One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

Filed under: News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at ReadabilityFormulas.com. The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012″ has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 28, 2011

Does Reading to Your Child Every Day Lead to Success in School? Quote of the Day / ‘Freakonomics’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:42 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Parents tend to take it on faith that reading to children every day has benefits. Why shouldn’t they? The “Read to your child every day” mantra has advocates that include the American Library Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations.

But such authorities may have oversold the benefits of sitting down with a preschooler and a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, especially if parents hope that the habit will lead to success in school. Some of the evidence appears in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling Freakonomics, an exploration of many assumptions that Americans take for granted.

Levitt and Dubner note that in the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which aimed to measure the academic progress of 20,000 American children from kindergarten through fifth grade. That project found that, at least insofar as test scores are concerned, reading to your child every day has no benefit. Children with many books in their home do perform well on school tests, the survey found. “But,” the authors write, “regularly reading to a child doesn’t affect test scores.”

September 5, 2009

‘Officer Buckle and Gloria’ – School-Safety Tips From a Caldecott Medalist

Do the kids need a few more school-safety lessons before their classes begin? Pick up Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 7 and under). Peggy Rathmann won the 1996 Caldecott Medal for this picture book, and her art is no match for that of honorees like Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and Virginia Lee Burton. But Officer Buckle and Gloria tells the lively story of a high-spirited dog who helps a luckless policeman teach schoolchildren vital safety lessons such as: Don’t stand on swivel chairs, and don’t leave thumbtacks where people could sit. If only it had a page on how to stay safe from swine flu.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 4, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Christine Schutt’s ‘All Souls’ — A Prep-School Student Gets Cancer in a 2009 Fiction Finalist

A New York City teenager’s overprivileged friends respond to her life-threatening illness

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, 223 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Did the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction intentionally set the bar low this year? Or did their tastes simply run to lightweight books with improbable feel-good endings?

Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the 2009 fiction prize, has odd similarities to the winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The publishers of both books bill them as “novels.” But Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of short stories, a group of linked tales could stand alone.

All Souls, too, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But its tales are so short, they’re closer to vignettes. All Souls has nine sections, each divided into so many sub-units that you keep darting into and out of the minds of different characters. One of the micro-sections has fewer than 50 words. Many others aren’t much longer and read as though written for an iPhone screen. The problem isn’t the use of vignettes to tell a story: Evan Connell used a similar technique to brilliant effect in Mrs. Bridge, a minor classic of American literature. The problem is that the entries in All Souls are so short that – as John Updike said of Bruce Chatwin — Schutt sounds as though she’s always interrupting herself. Her technique makes for choppy reading and limits her ability to develop a rich and sustained narrative.

Like a high school yearbook, All Souls gives snapshots of its characters instead of fully realized portraits. In a sense this befits its subject. Pretty and well-liked, Astra Dell develops “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma,” a rare connective-tissue cancer, at the start of her senior year of high school. How rare is her illness? If you paste “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma” into a browser window, Google returns only one result, which involves the Unitarian minister Alison Miller, whom Schutt credits with inspiring this book.

Schutt shows the effect of the cancer on Class of 1997 at the fictional Siddons, an elite Manhattan prep school for girls, that she follows through an academic year. As Astra gets high-risk treatments such as having a radioactive rod sewn into her arm, her classmates and others tend to respond inadequately or use her illness for their own ends.

At times Schutt captures well the mix of naïveté and overconfidence that tends to characterize teenagers. A senior can’t believe Astra got cancer: “She’s been a vegetarian for three years!” Schutt also offers occasional telling glimpses of Siddons parents and teachers: The adults discuss rumors that the pipes at rival schools are rusting from “the acidic effects of throwing up” by girls with eating disorders.

What are we to take away from all of this? If always intelligent, Schutt’s prose is so elliptical and antiseptic that you don’t know whether it’s intended as satire, social realism or something else. And like Olive Kitteridge, All Souls pulls an unexpectedly rosy ending out of a hat of darkness. The girls of Siddons, we learn, are conscientious enough that they don’t use CliffsNotes much. Schutt has stripped away so much from her book that she often leaves you with the sense that you haven’t read a novel so much the sort of condensation that her fictional students would avoid.

Best line: Siddons girls have been warned that CliffsNotes are “as nutritious as bread someone else has chewed and spit out.”

Worst line: A line of of dialogue by Astra’s father, who tells his daughter about a party: “The Johnsons were not in attendance.” Who speaks like this?

Published: April 2008 (Harcourt hardcover), Harcourt paperback due out June 8, 2009.

Consider reading instead: Black Ice (Knopf, 1991), Lorene Carey’s memoir of her experiences as the first black female student at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark‘s classic about an Edinburgh girls’ school.

About the author: Schutt lives and teaches in New York City. She wrote the novel Florida (Triquarterly, 2003), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for fiction. All Souls was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.

Furthermore: Schutt says the inspiration for All Souls came from the minister Alison Miller, especially from her sermon, “Leap of Faith.” In the sermon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Miller spoke about developing anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma at the age of 16.

Read an excerpt from All Souls.

This post is the latest in a series on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes and whether they deserved their honors. A reality check for  Olive Kitteridge appeared on April 27, 2009.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 4, 2009

The Book That Started the Backlash Against Self-Esteem as a Cure-All for Children’s Woes – William Damon’s ‘Greater Expectations’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Greater Expectations was one of the three or four best books about children that I reviewed in my 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and it’s the one I’ve recommended most often to parents. This trailblazing indictment of many popular educational theories was among the earliest to expose the myth that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher achievement in school and elsewhere.

The arguments in Greater Expectations: Nurturing the Moral Child (Free Press, 304 pp., $20.95) are powerful in their own right. They have all the more force because they come from one of the nation’s most distinguished educators: William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor-in-chief of the latest edition of The Handbook of Child Psychology.

Damon maintains that something has gone badly wrong in “the passing of essential standards between the generations.” Children at all levels of society grow up in an unwholesome atmosphere that goes beyond drugs, violence and similar woes: It involves a focus on the self and a devaluation of spirituality and faith. Damon blames part of this on influential childrearing experts such as David Elkind and Penelope Leach, whose approaches may encourage adults to infantilize children on the pretext of protecting them.

One of the Damon’s main contributions is that he documents painstakingly the lack of a connection between high self-esteem and high-achievement. Researchers have tried many times to link the two but “have not even provided convincing correlational data,” let alone causal links. Quite the opposite: High-self esteem doesn’t lead to high achievement but high achievement may increase self-esteem. Developing either, Damon says, is a slow process:

“There are no easy shortcuts to this. The child cannot be quickly inoculated with self-confidence through facile phrases such as ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m terrific.’”

If there’s no evidence that self-esteem fosters academic success, why have school systems thrown so much money at programs that claim to build it? Damon deals with that, too. And his reasoning no doubt has helped to fuel the recent and overdue backlash against the self-esteem frenzy, so that many psychologists now urge adults to focus on giving children sincere and thoughtful praise, not cheerleading for trivial efforts. Some parents may see the new moderation as too late, given how much money schools have squandered on programs of no proven value. If so, it’s only the common sense that has arrived belatedly. First published in 1995, Greater Expectations was – and, in some ways, still is – ahead of its time.

This is the third of the daily posts this week about some of my favorite books. Monday’s post dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title and Tuesday’s with Middlemarch.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: