Middle School Readers: Common Views, Different Worlds
Middle School Connections Column
Editor, Rita Karr
with Leslie Verzi Julian
What makes a middle school student tick? Who really knows? With raging hormones, a struggle for self-identity, and acceptance, what can make a middle school student read, let alone like to read? Many of us do know the answer to that question: young adult literature.
We are convinced that young adult literature is the key to success for many students. Our experiences have shown that using many young adult novels in the classroom unlocks that door of resistance to reading and resistance to learning, and ultimately opens a pathway to success in school.
The two of us teach in two very diverse areas. Rita teaches in a small rural county, while Leslie teaches in a large metropolitan school system. Our students come from very diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. If we pooled all our students, we would have an ethnographer's delight. Both of us have found that, though our students are literally miles apart in so many ways, the common thread that binds them together is their response to young adult literature. We would like to share our experiences with you and perhaps some of these strategies might work for you.
Rural Teens: Perspectives of Rita Karr
When queried about what students think of when they think of school and reading, Tim protested, "When I think of school, I think of boring work. But when I think of reading, I think of good stories. When I think of reading in school, I think of being forced to read stories that are too easy." Michelle chimed in with, "Most of the time when I read in school, the dreaded 'homework' word pops into my mind." Zed's complaint was that the reading in school was boring and followed by an essay on it and questions, so he couldn't possibly enjoy it, even if it were a good story. This group of eighth graders is only echoing the words and thoughts of their peers. "Student choice" and "reading for the sake of reading" are frequently not concepts that middle school students' language arts and reading teachers value less than "assigned reading lists" and "traditional book reports."
Creature comforts also rank high on my middle school students' their wish lists for ways to make reading a more enjoyable experience in the classroom. Kayla suggested that we create, "a reading corner with bean bags," while Matt's wish included "dimmed lights, a nice seat to sit on, and some refreshments to have while reading." Our resident philosopher wants a fluffy chair or sofa, and some soft jazz in the background. Zed summed it all up when he said "soda machines in the classroom would make school a comfortable place to read," a suggestion that was not quite as realistic as another of his comments, "Also, you should be allowed to read what you want." Our goal as teachers should be to build life long learners, not resistant readers.
The students I teach are wonderful young people. I teach in a school of 780 students, in a rural school district that is starting to feel the suburban crunch. What makes my students different from their metropolitan cousins? My students are average, middle class, Anglo Saxon students. Few of my students live in apartments, some of them live on farms, but most of them live in individual homes, and are being raised by at least one biological parent. Some of my students have never ridden on a subway or a bus other than the big yellow one they ride to school. Some have never traveled outside our county line. However, the biggest difference between our students is that my students have not had the chance to work with, and learn from, students of other cultures.
Therefore, I feel that perhaps I can bring some of the rest of the world to them through books. When I first entered the language arts classroom as a teacher, I relied entirely upon the anthology and the one novel each semester. Did my students learn? I would like to think so. But did they learn to love reading and books? Definitely not! Fortunately, my own children were in middle school at the time. They too bemoaned the fact that they hated reading the books and selections that had to read in class. They shared their paper back novels with me, and I started reading those books, as well as the books that my students were buying from the various book clubs we had at school.
What happened next was wonderful. I found that not only were the books quick reads, but they mirrored the lives and experiences of some of my students. Soon the students were bringing me their favorite books to read, and then I became a young adult literature junkie. My book orders replicated the national debt; my book shelf became crammed with wonderful young adult novels. Did I still teach the anthology selections and the novels as dictated by the curriculum guide? Yes, but I also started using the new found treasures in class. And my students started reading more and learning more.
Two examples of what happens in the classroom when young adult books are given space on that book shelf and in the curriculum follow.
From Russia to Rural Maryland
In 1990, Lois Stover and I used a young adult novel from the Soviet Union, Shadows across the Sun, by Albert Likhanov with my students. After the initial introduction of the novel, the students began to read and respond. Initially the students had stereotypical impressions of students from another culture. As their reading of novel progressed, the students started to look at things differently. "It made it easier to understand about the other country...," one student explained. Another student wrote, "At first I thought Russia was a stony, cold, ugly place. After reading the novel, I know I was wrong. The novel gave me a better understanding."
Did the students learn? Yes. Did they learn to like reading? Again, yes. This class of seventh and eighth graders started to read more and more young adult books about people of other cultures. They went beyond the boundaries of our county and explored the world. They even asked to do research on Russia and topics related to the Russian people. Anyone who works with adolescents knows that students do not typically ask to do research. They did because their thirst for knowledge and information had been piqued.
Walls Coming Down
Several years ago, another group of students demonstrated a desire to learn and read when I read them Randall's Wall, by Carol Fenner. I deliberately read small segments of this novel each day, stopping at a point that left the class wondering, "What happens next?" This went on for about a week, with my reading only a little at a time. Every day when I stopped, the sixth graders would beg me to read more. At first I knew they wanted to have me read so they wouldn't have to work. That was fine. What happened next was exciting. The students started to discuss walls. This was the perfect segue for me to introduce symbolic uses of the word "walls," and hence the birth of a thematic unit.
