The place of great literature in our middle school
School is in session, and in Forest Park 848 young people—and their parents—are trying to get back in the swing of the school year routine. At the beginning of the school year, maybe it’s time to again ask the question, “What for?”
What is education in District 91 for? What’s the goal? When our eighth graders graduate from middle school next spring, how do we want them to have been changed by the educational process? Do we want them to be well on the way to being “college ready? Do we want the kids to be a little more mature? Or do we simply want them to get good enough grades to move on to high school, to play the game well enough to not be left behind?
I suppose you would expect a retired pastor to say this, but I want to argue that character formation should be one of the fundamental components in a good education. In looking around for a definition of what I mean by character, I went back to my old Boy Scout Handbook which has a 1948 copyright date. There I found the Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the scout law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
And the scout law the oath talked about obeying, it went like this. A scout is
Did you notice that there is no mention about happiness or being self-fulfilled or following your passion? Assuming that not many readers are going to ask their children read a 67 year old edition of The Handbook for Boys, I remembered David Brooks’ in The Road to Character contending that great literature can often give us more profound insights into human nature than can the social sciences.
So, not being an expert on literature myself, I asked a librarian friend to give me his top ten list of Young Adult (YA) literature.
Diary of a young girl (Anne Frank)
Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
A wrinkle in time (Madeleine L’Engle)
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (C.S. Lewis)
The Giver (Lois Lowry)
Holes (Louis Sachar)
Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
Next, I asked Becky Ciardullo, who has been teaching literature for 19 years, to send me some of her thoughts about YA literature. The Forest Park middle school teacher began by making a comment about literature in general. “I’ve told all my classes. . .to remember that history is written by the victors. In order to truly understand a culture and what it valued we need to look at what they found important enough to write about. The literature of a culture is what gives us glimpses into their hearts.”
“Teens need to know that they’re not alone,” she continued, “and YA literature does that for them. It puts into words what’s happening to them, gives them a voice in a world in which they so often feel voiceless. I also think that there are some books that are just great escapes for teens.
“I’m so impressed at what the YA genre has become. I think we have JK Rowling to thank for breaking the YA page barrier. She proved that kids will read hefty books as long as they’re well written. I think that opened the door to many more complex stories.”
Here are the titles that made Ciardullo’s top ten list, with a “reader discretion” comment that Unwind and Feed are “disturbing.”
Trash (Andy Mulligan)
The Giver (Lois Lowry)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Wonder (John Green)
Unwind (Neal Schusterman)
Feed (MT Anderson)
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Sarny or Nightjohn (Gary Paulsen)
Through the Ever Night (Veronica Rossi)
The Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
Glimpses into the heart, the formation of character. Sounds like a worthy goal to me.