Leveling With the Newbery Medal

Earlier this week the Washington Post published a much-discussed piece about the Newbery Medal, the annual award for children’s books that, critics say, are often inaccessible to their target audience. What I know about children’s literature couldn’t fit a thimble. (I actually wasn’t especially enthusiastic about books as a kid; it wasn’t until I started high school that I got religion, prompted by George Orwell‘s 1984 and, weirdly but quite forcefully, Margaret Atwood‘s Cat’s Eye.) But I appreciate the perspective of Karen Vanuska, a grade-school teacher and fine litblogger who explains what she’s confronting when she teaches a Newbery winner, Jerry Spinelli‘s Maniac Magee. Vanuska’s entire post is worth your time, but here’s an excerpt:

I have lots of students who are English learners and have other learning challenges and if I didn’t read this book aloud, they probably wouldn’t understand it on their own. Which goes to my argument that leveling books is some kind of crazy project that’s keeping a lot of people busy and well-paid but doesn’t help me that much in the classroom. This book is leveled for 5th grade readers based on some formula that is unknown to me. All I know is, I have to stop on nearly every page to explain the 1960’s urban slang to my students. Even my brightest students are struggling. Newbury winner or not, it should not be published without a glossary. Either that or it needs to be leveled at a much higher level — for students who have actually studied the 1960’s and understand the relevant race issues of that time.

One thought on “Leveling With the Newbery Medal

  1. Maniac Magee was one of my favorite books when I was in elementary school. I know I read it several times when I was no older than a fifth grader. I’d be curious to know how many of the children in Vanuska’s class (or how many fifth graders in general) feel like they wouldn’t understand the book without her explanation. I also wonder how the experience varies between native English speakers and English learners.

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