The latest transgression comes from NPR (and it pains me to say that because I am a log time listener and supporter of public radio). Here is the link so you can check it out for yourselves: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-inwho SEEM-school-and-out. WHAT KIDS ARE READING IN SCHOOL AND OUT cites two leading figures in the world of literature for children and teens, Anita Silvey and Walter Dean Myers. I fear that their quotes were placed in this article/story without context to make the point of the reporter. The quote from Myers makes it seem as though he is chagrined about the fact that kids are reading book below their level. The quote from Silvey appears to condemn books that are not realistic, decrying the popularity of science fiction and fantasy. At this point in the article, about 3 paragraphs, I am growing quite a head of steam. But then there is the kicker: a quote from that bastion of literacy knowledge, Renaissance Learning, the folks who gave us Accelerated Readers (I will pause here for a moment so you can go to your windows and scream, I'm mad as hell!).
Here is the first quote with which we must wrestle much as Hercules did wrestle the Nimean Lion: "And Stickney says that after the late part of middle school, students generally don't continue to increase the difficulty levels of the books they read. Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level."
Here we go again, folks. We are reducing books to syllables and sentences and a formula that assigns a number to the "worth" of a book. And we are wringing our hands over the fact that lots of kids read THE HUNGER GAMES series, books that are too "easy" for them. Let us just ignore for the moment the fact that these statements and figures are coming from a CORPORATION who is making tons of profits and turning books into numbers and multiple choice tests. Forget that the facts and figures from AR are only for those schools which utilize this PROGRAM. Never mind that they were quick to jump on the CCSS bandwagon and proclaim they were ALIGNED. Instead, focus on this: syllables and sentences are not a measure of the value of a book. Nor can the designation of a reading level or lexile adequately measure the true content of the book. And perhaps focus on the fact that THE HUNGER GAMES is a perfect portal to other dystopian novels including 1984 and FAHRENHEIT 451 and RAVE NEW WORLD to name just 3. Maybe we could also ask that the reporter READ the books in question and comment on their literary value. Perhaps talk about archetypes and motifs, about exquisite descriptions of some of the most tragic circumstances within the books. Or, I don't know, discuss the choices facing the participants in the games and how they could easily represent the difficult choices teens will make later in life. And one more thing, maybe talk about the fact that reading level does not equate the developmental level needed by the reader to truly access the book and its themes.
But, there is more. Here is the quote that set me screaming: "Last year, for the first time, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students. "The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read," Stickney says, "has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level. Most of the assigned books are novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Students even read recent works like The Help and The Notebook. But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton. Now, with the exception of Shakespeare, most classics have dropped off the list."
First, again, please bear in mind that the "facts" are from schools using AR. As for how this company determined what books were required over the last CENTURY, I am at a loss. The statement about novels that seems almost derogatory belies the references to Bronte and Wharton and Dickens who also wrote novels. I wonder why the assigned books, those classics, are something that should concern us. I wonder why dropping some of the "classics" (and their definition seems to rely on the fact that they are old books and now making note of why they might still be good for kids to read in high school even though they were not written for teens) is problematic (and I wonder how many adults read Sophocles in high school and how many adults could give a synopsis of MAJOR BARBARA or ETHAN FROME? ).
Now, the good news is that this story lit up the blogosphere and the social networks. It was Fourth of July. Look at the comments at the end of the story to see that others are opening windows and screaming out to the world, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" This type of "journalism" (and I put it in quotes because I think that there is a serious lack of journalistic integrity here) harms us in ways we cannot even fathom. This article appears to condemn reading of sci-fi and fantasy. It appears to emphasize that kids are somehow less smart because they are reading "easier" books. It also appears to accept figures and facts from a company which is not interested in building and encouraging and supporting readers but rather in profits.
I will remind you that in the recent past, there was an article in a leading newspaper that said much the same thing: we are going to hell in a handbasket because kids are reading books below their level. This article asserted that basically high school grads were reading at a fifh grade level based on the books they were reading. The source for this article? Guess who! You can read it, from March of last year, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/top-reading_n_1373680.html.
It is time for us, folks, to speak up, SpeakLoudly, scream out the windows. We need to do this, cry bull-puckey, every time we see it or hear it. My hope is that, if we raise our voices, perhaps we will be able to provide the voice of the non-profits who are the true prophets for kids and books and reading and education.