The first thing I asked the students to do was to explain the term "walls." Since I didn't specify what form of writing to use, I received everything from a few scattered phrases to sentences, and in some instances, paragraphs explaining walls. This was shared and the students immediately started to revise their explanation. Next they were asked to interview an adult about "walls." The students engaged in dialogues with adults in meaningful ways, and their knowledge base was expanded. They returned to class with interview results in hand and shared their interviews. They reported that, for adults, "walls" meant everything from the Vietnam Wall to Pink Floyd's album by that title.
At this point the students started revising their own interpretation of walls. They wrote fast and furiously, and then I asked them to stop and reflect. What had they found out? What were their questions about their new understanding of "walls." As hoped, they had many questions. Where could they find the answers? In books, of course. Off we went to the media center and, under the skillful hand of our media specialist, Ann McHale, they started exploring the rich and deep world of young adult literature. The students were expected to read one fiction and one nonfiction selection to complete their research of what they felt "walls" demonstrated. When we finished this unit, most of the students had read at least six different books. The students defined, redefined, and refined their understanding of a simple four letter word---walls. Young adult literature opened doors to my students and will continue to open doors.
Urban Teens: perspectives of Leslie Verzi Julian
"If teachers would leave us alone and let us read, we might actually like to read!" one eighth grader adamantly announced, during an open discussion. When asked where students like to read, Marcus shot up his hand and admitted, "Anywhere but school." "This school needs to get some new books that we like to read," added Ebonie, who then said, "These nasty old books are disgusting!" Kiesha's concern was the work associated with reading: "Reading means boring books that teachers make you read and reports that have to be read aloud. Then you get all the writing work."
When they think of school and reading, my middle schoolers are bombarded with images of outdated books with torn covers on subjects someone else has chosen for them. They feel calluses on their hands from endless book reports which summarize character, plot and setting, or countless guide questions which interrupt reading every paragraph and insist that reading comprehension questions are answered. My students, like many of the 1350 students in the crowded, aging, urban school where I teach, are frustrated. Many of them want to enjoy reading. Shamefully, our teaching methods are sometimes among the obstacles.
The students I work with are diverse, largely African American. Some come to me from typical families. Others come to me from neighboring foster homes and alternative school. These features account for the transient population of the school. Despite the less-than-ideal situation, though, it does not take long to see that the adolescents in this school are teenagers much like other teens, with similar desires, similar dreams. They are students who want to learn, and who deserve to be treated as thinkers.
A Transformed Space: Books, Books, Everywhere
So, what would it take to make my classroom at this school a comfortable, inviting place, a place where they would like to come to read? I posed this question to my eighth graders and they provided me with common themes in their answers. They were screaming for new books with current themes and a physically comfortable place in which to relax and read. I was not surprised to hear this growing bunch of young folks suggest that they would also like to eat while they read, or by their mention that background music wouldn't be too bad either. If I wanted to make a difference, if I wanted to help create a generation of lifelong lovers of reading, I had to listen attentively. I was reminded that a good teacher never stops learning from students. Following are some strategies that resulted from the cooperative planning my students and I engaged in during the past few years.
A Library on Wheels
First of all, through the generosity of my current principal, we were able to purchase classroom libraries. Because I was a floating teacher for a time, I carried by library on a cart---not an easy task when I had to maneuver through mobs of hungry children on their way to lunch. To my surprise, though, I could hardly make it down the hall because of the number of students who wanted to stop and look at my new books. "Are you selling them?" "May I have this one?" "Wow! Where did these come from?" On lunch duty at the cafeteria door, children actually left the cafeteria to beg me to be able to take a certain book home. Sandra read a book every day. She rushed to tell me what she had read and eagerly asked for another novel suggestion.
Similarly, when I allowed students to choose their own books in English, Thomas would greet me at the door each day with, "What else do you have?" When young minds are given power, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.
Cooperative Literature Circles
Cooperative Literature Circles have also added increased energy in my classroom. I begin by placing a book on each student's desk. The student is to preview the book and give the rest of us a brief summary and prediction of its appeal to teenagers. What follows is a bargaining scene which would make any lawyer proud. Students select their own groups of four, according to novel titles, themes, authors, or, to be honest, friendships. They must find the common thread among the novels being read, in order to hold meaningful discussions. Authentic conversations make room for authentic learning. Many models of Literature Circles are available. I found that assigning rotating, cooperative roles assures accountability, while allowing students freedom of choice and expression. I have also given students question frames which model higher level thinking or those similar to questions used in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). Literature Circles make students responsible for their own learning, enabling them to be both teacher and student. I became a facilitator and witness to some exciting conversations.
Responding to Books
How teens are allowed to respond to literature is equally important. My students and I have developed over forty ways to do "Book Talks," where teams of students design performances which highlight narrative elements, thematic and personal connections. Here are some of our favorites:
1. Pretend to be one of the characters in the book, and keep a diary that describes your involvement in the story. Read the diary in character.
