Middle School Book Lists, Antique and Modern

A friend of mine brought this online entry to my attention and asked my opinion:

http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/education-2/middle-school-reading-lists-100-years-ago-vs-today-show-how-far-american-educational-standards-have-declined

(This is the original post this author was responding to: Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today )

Here are the things which stick out for me here:

1) Literary Advances

Your definition of “time-tested, classic literature” may not hold water with everyone. Also, there is new literature being produced all the time that mirrors similar qualities of those time-tested pieces, but with updates (besides: there are no longer any “original” ideas anymore, are there? Creativity requires courage and the ability to take what you know and rehash it into something new). The world has changed, though, and so have our books. Since 1908, we have made an ENORMOUS amount of progress in the literary world. Not only is there much more to choose from, there’s a lot more that’s mimetic of modern life which students can identify with. We have so much that we are free to cherry-pick from old and new traditions of literature. No, not all of these new books cover the same plots/issues as the books of the 1908 reading list do, but there are also newer problems that have emerged in the world *since* 1908 and could therefore not have been included in those books. Also no, these books are not all to the same linguistic sophistication of the 1908 list. This leads me to the next one.

2) Outside Pressures

Everything teachers do is mandated from the outside. The administration, parents, the federal government, etc. Not to say that teachers don’t have autonomy in their classrooms, but the content they teach is always under scrutiny. At some point, it became irrelevant for the students to engage with 100-year-old literature because they needed to “keep up with the times.” Plenty of reformers, parents, and legislators demanded that students learn in a language that will propel them toward the future of language (which is always changing, otherwise it’d be a dead language).  Right or wrong? You decide. It depends on what you value.

3) Culture

Some call the literary canon the “Dead White Man’s Club.” America is becoming ever more diverse, and we want kids to be able to see themselves in the books they read.

4) Author went on an American History track

I don’t know what Social Studies teachers are required to teach today (I did check our UWM class requirements for an “American Founding” course and didn’t find any, but I did find classes for American history 1607-1877, and 1877-present. Wouldn’t that cover the Founding?), but the ones I do know and have asked absolutely do know when the American Revolution happened. He made a generalization there. But if we come back to the reading lists, he brings up a good point: are students being taught American foundational values through the literature they’re reading? Depends on the books, depends on the teacher. If the teacher is skilled, historical (non-)fiction and be thoughtfully taught to help students learn about and draw lessons from history. True, though, that not all teachers are committed to that type of pedagogy.

5) Other reading lists

That being said, not all teachers leave classic literature out. This was the list of one school in the entire nation. I do agree, however, that we should teach more of it. Teach the love of reading to everyone! But not everyone is on board with that. ALSO. He made it sound like some teachers like to assign Twilight willy-nilly. No. I can verify for you that many teachers, in fact, abhor the book and would like to see it burned. However, they can’t control what the kids read on their own (though they can strongly suggest better reading material). So how was Twilight assigned? Was it for a whole-class participation? Probably not (I sincerely hope). It sounds more like a make-sure-you-read-something/anything-for-at-least-thirty-minutes-a-night kind of assignment, so that when you come to class everyone will have to apply what they’ve learned to what they’re reading. That’s how I imagine it, but I don’t actually know. Rarely, though, is Harry Potter or Twilight part of the year’s specific curriculum. Good teachers *might* assign a book of student choice (which can potentially be Twilight) if the teacher may use it to scaffold into more difficult reading where necessary.

I’d like to know what you think. Until now, my attention hasn’t been this drawn to questioning book lists in schools, but now my interest is piqued. I’m interested in learning more about this topic. If you have any helpful comments, please do let me know!

~Sarah

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