from the last level Z.  I do not think a high school student should be encouraged to read books below or even only slightly below the reading level he/she is at simply to inspire them to love reading.  In fact, I might urge them to learn to read at the level they should be at by reading articles on their level from Newspapers instead.  I might urge them to read books that they find too hard and create literature circles for them to bounce of ideas and problems with the text they see.  I might craft a "pull-out" time for direct or small group instruction to work on the specific reading issues at play pertinent to that student.

So, you are probably wondering, what harm is there in having a high school student read a middle school (young adult) level book?  After all, you might add, many movies are being made right now precisely to tap into that market of the increasing number of high school students and even adults reading these books (Ender's Game, Divergent, Hunger Games, etc).  I think its toxic. (those specific books, well especially the last one could be highly problematic for other reasons which we could talk about more another time) There is a Peter Pan Syndrome attacking our nation's youth and even our young adults.  There is an obsession with childhood in our modern American culture like never before.  Not in the, "we need to relish in making a meaningful difference for our children and maximizing their growth during their childhood", but in a "we would rather not take on responsibilities and expectations of being an adult so we prefer to revert to childhood or never grow up".   I am not saying I dislike the story Peter Pan, in fact, I very much like it.  The end of the story results in the three children growing up.  Yet, it appears in our country the fad is to stay young.  I find no value in that.  In fact, I find it detrimental.  Youth obsession is detrimental to our students for a variety of reasons.  The one I am going to focus on today is intellectual development, yet it is important to note that this is not the only area of real concern.

Books written for Middle School students are meant for Middle School students.  They are not meant for high school students.  The idea of a young adult novel is to appeal to a developing mind at that stage of development and provide them with something tangible and engaging at that level.  I find no real harm on the surface from this notion for that age group.  However, once a high school or older student, starts reading middle school books, they are stunting their development academically and, thus intellectually.  It becomes a form of infantilism.

Now I am all for students reading books they can relate to.  I am all for students being kept current.  Last summer I had the scholars ninth graders read a great non-fiction book, Outliers, before they came into Magen David.  They had a great discussion about the book when they came in this past fall.  I would highly recommend numerous non-fiction New York Times Best Sellers for students to read that are age appropriate and useful.  I can think of a list of books off the top of my head that would be highly engaging and fit this bill.   I also think there is a merit to our students reading a body of literature that has been collectively deemed as worthy historically and will have value to them post graduation.  For example, I cannot think of a student graduating high school without having read at least a few, if not more, Shakespearian plays or Hawthorne's, The Scarlett Letter, or Dicken's, A Tale of Two Cities.

There is something to having all students, regardless of where they go to school, graduate with a collective body of knowledge.  It creates a common intellectual culture.  It creates a cultural dialogue that is invaluable and required to have a democratic government. (See Dewey or Hirsch for more on this.) There is a level of maturity, or aspirational maturity, required for students to comprehend such works.  There is a level of assistance often needed to help them fully grasp the complexity.  This is not unsubstantial, however, it is entirely a normative part of this process.  I would argue it often helps them grow up.  They might not even realize it at the time, but these books become an internalized part of their intellectual DNA.

The Common Core was founded on much the same principles and in theory, I fully support this notion (although it is being rolled out terribly and the selection of curriculum is not entirely ideal).  If we want our children to compete (and I know this has been said so many times it almost has become a hackneyed phrase), we must give them the tools to compete.  A huge part of their tool box is knowing what well respected, highly educated people know.  Another fundamental part of their toolbox is being able to dissect, analyze, and even write about complicated concepts .  Literature, fine literature, helps you learn to do this.  This incredible confluence between advanced content and advanced skill is seen profoundly in reading.  By not allowing our children to be exposed to such high level material or instead entirely pardoning them from it, we are crippling our students before they ever learn to walk.  We are also encouraging bad reading behavior.  I want my students to graduate being able to read anything regardless of what level they were on once they came here.  Anything that prevents or delays this or interferes in any way with this agenda needs to be averted or discouraged at the least.

You may say, yes, but they this will encourage them to read during their free time and love reading.  I hear that.  I too want my students to love reading and utilize their time not doing homework in a meaningful way.  However, what a student chooses to read during free time is just as important as the reading itself.  Content and context matter.  I'd rather give a student a grade appropriate piece to ponder.  Imagine, if we could encourage our students to read, really read something interesting and grade appropriate how much more they would develop?  Giving them middle school books is an opportunity lost and reinforces the myth that our kids cannot grow, or worse, that they shouldn't.