Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Attention All Teachers: Don't Let the Lexile Level Fool You
As a literature teacher, I put great thought into what pieces I put in the hands of my high school students. I try to consider many factors as I choose: historical significance, the quality of the writing, and, of course, the reading level. However, one factor I think many teachers fail to consider is the maturity analyzing it demands. Instructors look at the reading level, which is based on vocabulary and sentence structure, and thus believe the novel fits the grade. But this is hazardous: simple words can be used to express complex ideas. And this can create inappropriate novel choices--especially at the middle school level. Let me cite a few examples.
The Giver. This novel, by Lois Lowry, tells the story of a boy named Jonas living in a futuristic and seemingly perfect society. The main character is 12, and yes, the lexile rating says it's appropriate for a sixth grader, but I say NO. One justification for my stance is that the novel explores the sacrifices society would need to make to create a utopia, and most middle school students have trouble grasping this concept. But my biggest objection to this novel being taught to young children is its presentation of infanticide. Jonas' father, numb in this utopian world Lowry creates, plunges a needle into a newborn's head because this world cannot tolerate twins. And as he sends the dead infant to an incinerator, he waves and says: "Bye, bye, little guy." It's too much!
Another concern I have with middle school literature choices is the extensive use of Holocaust literature. Many sixth graders read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and/or Number the Stars, two novels focused on the death of young people at the hands of the Nazis. It's not that I object to middle schoolers facing the reality of death. Quite the contrary, I believe this is necessary in their development. What worries me about Holocaust lit is that the Holocaust itself is just too enormous a piece of human suffering for these pre-teens to grasp. Few of these students have a full understanding of World War II and all the horrors of it. Thus, when we teach of the extermination of the Jewish people, many simply hear: "blah...blah...blah." It becomes noise when they have no reality to connect it with. They cannot personalize a world that seems so very far removed from them. A novel cannot make it real.
There is a reason for my outlandish belief. I have had several students in my Reading for the College Bound course read Night by Elie Weisel and/or All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Their reactions are always very similar: "We read about the Holocaust in middle school, but I didn't get it." Yeah...that's because you were twelve! Now you've had more experiences, even sat by students from other countries via foreign exchange programs, and that distant world doesn't seem quite so distant anymore. Eleven million dead isn't just "blah...blah...blah"; it's slowly forming itself into a reality.
I am daring to say this: middle schoolers are not mature. They are wonderful and lovable (and yes, I do believe this), but they simply are not ready cognitively for infanticide nor genocide.
Simple words can be very powerful. Don't let the lexile level fool you.
Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/wizziebob/26119001/