Literacy

A Community of Readers in Middle School

After using whole-class novels that failed to engage students, a teacher finds the benefits of letting them choose what to read.

May 9, 2018
A middle school girl reading a book in a park on the grass
©Twenty20/@NAO

One of the lessons I quickly learned—the hard way—when I began working with eighth graders was that they don’t all like the same kind of reading material. Here are some of the novels I tried out in my classroom—including ones that flew high and others that sank like literary stones.

Making the Classics Work

To be honest, classic novels have been a mixed bag in my classroom instruction. The first one I attempted to tackle was The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. I did projects with it, invited students to make their own assessments, and used sections of the book for read-alouds, but many students just never connected with the book. As Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey pointed out in their 2007 article “Farewell to A Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole-Class Novel,” some novels create more resistance than opportunity.

Early in my career, the thought of making the novel optional didn’t even occur to me. It was only after my first three years that I came to see the value of providing reading options. The reason for my hesitation was simple: I wasn’t taught in that way, being able to choose what I wanted to read for school. My teachers used whole-class novels straight through my school years. My own less-than-stellar experience with A Farewell to Arms in my junior year should have been enough evidence to convince me to change that aspect of my teaching practice.

When I began giving students reading options, there were some classics that worked and engaged more readers. These titles were often connected to pop culture or movies, like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Once the book became a series of films, there was an increase in student interest. Another notable classic choice was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. My passion for this title, which I shared with my students, may have increased their interest in it.

The Attractions of Dystopian Fiction

The Twilight series briefly held my students’ attention, but it quickly gave way to an interest in dystopian fiction. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series was a very popular choice—my students were clamoring for it even before the books were made into movies. Dystopian fiction provides interesting worlds for students to explore, and authors like Collins write intense first-person narratives that seem to speak to students.

By the time I brought the series into my classroom, my practice of providing student choice in reading was more firmly in place. After eight years of teaching, choice now seems necessary to me, as the prospect of finding a single book that every single student will find engaging is unlikely at best.

In addition to The Hunger Games, my students have been drawn to titles like The Giver by Lois Lowry, Enclave by Ann Aguirre, and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. They would frequently finish The Giver in one night. And I’m very happy that it was they who introduced me to Enclave and Divergent and not the other way around. When they and I can share our passions in reading, it creates a sense that we’re a community of readers and deepens their investment in our book discussions.

Working With Realistic Fiction

In addition to saturating themselves with science fiction and dystopias, many of my students have been reading novels that deal with real-life issues. I provided The Pigman by Paul Zindel as an option, and a student introduced me and the class to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Again, when a student shares his or her reading interests with the class, it’s a win.

When I ask why they like books like Green’s, my students say things like, “Because this story could actually happen.” Novels like A Fault in Our Stars and The Pigman are wonderful opportunities for discussing nuanced literary concepts like moral dilemmas, and such books often feature relatable characters that provide opportunities for analysis and discussion. The Pigman, for example, is written in more than one voice, a technique students are eager to explore and discuss in depth.

The challenge for my classroom practice has been creating a space where students can discover and experience books that build their motivation to read. I give them a variety of choices for assessment to demonstrate what they’ve learned in their reading, like posters, brochures, and video book reviews. Some students even prefer the traditional book report.

I’m still working to resolve the question of how much reading should be required and how much should be optional. It is, of course, the case that systematic summative assessments don’t offer reading choices—and I strongly believe they should, especially when delivered in an online format. But that lack of choice means it’s necessary to guide students in how to engage deeply even with texts they might not like. It’s also the case that students should experience genres and works they never thought they would enjoy. Our passion as educators helps build a strong foundation for these travels into other types of writing.

But there is space for choice-based reading experiences and a wide range of texts, and it’s exciting to think of what new work a student might share with me and the class.