I recently came across a fascinating blog post by Mike Murphy, who teaches English at Boston’s Nativity Prep. Mike and his colleagues had taken a couple of ideas from Reading Reconsidered and combined them in new ways. The first was text complexity and the idea that there are specific types of text complexity- that Oliver Twist is hard not just because the sentences are long but because it is written in archaic British English from the 19th century, for example, which has a different way of using syntax. The second was managing book selection—choosing the scarce resource of what we read intentionally and in a coordinated way… as a school. Mike called what hey came up with aligned selection, and here’s how he described it in his blog post:
Lemov suggests, in a nutshell, that lower-grade novel studies should be chosen on the quality of that book and how that book can be used to prepare students for more challenging books later on in their academic careers.
He uses the example of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist, a classic work that is a tangle of Industrial Revolution era British dialogue and the florid writing style of Dickens himself. A challenge to the most prepared high school student. Mr. Lemov suggests than the importance of British novels, specifically those written with archaic language, as a primer for students who will eventually read Dickens. Mr. Lemov uses the example of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, which uses early 20th century language along with complex paragraph structure.
In keeping with this spirit, we at Nativity are attempting to align our books across grades with the aim to prepare students for the novels they will read in high school.
So, for example, in order to make sure kids succeed with The Giver by Lois Lowry they’ve planned to read The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick which, Murphy notes,
is the perfect amalgamation of every teen sci-fi novel ever. There is the cool old guy, future slang, utopia that is not “perfect”, and of course the bitter sweet ending. The book is a perfect introduction to science fiction and will have students geared up to read the much deeper and symbolic Giver without getting lost in the weeds of science fiction.
Similarly they intend to pair Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass:
Both books tell the story of a person enslaved in America, literate, and desperate to escape their surroundings. They both use language that is historical accurate along with archaic vocabulary and sayings.
The more I think about it the more I think that it’s brilliant for a school to do what Mike and co are doing, which is, basically, asking these three questions:
- What are the very challenging books we want our students to read five years from now?
- What makes them so hard?
- What can we do now to specifically prepare them for what will make those books daunting?
The idea–choosing texts with an eye to kids’ long term progress–is so strategic, so responsible. And yet, honestly, almost nobody does it. And the result is that they then say: “Oh, kids [or ‘those kids’ and you know what that means] can’t read those books. They don’t like those books. Give them Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
But one other thing strikes me and it’s really important. Mike and his colleagues have emphasized something that we frankly under-emphasized in Reading Reconsidered: the fact that background knowledge is really the sixth plague… (we call the forms of text complexity the “plagues” in Reading Reconsidered and we describe five of them) That is, if the plagues describe the hidden barriers to complexity and explain WHY some books are so hard, the demands of background knowledge comprise arguably the most important plague of all….the first … and from a text selection point of view we didn’t give it enough attention I don’t think.
In other words, the difference between succeeding and failing with Oliver Twist is in part your exposure to the archaic vernacular of Victorian British writing but it is also in part—probably a larger part—your background knowledge of Victorian England. David Didau makes that point recently in this post. And so part of the preparation of getting ready now for future demands has to be knowledge-based as well. It struck me that that’s what Mike and company were doing. Reading Chains as an antecedent to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, say, is knowledge preparation.
That made me think of this book (this whole Diane Stanley historical biographies series) which is outstanding and which I am familiar with because I have read it (and most of the series) with the Long Suffering Lemov Children. I realize now that what I was doing when I read this to my daughter was what Mike is doing with Nativity kids and just possibly what most schools could do a better job of: I was imagining what I hoped she would read in high school (i.e. Dickens) and building her knowledge base on relevant topics now- while she is still little.
I’m not saying this is a simple project. Mike pointed out in an email how challenging it’s been.
We are also trying to formalize our process for choosing books, as we are learning there are some pitfalls when attempting to align books. You mention the novel Oliver Twist in your book, which is exceptionally complex for a number of reasons. We were tempted to focus on those complicated elements of the book itself and find novels that would build towards those particulars. Find a book that builds towards the archaic language. Find a book that deals with the grim industrialism of Britain. Find another book that has symbols of good and evil. Map it across grades. This was a trap.
We were falling back into the old habit of “themes” and units built around the skills they could teach, rather than the importance and complexity of each book itself. We now are contending with a multi-dimensional search for books. We are searching for novels that are in themselves important and of an appropriate complexity, while developing students’ skills for the intricacies of high school and college texts.
So our process is so far:
- Gather the pool of high complexity novels students will likely read in later grades
- Determine what makes those books complex and/or significant
- Build a pool of books that build towards those elements
- Determine which books, on their own, are actually worth teaching
- Work across grades to sequence novels
We are still developing and have likely not taken the shortest route to designing this, but we have really enjoyed the process. We have expanded our catalog of novels and although not all books make it into the “teaching” part of the curriculum, we are starting to build a playlist of independent reading books that also help students develop the skills and experience to read complex novels.
So anyway there’s certainly no easy solution, but Mike and company have taken a very insightful and strategic approach to addressing a gap in how we prepare students to succeed with the complex and challenging books they’ll need to prepare for college.
If you’re interested, here’s a link to one of Mike’s working documents that maps a lot of this out. Thanks to Mike and his colleagues for an inspiring idea (and for running such a great school, by the way).