One of the struggles of teaching middle school is in finding material that will satisfy a wide spectrum of student interest, ability and maturity. Unlike any other age, where differentiation is hard enough, middle school sees the brain changing in such complex ways that it is near impossible to run an entire class and satisfy every student. One colleague described the boys comparing facial hair growth as they played on the slide at recess as an example the age. For this reasons I use independent reading and writing as the bedrock foundation of my pedagogy, and advocate Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle every chance I get. Still, as I wrote in “Too Old to Know, Too Young to Care: When is Young Adult Literature Age Appropriate” there are still many traps and pitfalls.
I still believe in the common text, though. While the majority of my class reads independent books, I offer a few each year that are a common experience. This poetry site was created, in part, because they offer a common experience that is quick. As I wade into the waters of one book for all, those issues of meeting all reading levels, all interests and all levels of maturity comes into play.
To that end I recommend Common Sense Media. Built for parents, it offers ratings for books, videos, television shows and even video games. More important, it offers media by age and then breaks down its reasons and concerns. Brevity with clarity are hallmarks of the reviews. In addition, users offer their own two cents, which offers a bit of a tweak when it comes to adopting the original assessment to one’s own classroom.
Like the magazine Consumer Reports, they are not political or ideological (as far as I can tell), so their reviews are neither Christian or bomb-throwing libertine; they are informative. In the “About Us” tab they make their philosophy clear:
Ten Common Sense Beliefs
We believe in media sanity, not censorship. We believe that media has truly become “the other parent” in our kids’ lives, powerfully affecting their mental, physical, and social development. We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy media interpreters — we can’t cover their eyes but we can teach them to see. We believe parents should have a choice and a voice about the media our kids consume. Every family is different but all need information. We believe that the price for free and open media is a bit of extra homework for families. Parents need to know about media content and need to manage media use. We believe that through informed decision making, we can improve the media landscape one decision at a time. We believe appropriate regulations about right time, right place, and right manner exist. They need to be upheld by our elected and appointed leaders. We believe in age-appropriate media and that the media industry needs to act responsibly as it creates and markets content for each audience. We believe ratings systems should be independent and transparent for all media. We believe in diversity of programming and media ownership.