April 10, 2007

Why I Bailed on the Big-@$$ Book

In my last post I mentioned that I'd planned to read a novel with my students but bailed at the last minute. NYC Educator wanted to know which one and why. So, the book is The Three Musketeers. Unabridged. I inherited boxes of the books when I took over my classroom and the IB classes. The department chair from a few years back had ordered them, and considering how long it sometimes takes to get things in, they have been sitting for at least two years, but probably not more than three. I have enough for every student to be able to take on home--and then some. Do you know what a miracle that is? We usually only have classroom sets, and we're totally up-a-creek if a copy is lost or stolen.

So in the back on my mind I've been wondering how and when I can get to this, so decided I could assign it as "the" book for them to read this quarter (as opposed to books of their choice), and we would spend a few days a week on different aspects of the book. I've had two main concerns the whole time. The first one is that the book is rated at an 11th grade reading level. My students are pretty much broken up in thirds in terms of their reading levels: a third are above average, a third are at level, and a third are below level. And of those third who do have a 11th grade reading level, can they sustain reading at that level for 600 pages? As for the rest of them, would they be able to read the book and understand it--at all? The more I looked into it, the more the more I had my doubts. It's a tough read for an 8th grader, even one who is an accelerated course. Here's a list of other books that have approximately the same reading level, so when you compare others in its area...WOW. I have the highest confidence in my students--seriously, even though it doesn't seem like it--and I think they could possible handle the book, but then I think I might be kidding myself. (Yea, like when one of them asks me what insomnia means.) The vocabulary is very high, and we even have a decent translation, too!

How much is enough when it comes to challenging your students? I want them to be able to stretch themselves, but I don't want them to become so frustrated that they might give up. I would expect them to be able to read the book independently, at approximately 100 pages a week. That's about 6 weeks to read this book. If we read it together in class, it would be much longer. Sure, they would have guide questions, and we would do discussions and extensions, but half of those things depend of the fact the student has initial understanding of the story.

With such a long book, I would hope that it would have much literary merit. I can see many uses of figurative language, and I would spend on a lot of time with character development, which is great in this story, but I think I was hoping for more along the lines of theme. Maybe more symbolism. Maybe a book that everyone talks about and says, "Wow! You should read that book! It changed by life! It made me really think!" It's largely a book that entertains. But, I do have to admit that it's also one of those stories that everyone should probably know about for the sake of cultural literacy.

Another point that made me hesitant is the morality of the the main character, D'Artagnan. Sure, he is chivalrous in protecting the woman he loves, but she happens to be a married woman. And what about the evenings he spends with Milady and her chambermaid? (Not at the same time, thankfully.) The fact that adultery is acceptable and flouted around so easily is not a topic I embrace having to discuss with my middle schoolers, even if we support a tolerant multicultural atmosphere at my school. I have had situations, if you'll recall here and here, with these students concerning innocent ideas they misunderstood! Imagine the pain and suffering with them with it being more obvious, although it isn't necessarily blatant or obscene. I know that many of them are not so innocent that they aren't thinking about or even experiencing sex, but that is with their friends. On the other hand, I have students who don't feel comfortable interacting with the opposite sex. They are still kids. They aren't at that point where they opening talk about it--in any way. Their health teacher might think differently, but that's a different purpose. Trust me on this. I have taught high schoolers and I currently teach a group at night. The maturity level is very different. Still having some things be sacred and not talked about so casually is one of the advantages I enjoy in teaching middle schoolers.

I don't know. Maybe living behind the Zion Curtain for most of life made me prudish. Or perhaps I'm still gun shy from the book experience I had last year. In real life I'm not a prude at all, but the classroom is different. I wear the facade of my grandmother.

I wish I had never mentioned to my students that we were going to do the book because I had to come in and tell that that after more studying I decided that the language might be too hard to sustain reading for weeks, there wasn't enough literary merit, and I was concern about some of the character traits portrayed in the book. Some of my shiny star students understood when I said, "There's reading a book on your own, and then there's studying a book as a class. There's a big difference."

I don't know, the more I think about it, the more I waiver back the other way. Sigh. Perhaps I'm over-reacting on the mistresses concept and that they could look past that because it's not a big deal, and there's plenty I could have them look at from a literary aspect, but then on the top, there's still the reading level. I would have fewer qualms if the book were half the size and perhaps only one grade level higher than the grade the students are in. That would be plenty challenging.

If any of you have some different views here, I'd sure take them. I asked around my department and had a long talk with the librarian, but essentially the only person I had much serious collaboration with was the French teacher. She was super excited that we were doing a French novel, but when she started studying it more, she lost her enthusiasm, too.

So, there you have it.

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