Getting middle schoolers into reading is actually really easy if you listen to their interests, and I am not one of those teachers who teaches graphic novels. While I loved graphic novels as a child and still do, they are better left to be a part of choice reading.
The biggest complaint I hear from language teachers is that they have trouble engaging students in class. The main reason being is that they are told that their class is boring, which is probably true.
To have middle schoolers engaged, you have to first read middle school novels yourself and know your students. Most middle school novels have themes of death, violence, crime, racial issues, poverty…. and the list goes on. Let’s be real, kids are having it hard enough trying to stay sane during the pandemic. Pick positive books. Read them before sharing them with your students. It will save you time and stress. Don’t let your guard down when it comes to books that are referred to as “beloved, award-winning” books. If a review says that this novel is just like “Other Words for Home”, don’t take their word. You still have to read it ahead. Especially since about 20 pages in, you will realize that the story starts taking a very ugly political turn and is bound to have negative classroom reactions. We don’t want our instruction to become political. Kids hear enough of that nonsense in the outside world. Have your classroom be a safe place for all.
I figured out what works with the middle school audience by doing things that didn’t work and having my students tell me what they didn’t like. Allowing my students to express their honest views of our readings, helped me become a better teacher. It also taught them that it’s ok to abandon poor writing. Reading has to be engaging.
So what works? Books with multiple perspectives work. Now, lately, a lot of works include two perspectives, usually a boy and a girl, but sometimes that is still not enough. If you share “We Dream of Space” with your students you will see the change in engagement, since the story is told by three siblings. It’s an instant hit with middle schoolers because it depicts coming of age in an authentic way (without death, violence, or politics) and it teaches American history at the same time.
Another great middle school novel is “Nine, Ten: A Story of September 11” . The multiple perspectives of four middle schoolers who experience the events of September 11 throughout the country, again tell of a relatable coming of age experience while teaching American history. This story is ideal for students who are just learning about the September 11th attacks for it takes one step farther from “I Survived the Attacks of September 11th” but is not quite at “Ground Zero” which takes the reader to Afghanistan and the story of Reshmina and Taz who escaped the falling towers.
“A Wish in the Dark” by Soontornvat is another middle school masterpiece, told through multiple perspectives. It’s a story of friendship, bravery, and justice with a touch of ancient wisdom. It’s a deserving 2021 Newbery Honor Book.