2. Use the major events from the novel to compose a fairy tale, including detailed illustrations or a performance of the fairy tale.
3. Create and perform a mock trial which puts a character on trial for "crimes" or personal flaws. Incorporate all elements of a court case.
4. Compose and perform original poems or songs that highlight key points of interest in the book.
5. Research and bring in examples of art, music, food, or dress which represents the culture and tradition of the characters. (This activity has lead to fashion shows, hair design demonstrations, and cooking lessons.)
6. Compose and perform a "Crossfire" show around controversial issues from the book.
7. Hold a talk show, complete with audience participation, which is organized around the theme from one or more novels.
8. Write and deliver a commercial for the book. Include a jingle and reasons for consumption of the product.
9. Create a map of the setting(s) on chart-size paper, in order to discuss how geography played a part in the story (influences character, plot, etc.).
10. Perform a news broadcast involving major events from the novel(s). Emergency reports, commercials, and weather reports are welcome.
Since instituting these changes in my teaching, I have observed a change in attitude and behavior among adult students. One story will continue to hold a special place in my heart. Jamal was a thirteen-year-old who read on the first grade level. He struggled to write two sentences at one time. He was clearly frustrated and found no comfort in either reading or writing. Then, I handed Jamal a little book called Broken Chains, a high interest, low readability book about a young man's struggle to escape pressures of gang life. The topic intrigued Jamal. He took the book home, read it, gave it to his brother to read, who gave it to his mother to read. Then, on his own, Jamal began writing not only about the book, but also stories several pages long. When reflecting in his portfolio, Jamal said that the experience taught him that he "could do anything (he) put (his ) mind to." Meeting young adults where they are, and making reading meaningful for them, is essential and rewarding for everyone involved.
Since the beginning of this school year, my students and I have been planning a community project in response to their wishes for a more comfortable place to read. Our library courtyard is being transformed into a reading garden, complete with benches, picnic tables, flowering and shade trees, a butterfly garden, bird houses, and personalized stepping stones. We are still working on the food issue; meanwhile, our hunger for reading is growing. My hope is that excitement is contagious, and that by sharing my love for books---my personal collection is 200 and swelling---I am also sharing my love for reading and young people. My wish for them is, if for just a moment, that they may be lifted to other worlds, to worlds where fantasies, dreams, and curiosities might be realized.
Titles that are Currently Popular Among our Middle School Students
Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1971.
Avi. Nothing But the Truth. New York: Orchard Books, 1991.
Avi. City of Light, City of Dark. New York: Orchard Books. 1995.
Colville, Bruce. Into the Land of Unicorns. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
Coman, Carolyn. What Jamie Saw. New York: Penguin, 1995
Crutcher, Chris. Athletic Shorts. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1991.
Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. New York:
Dickinson, Peter. Eva. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1988.
Draper, Sharon. Tears of a Tiger. New York: Aladdin, 1994.
Friel, Maeve. Charlie's Story. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1997.
Guy, Rosa. The Friends. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1958.
Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. New York: Puffin, 1997.
Johnson, Angela. Humming Whispers. New York: Random House, 1995.
Lipsyte, Robert. The Contender. New York: Harper Collins, 1967.
Marsden, John. Letters from the Inside. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Nolan, Han. Send Me Down a Miracle. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
Matas, Carol. After the War. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996
Matas, Carol. Kris's War. New York: Scholastic, 1989.
Myers, Walter Dean. Slam. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
Myers, Walter Dean. Scorpions. New York: Harper Trophy.
O'Dell, Scott and Hall Elizabeth. Thunder Rolling in the Mountains. New York: Bantam, Doubleday Dell, 1992.
Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. New York: Harper Collins, 1980.
Paulsen, Gary. Nightjohn. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1993.
Paulsen, Gary. The Rifle. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace,1995.
Paulsen, Gary. Sarny. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997.
Philbrick, Rodman. Freak the Mighty. New York: The Blue Sky Press, 1993.
Rinaldi, Ann. Keep Smiling Through. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
Salisbury, Graham. Shark Bait. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997.
Southgate, Martha. Another Way to Dance. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Spinelli, Jerry. Crash. New York: Random House, 1996.
Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Penguin Books, 1976/1991.
Taylor, Mildred D. The Well. New York: Dial Books, 1995.
White, Ruth. Belle Prater's Boy. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996.
Williams, Garcia, Rita. Like Sister on the Homefront. Dutton, 1995.
Woodson, Jacqueline. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun. New York:
Woodson, Jacqueline. I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This. Delacorte Press, 1994.
Rita Karr teaches language arts at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Sykesville, Maryland; she is a former Maryland Middle School Teacher of the Year. Leslie Verzi Julian teaches middle school language arts at Southwest Academy in,Maryland. Both are active members of ALAN.
Reference Citation: Karr, Rita and Leslie Verzi Julian. (1999). "Middle School Readers: Common Views, Different Worlds ." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.