I began reading newly released books so that I might recommend them to my eighth-grade students or add them to our middle school English curriculum, but what emerged was a powerful form of professional development. The books reflected challenges faced by my students and reminded me of what was important to them. Books written for students offer windows into their lives and help me understand the variety of complex emotions and challenges experienced by adolescents in the modern era.
I focused much of my reading on books written by diverse authors that include the experiences of LGBTQIA youth; people of color; people with disabilities; and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. They serve as a springboard for critical conversations with students.
Star-Crossed, by Barbara Dee, tells the story of Mattie, a middle school girl who is navigating her sexuality as she wonders if she can have a crush on boys and girls. This novel provided insight into how some adolescent students may feel as they grapple with coming to terms with their sexuality.
All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, alternates between the perspectives of two boys, one black and one white, as they deal with the impact of racism, police brutality, and prejudice in their community. Reading this novel helped me better understand ways to facilitate conversations about injustice and to make connections to current events.
Front Desk, by Kelly Yang, is filled with complex challenges and emotions. It tells the empowering story of Mia, a 10-year-old immigrant from China who is helping her parents run a motel and is experiencing poverty, trying to fit in to a new school, racism, navigating friendships, learning a new language, and finding a way to help her family escape the cycle of poverty through writing. This novel helped provide a perspective of challenges that immigrant students may face in and out of the classroom.
The lessons learned from literature are not limited to English instruction; teachers in all content areas can learn from books written for students. There are many novels that encourage environmental advocacy and address the impact that humans have on their environment, while also telling engaging fictional stories that appeal to middle school students. Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani; Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen; and Bayou Magic, by Jewell Parker Rhodes provide connections to science and examples of the ways students can use their voices to advocate for issues of importance to them.
Graphic novels can be viewed as “easier” or “not real books,” but they often tackle complex topics in an engaging and accessible format while still providing an appropriate challenge for students. Reading more books in this format helped me to create reading strategies for students, especially for those who may be reluctant to read traditional books.
Escape from Syria, by Samya Kullab, uses striking images and powerful words to map the difficult journey a family makes as they flee Aleppo out of fear for their lives and describe their struggle to survive as refugees. This book provides direct connections to current events involving refugees and helps counter stereotypes that many people have about the reasons why people become refugees. I recommend the book to students who are interested in the current refugee crisis and want something accessible and quick to read.
Graphic novels can be used in courses other than English to help make complex times in history both accessible and engaging for students. The March trilogy, by U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, uses graphic novels to tell about Lewis’s experiences during the Jim Crow era, including meeting Martin Luther King Jr., participating in nonviolent protests, and spending his life advocating for civil rights. The Persepolis graphic novel series, by Marjane Satrapri, tells her story of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic revolution and the impact it had on her personally as well as on society as a whole. These books connect to the social studies curriculum and reminded me of the importance of creating student interest in nonfiction texts.
Novels written in verse are often shorter reads, but they provide powerful stories and demonstrate the importance of word choice. Through slam poetry, The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, explores the raw emotions of a 15-year-old girl dealing with boys who think that because she is curvy they can touch her, a mother who uses religion to silence her, and a brother who is struggling to come out to their family. This book inspired me to think about how I can help my students use writing to find their voices. I learned about Dominican culture and gained a better understanding of the complex emotions some girls feel in the time when they have the body of an adult but little autonomy over their lives.
Anthologies of short stories offer students an opportunity to engage with a wide variety of authors, genres, and experiences all in one book. Fresh Ink: An Anthology, edited by Lamar Giles, contains 10 short stories, one graphic short story, and a one-act play—all written by diverse authors from a wide range of perspectives. The short stories gave me an opportunity to gain insight on several very different cultural perspectives and writing styles.
Modeling the type of reading life I want for my students shows them that I value and enjoy reading—that reading is not just an assignment but something that can be fun. The more I read, the more I want to read because each additional book provides insight into the lives of my students and helps equip me to facilitate complex conversations in my classroom.