Posted in Ramblings

Novel Choice

As my focus turns toward the school year, I’ve decided to blog about my experiences as a teacher. Today, I want to share an email I sent to the People In Charge of curriculum. Backstory: I used to be the department head, the cohort facilitator (plan and run professional development), and curriculum writer. Those things pulled me from my classroom a lot, and I hated being gone so much. For a variety of reasons, including forced absenteeism, I stepped down from all those roles. Then the central office administration changed, and they issued new directives about the curriculum. Some were fine (they finally finished writing the rubrics for the assessments) and other changes bothered me. Here’s a letter I wrote in response to the adoption of “anchor texts,” which are novels each grade level would be required to read. Specifically, I wrote it about the text chosen for 6th grade, which I had successfully avoided teaching for over a decade. Here it is:

Dear (Names Withheld),

I expressed my reservations about adopting Freak the Mighty for district consumption at the ELA cohort meeting. I’d like to put my reasoning into writing.


  1. Freak the Mighty disseminates misinformation about LD persons. It portrays people with learning disabilities at mentally slow and physically clumsy. They are neither. People with learning disabilities have to work harder to learn in certain areas, but they are by no means cognitively slow or physically clumsy. In fact, they often shine when it comes to music and sports—and even in subject areas that play to their strengths. An LD student might struggle with math, but he/she may shine in reading or writing.

Cognitively Impaired individuals frequently display problems with physical activities due to their cognitive impairment. The portrayal of Max is reminiscent of a simplified version of Lenny (Of Mice and Men), only he doesn’t squeeze Kevin to death. This confusion of what a disability means is harmful to the social and emotional development of students, especially at this age. If the topic of the novel is the reason it was selected, then there are many more enlightened (and recent) novels on the market that will fill that niche.

  1. The reading level is 5.5. This is bothersome as a teacher and as a parent. I do not want lower standards to be the norm for my students or my children. Students rise to meet your expectations. It bothers me that the district is lowering standards. The only reason the book is rated at 5.5 is due to some of the vocabulary terms purposely used for dramatic effect—which readers do not need to know in order to understand the novel. If only the plot and writing style were taken into account, the reading level would drop to 3rd or 4th grade. (The description is sporadic. The plot is overly simplistic, with a rushed climax that misses the opportunity to develop Max’s character at all. There’s nothing here that can truly be used to teach grade level objectives.)


Reasons given for choosing this novel:

  1. “It is short.” Yes, it’s short, as are most elementary level novels. If a short read is desired (which is, in my opinion, an invalid criteria for choosing a novel), then the district can investigate other options.
  1. “It appeals to boys because the main character is male.” I acknowledge that fewer boys identify as readers at this age (due to a variety of societal factors that remove male role models as readers from their lives). However, we’re selling everybody short if we’re using this as a criteria for novel selection. Girls are traditionally shortchanged when it comes to seeing main characters in novels that look like themselves. In fact ALL of the “anchor” novels chosen feature male characters in positions of power/main character roles. I don’t see us making a concerted effort to address the gender imbalance issue. When we teach reading as a skill rather than a gender-based activity, we teach ALL students to enjoy literature. Seeking to disenfranchise female readers by embracing all-male archetypes harms all students. Boys, as well as girls, need to see both genders in feature roles.
  1. “It gives students a common experience on which later teachers can draw.” Are later teachers being required to read these novels? Are they really working references to these into their lesson plans? I didn’t think so. None of the novels chosen at the middle school level play upon a particular theme that becomes more complicated by the next text. The argument for an anchor novel loses steam when the texts aren’t chosen with thematic links in mind. I’m not in favor of anchor texts, especially when they are chosen by “what we’ve taught before” and “what we own the most copies of” instead of substantive and common criteria.


I am not arguing for the district to choose a specific text, especially in middle school. In the past, I’ve chosen texts based on student interest. Yes—I let them vote on the novels they read. It’s empowering for the students, which is a powerful motivator for even the most reluctant reader. It’s also in keeping with the district’s purported values for classroom environment, according to the rubric we were given at the 5D+ meeting. Maybe I don’t teach the same novel from year to year, but it keeps my teaching fresh, and it forces me to keep a student-centered approach to each novel each year. I am, however, urging you to reconsider this novel (and perhaps some of the others) as anchor texts. Perhaps, instead of rushing to have anchor texts for the sake of having them, a committee should establish criteria for choosing them–and then choices should be piloted and discussed.


(Not my pen name)

ELA teacher with high–yet achievable–expectations


That’s the email I sent. I’ll be surprised if I get a response. The last time I objected to a district or building policy (putting students with low standardized test scored in with special education students in order to “track” them), I was ignored. If I do get one, I’ll share the juicy details with you. Just kidding–they won’t be juicy. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on this issue.


Update: I got a response:

I appreciate you writing your reservations and the reasons you believe the novel was chosen.  The novel chosen was selected collaboratively by the K-12 alignment group and supported by the Directors.  At this time, this is the required anchor text we will be using.  It is expected that additional texts (novels) will be included in your instruction; you would be able to utilize the thoughts mentioned in the email.

What I took away from this: Basically, I was told to deal with it myself. I did respond to ask for more of a response, but I was pretty much told that my concerns had been “noted.” And people wonder why parents lose faith in the school system.


I’m Michele Zurlo, author of over 20 romance novels. During the day, I teach English, and in the evenings, romantic tales flow from my fingertips.

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