Why aren’t more schools consistently providing quality literature from a young age? Encouraging children to read excellent books might help address some of society’s problems.
Children should be guided onto a path where they can eventually take on works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo. Offering pointless and culturally void novels for leisure reading at school does not serve the purpose for which they are schooled, to be educated. Books written with shock value are often bad models and do not help children learn how to write well, or understand nuance and complex sentence structure.
In 1876 ten to thirteen-year-old students were assigned reading material including Longfellow, Tennyson, and Hawthorne. How do these readings compare to in-class readers, Scholastic News, or other materials used as informational texts? How does an engaging story by Nathaniel Hawthorne compare to the messages of Captain Underpants, which is sometimes read in school during independent reading? How do thought provoking pieces like “I-Have and O-Had-I” get tossed aside?
Rather than handing out classroom magazines (sometimes containing age-inappropriate and unbalanced agenda-driven material), schools should select readings from high quality literature including historical events and poetry. When did the goal become to teach language arts with selected agendas (e.g. starving polar bears or Occupy Wall Street) in place of unbiased excerpts from great literature? Does deep thinking occur when children are told what to think about controversial topics without balanced views being presented?
So what guidance can we use to improve where we steer children? A great source is Dr. Sandra Stotsky’s An English Language Arts Curriculum Framework for American Public Schools: A Model. Dr. Stotsky explains in Appendix A that “Knowledge of these authors and illustrators in their original, adapted, or revised editions will contribute significantly to a student’s ability to understand literary allusions and participate effectively in our common civic culture” (59).
She also states in reference to the listing of authors and illustrators that:
A literature curriculum should include works drawn from this list [Appendix A and B] and contemporary works of similar quality, drawn from cultures around the world from many historical periods. It is then possible to assure parents and other citizens that all students will be expected to read at a high level of reading difficulty. By themselves, even the most carefully crafted learning standards cannot guarantee that expectation for all students. (59)
There is value in a literary classic like Frances Burnett’s The Little Princess. Its message of maintaining inner strength, compassion for others, morality, and goodness in times of misfortune, helplessness, and mistreatment by others is powerful. For a child, comprehending these experiences might be difficult, but it encourages them to see the world in different ways, to develop empathy for others, and to strive for what is good and right in the midst of adversity. Isn’t that what we want from our citizenry?
Reading literature with depth that expresses thoughts and experiences in great detail can require concentration, a skill children need to develop. Just like classical music helps students perform better in math, I’ll bet great literature has the same sort of effect on another area of our abilities.
My preference for children’s literature is to provide unabridged versions as much as possible. Abridged versions are essentially different novels written by different authors keeping with the same story, not necessarily anywhere near the quality of the original work. They can ruin the magnificence of the original work for the child who might not want to read the unabridged book later in life, when it wasn’t very good the first time (because it wasn’t the original work or author). Many abridged versions are written for children’s classic literature, one line is Classic Starts. Abridgement seems like an easy way to leverage the name of a well-known piece of literature and make it profitable for someone. Plus, many times digitally speaking, unabridged classics are free.
The educational environment fails students when it does not support a healthy mix of quality literature. We want well-versed individuals that are able to hold intelligent conversation on substantial topics; enabled by a lifetime of reading material that helps them understand different historical, economic, and cultural perspectives. We can help achieve that goal by guiding children to high quality literature.