Over the past 20 years, young adult literature has become the centerpiece of the English language arts curriculum in U.S. middle schools. Instead of relying primarily on anthologies, language arts texts, skills-based exercises, or worksheets, teachers are using authentic reading material not only to help students improve fluency and comprehension but also to engender a love of literature. Among the most widely read titles in and out of school are books that have won the Newbery Medal. Named after British publisher John Newbery, the medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished contribution to literature for children authored by a citizen or resident of the United States.
The last 11 years of Newbery books provide rich and varied fare for young readers and reflect a variety of genres and literary aspects. Table 1 summarizes the pertinent literary aspects of Newbery Medal books. Genres include historical and contemporary realistic fiction, high fantasy, and poetry. Settings and times include Medieval England; Nazi-occupied Denmark; a detention center in Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the Depression; and a futuristic Utopia. Protagonists are orphans, musicians, thinkers, runners, and ordinary youngsters who deal with life's challenges. In addition to richly detailed settings and plots, these novels share another significant quality--compelling characters who confront personal moral dilemmas and develop insight, independence, and more mature levels of judgment as they meet and overcome the challenges of growing up. Although these characters face dilemmas that many early adolescents will never confront, they recognize the uncertainty of their situations and struggle to make the best decision based on what they know, feel, and learn--often exhibiting levels of reflective judgment beyond their years.
Showing fear, passion, and uncertainty, these characters negotiate typical and not-so-typical conflicts to which young adult readers easily and willingly connect. The engaging characters demonstrate that good decisions only evolve from a process of inquiry where the decision maker recognizes and questions personal biases; casts preconceived notions about race, ethnicity, and gender aside; and resolves dilemmas in ways that model social justice. Understanding problems that characters face and how they weigh and consider options as they resolve dilemmas offers young readers models of effective decision making. Through encounters with these Newbery books, middle school readers vicariously experience, ponder, and make decisions about moral cognitive dilemmas that they might someday experience. Main characters in these books are dynamic role models for all of us as they reason through difficult dilemmas, making decisions based on their developing processes of inquiry.
Reasoning in middle school students
Twenty years of research about how adolescents and adults reason about ill-defined problems demonstrate that most middle school students believe that knowledge and reasoning are based on only what can be perceived by the senses. They believe every problem has a right or wrong answer and authorities have all the answers (King & Kitchener, 1994). For most early adolescents and many young adults, seeing or hearing is believing. Table 2 is based on the work of King and Kitchener, and it summarizes how late adolescents and adults make assumptions about and justify knowledge at different levels of reasoning. Typically, most adolescents reason at Levels 1, 2, and sometimes 3, learning from what they observe and perceive as well as from what authorities or "the experts in their lives" tell them. For most middle school youngsters, knowledge is always certain and immutable. If the teacher or other authority does not know the answer now, he or she will find it out, or it will be discovered later. Some high school students, but more often college students, begin to reason in a more sophisticated way. They consider what they observe and perceive and what experts say, but they also realize that their own and others' perspectives and biases may affect beliefs (Levels 4-5). Additionally, reasoning at this level recognizes that knowledge may be uncertain and relative, resulting in different truths for different people. Levels 6 and 7 describe the highest levels of reflective judgment and identify adults who participate in a rigorous process of inquiry to justify beliefs. Such reasoning leads to a worldview that acknowledges the validity of some beliefs or truths as more reasonable and justifiable than others. Justification is based on careful questioning about and evaluation of observations, experience, expertise, evidence, data, biases, and contexts through a process of inquiry.
In our classrooms, most readers talk about text-related themes and conflicts, taking cues from us or from other knowledgeable adults, rather than reasoning through to a solution or interpretation through justified analysis or inquiry. More often than not, the student who poses insightful or independent analysis of a character's decision making rationalizes with "I just think the character made a good decision!" or "What she did makes sense to me!" and by connecting the decision to personal observations and experiences. Deliberate and purposeful inquiry into interpretations of text and characters' resolutions of challenging dilemmas can model a process of reasoning that not only enhances analysis of text but also serves as an effective standard for personal decision making.
Although levels of reflective judgment are based on research about reasoning out ill-defined "intellectual" dilemmas, it is rare that any decision we make is grounded in pure reasoning and not informed by moral values or belief systems. Furthermore, it is the ill-defined, more personal problems that challenge us emotionally, and this emotion can cloud our judgment as much as clarify it. Reasoning about personal dilemmas from an inquiry perspective can help us make more effective decisions. As Kroll (1992) pointed out, "Because inquiry is an affair of the heart as well as the mind, students must feel connected to a topic if they are going to inquire deeply and honestly into it" (p. 11). Newbery books invite readers to inquire into and connect to characters whose decision making and thinking involve their hearts and their minds. These characters face realistic moral-cognitive dilemmas. They are at crossroads and must weigh, consider, and question information, situations, events, beliefs, and values before eventually making choices. Competent thinkers and good decision makers, these characters are excellent role models for young adults who cognitively reason about ill-defined problems.
Dilemmas in life, dilemmas in literature
Literature-based dilemmas pose emotional and moral-cognitive situations that are similar to those many of …