Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tales of the Common Core: The Grapes of Wrath vs. Charlotte's Web

One of the new wonders the Common Core is bringing to education is leveled reading based on lexiles. Leveled reading has been around since McGuffy' Readers so it's nothing new.  (Children across America have been doing it for a decade now through the use of Accelerate Reader-- don't get me started.)  It's the notion that children should be assigned a reading level and that they should read books at their level.  The Common Core insists that children should read only books at their reading level and slightly above.  By reading books that are either easy or only a little bit hard, they will grow to be excellent readers of the non-fiction required for the Gates Foundation's drone army, sorry, workforce of tomorrow.  

What is slightly new is lexile levels.  Books for children have long been assigned reading levels--we were taught several ways to do this back in graduate school.  The Common Core uses lexile levels assigned by a proprietary algorithm which the MetaMetrics corporation developed back in the 1980's.   MetaMetrics won't tell anyone exactly how their formula works--if everyone could do it, no one would pay them to do it for them--but they say it's based on 'text complexity'.  They must be friends of Bill and Melinda because MetaMetrics is going to make a bundle from their new status as gods of readability.  They developed their formula with a three and a half million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation.  (I should state here that I have never received any money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  As far I as I know, they do not give grants to classroom teachers like me, just to experts.)

So, according to MetaMetrics, E.B. White's classic novel for children Charlotte's Web is perfect for children reading at a fourth grade level.  So is John Steinbeck's prize winning book The Grapes of Wrath.  Both have a lexile level of 680 which is fourth grade.  (Had I designed the system, fourth grade books would have a lexile level of four, but I'm not an expert.)

This means that if we follow a strict interpretation of the Common Core guidelines, which many teachers are required to do, then the window for teaching both Charlotte's Web and The Grapes of Wrath is between grades three and five.  Some clever third grades read at a fourth  grade reading level while some struggling fifth graders read do too.

This has been a long-winded way to bring me to what I think would make a very interesting thematic unit--reading The Grapes of Wrath and Charlotte's Web together.

The thematic links between the two could make for very interesting discussion.  Consider these points:

Both books deal with the struggles of the workers in an agrarian society that is itself passing away.  
The similarities between the lives of Tom Joad and Wilbur the pig, namely how the two must struggle for their lives in the face of a system bent on consuming them for profit, are remarkable.  

In each, a family of sorts, both led by a matriarchal figure, must band together to help save the life of the "young man" at the center of the story.

Both use travel as a means to explore various aspects of agrarian communities.

In both books the young hero is a "man of words" who, while uneducated, reveals himself to be blessed with the gift of gab.  Compare Tom Joad's famous farewell speech to his mother with the final web message/tribute Wilbur dictates to Charlotte's daughters in the closing scenes of E.B. White's novel.  Both characters are more concerned for the "mother" who saved them than they are for anything outside of their own lives.

It's interesting to note that while they save their 'sons' the 'mothers' are the ones who make the most sacrifices in each book.  I think the steadfastness of the 'mother' characters in each is a remarkable use of the matriarchal archetype.

Both books make use of biblical imagery.  Compare the closing scene of The Grapes of Wrath with the use of a Christ figure in Charlotte's Web.  Charlotte dedicates her life to saving  Wilbur's, dies, and then is essentially resurrected in the form of her children who carry one her work.  Her children even emergre from an egg sack that is clearly meant to resemble a funeral shroud.

Unfortunately, the closing scene of The Grapes of Wrath is not appropriate for fourth graders.  In it, a young woman who has just lost her new baby breast feeds her starving grandfather, thus saving his life.  This is a classic biblical image representing true charity.  It kind of disturbed me when I read first it, to be honest.   I think it would upset most fourth graders, and I wouldn't want to be the teacher who had to answer their questions about it. It would make for an uncomfortable read-a-loud.  Charlotte's Web upsets them, too, but they like the final ending.

This brings us to the essential problem.  While this could make for an interesting unit, the maturity level of fourth graders makes The Grapes of Wrath unsuitable reading material for them.  At the same time, the lexile level of both books make them far too easy to use with both older high school students and college students many of whom are probably mature enough for The Grapes of Wrath and Charlotte's Web.


Jeane said...

How very interesting. I would have never thought to compare Grapes of Wrath with Charlotte's Web! and while I recognize all the similarities you point out, I think Grapes of Wrath is a far more complicated book and will be beyond the level (sentence structure, vocabulary, etc) of most kids who are able to easily read Charlotte's Web, no? I mean, I read Grapes of Wrath in high school and there were some kids in my class who struggled with it!

Lisa said...

Very interesting parallels! In school we read Of Mice and Men, but not in fourth grade. I haven't read The Grapes of Wrath, but I think generally Steinbeck is too complicated (to borrow Jeane's word) for that age. I do believe in challenging kids, in their reading though.

Aaron Brame said...

Aren't you glad we have high-paid experts to help us in matters such as these?

JoAnn said...

Excellent! I'm going to send this post to my sister - the Common Core is driving her mad!!

Anonymous said...

Age appropriate reading is something that I'm struggling with at the moment too. My daughter has a reading ability way beyond her own age, but emotionally doesn't match that. She doesn't really want to read adult books (unless they're chicklit). When I was a teenager - there were no books aimed for teens, so had to graduate to adult books, but as I found SFF I was sorted! I did read Steinbeck at 16+ I remember. Yet today many so-called 'YA' books for teens are becoming increasingly gratuitous in terms of content and I cannot recommend many of them. So I'm becoming totally sceptical of age-banding - and although I don't censor my daughter's reading at all, I will leave suitable books out for her!

Judith said...

In my mind, it is imperative that you send this brilliant essay to an enlightened educational journal.

Frankly, and I am absolutely, totally serious, I would send it to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The editors are a rebellious, liberal crew who would delight in presenting this as a brief essay or as a letter to the editor.

I have long been in the business of publishing and do indeed submit this to the aforesaid publication. They will love it!!

In all seriousness,