Monday, October 09, 2006

What literature is good for middle-schoolers?

If you buy the argument that middle school students should read and study great literature, then what exactly does that look like?

Here are some examples of the suggested reading lists from top-rated US states:

  • Massachusett's State Framework for English/Language Arts (a pdf document; once it opens, click on Appendix A for suggested authors that reflect a "common literacy and cultural heritage" -- from an American point of view, of course. Appendix B is the author list from "contemporary American literature and world literature.)

Granted, both of these resources were created for American middle schools -- not international schools. And both documents contain copious warnings that they are not meant to be used as an all-inclusive list. These lists provide school English departments in those states with ideas and options from which to choose.

But despite those limitations, what these lists both share is a high level of rigor and a sense that a great deal of thought has gone into considering the content children should study at various points in their educational careers.

And if you dig deeper, you'll find that the standards in these two states require that students be taught how to read and analyze this literature. The assumption -- often explicitly stated -- is that teachers will guide students as they study these books, speeches, poems, plays and short stories. This is not a "free reading" list -- although wouldn't it be great if students naturally gravitated toward this type of literature!

Students must learn to construct character analyses, unravel theme, identify the key questions posed by a piece of literature, and discuss the authors' treatments of those questions. They have to understand literary devices and why they work, and how literature builds on itself with allusions, metaphors, and archetypes. And this kind of learning doesn't happen in a vacuum. Students don't magically discover how literary analysis works. Teachers have to teach it.

Other school systems also have created a list of books that they feel are critical to their students' education. (For example, Singapore American School has a "protected book list" for each grade -- I'm trying to get my hands on it now. In the meantime, here's a link to its middle school English curriculum.) Core Knowledge also focuses on the content taught in English (as opposed to a purely skill-driven curriculum).

Having a syllabus for each grade isn't controversial. It's common -- and smart. Coming up with the syllabus can be tricky. But if we ask the question, "What literature does a great global student need to read?" we'll be on our way to an answer that will benefit our children.


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