Thanks to a grant from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation, middle school students are about to have even more choice and voice in their reading selection.
Eighth-grade student Adam Hall, for example, recently discovered the Scythe series in his English classroom and cites the second book, Thunderhead, as the best book he’s read this year. What does he appreciate about his classroom library? “You can find books you wouldn’t normally read, look at them, read the back, figure out if you like it,” he says. “Also, you can ask friends about what they’re reading.”
This is just the kind of authentic reading experience English teacher Danielle Smith is hoping to encourage by thoughtfully adding to her classroom library. “As adults, we all know there are times we don’t get to choose what we’re reading, but it’s far more enjoyable in many ways when you get to pick that title that your friend recommended to you,” she says. “That’s one of my favorite parts about it, when I hear them saying: ‘You have to read that book; it’s so good!’”
Smith notes that some units are constrained by theme or genre, but an expansive, diverse classroom library allows for autonomy, independence, and passion-driven reading whenever possible -- something middle school students need. “If they’ve forgotten that reading is fun, I have to have something to put in each kids’ hands, depending on where they are in their reading journey.”
The grant will fund additions to classroom libraries in language arts classrooms in all three grades at the middle school, plus support shelving, storage, and a digital database system for check-out. Language arts teachers are being strategic about their initial orders, trying to fill in gaps, purchase book-club-worthy titles, respond to what kids are looking for, and support curricular units of study. Teachers are also being guided by library association recommendations and seeking to add books that will help students understand themselves and other people better.
“That’s how we grow, by expanding a little bit outside our comfort zone,” Smith says. “Part of how we learn to be better people is to put ourselves in others’ shoes or look at history from another point of view.”
A book like this is one that eighth-grade student Ava Nargi says was her favorite book this year: Salt to the Sea, a historical fiction novel by Rita Sepetys. And Nargi says she appreciates the choice at her fingertips on her classroom bookshelf. “You have a lot of variety, and you don’t have to go far to get a book, so anyone can get anything they’re interested in,” she says.
A generation ago, young adult barely existed as a category; most literature jumped straight from kid-lit to adult. But today’s middle school students are “living in a time where writers are putting out some amazing stuff targeting issues they’re facing,” Smith says, “and if we’re not current on that, we’re wasting an opportunity.”