Once upon a time in a middle school, an entire class was lost in the pages of other worlds…
In the front row, one student hunched over a glossy magazine, while another sat immersed in the thrills of a YA, or young adult, novel. Another, eyes closed and headphones in, listened to a rich voice narrate an audiobook bestseller. There were few sounds in the room: whispers of pages turning, the hum of a fan, the shuffle of getting comfortable in a chair. At that moment, thanks to the magic of reading, the students were both present and not—while in their chairs on the Lincoln Street Campus, they were also, somehow, far away, exploring new places, trying on new identities: Detective. Basketball star. Dragon tamer. Field biologist.
“Reading is often described as the keys to the kingdom of learning,” seventh-grade English teacher Jill Gerber recently wrote in an article for Middle School families. “Once someone falls in love with reading, they can go anywhere and be anyone.”
The benefits of reading are well-known. Independent readers are more successful across the academic spectrum—in arts and humanities as well as sciences and mathematics—and enjoy higher levels of empathy, reduced stress, and mental stimulation through their lives. But helping students discover a love of reading, and an internal drive toward it, isn’t always easy, especially once students enter middle school, a phase of life in which many stop reading for pleasure.
Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills. When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.—Pam Smith, Middle School principal
Knowing this, Rowland Hall’s Middle School English teachers have long focused on methods that help students rediscover the joy of reading, with one rising to the top: giving them more choice in what they read for school. With choice, teachers introduce students to a wide variety of genres, perspectives, and topics, and then let them pick what they want to read. Supported by research by teachers like Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle, choice has become a popular approach because it works: by offering students a variety of texts, they’re more likely to find something they like, encouraging them to continue to seek out books that meet their interests.
“It’s so simple to give choice, and the benefits are so profound,” said sixth-grade English teacher Mary Lawlor. In fact, the benefits of choice are so powerful at this developmental stage that the approach is utilized across the Middle School, from student-led project collaboration in social studies to self-pacing opportunities in math and world languages classes.
“Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills,” explained Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.”
Chapter 1: A Seat at the Table
Student choice takes different forms within an English class, from the almost limitless options available for independent reading to the extension texts teachers pair with the all-class novels that headline their learning units. Whatever the form, choice provides teachers a way to support students wherever they are as readers.
“Kids are on a journey; they're not all at the same place,” said Jill. This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reading—while some students are ready for advanced texts early in the year, others are challenged by the first all-class novel.
“Choice allows me to target toward reading levels, giving me a lot more flexibility in terms of reaching readers and getting them engaged,” said eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez.
For instance, if a student is struggling with an all-class novel, the teacher can balance that challenge with an easier independent read, ensuring that at any given moment the student has access to a book they actually want to read and helping to avoid the frustration or resentment toward reading that can build when a student doesn’t feel connected to the all-class text.
“Having more choice allows kids to really get into a book and enjoy it,” Chelsea explained. “They get excited, and it builds excitement across the class.”
Choice also helps build students’ confidence when it comes to analyzing literature, an important aspect of the English classroom. For instance, graphic literature—including comic books and graphic novels—has become more common in English classes because of its ability to help students better understand literary terms like theme, symbolism, mood, and imagery.
By meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.
“For a lot of kids, it's easier to identify symbols and mood when it's a graphic image, before they jump to prose,” explained Jill, an authority on graphic literature (she’s been invited to share her expertise at places like the 2020 Comic-Con Books for All panel and co-authored an article about graphic literature in the classroom). “That switch from the concrete to the abstract, that's kind of the nature of middle schoolers—they're starting to be able to get those abstract concepts.”
Benefits like these add up in a powerful way: by meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.
“Everybody has a right to a seat at the table, and that's important—we're a community of learners,” said Jill. “I want my kids to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers, no matter their skill level.”
Chapter 2: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors
In addition to giving middle schoolers a seat at the table, choice also helps them understand the importance of making room at that table for a variety of human experiences and perspectives. Through choice, teachers can introduce students to a wider range of books and voices, demonstrating to them the value in lived experiences that differ from their own, and helping to build their empathy and understanding of a diverse world.
“We really try intentionally in the Middle School to make sure we are incorporating all kinds of identities, and that includes both authors and characters,” said Chelsea.
Research shows that all students benefit from diverse stories, including both books in which they see themselves and books in which they don’t. Rowland Hall teachers utilize the concept known as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when determining which texts to teach, focusing on books in which students can find reflections of themselves (mirrors), examine others’ worlds (windows), and step into new worlds (sliding glass doors). This approach has been especially important as students have been learning about racial justice movements and starting to explore how they can help create a more equitable world. Teachers play an essential role in guiding students through this process, and can use texts to help them make sense of current events and learn from the experiences of others.
“I can change my curriculum based on the culture of the time,” said Mary, who this year introduced sixth graders to a new graphic novel unit, Other Voices, that featured Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a contemporary story about a young Black student starting a new school, along with John Lewis’ civil rights trilogy March and George Takei’s World War II internment novel They Called Us Enemy. She, along with her fellow English teachers, said they appreciate the flexibility of working in an independent school, which allows them to more easily adjust reading options to meet students’ needs and to help them explore the top issues of the day. “I have the resources to get those novels to them, and parents really want that to happen,” Mary said.
Choice also helps students make connections across subjects. For instance, this fall eighth graders read the all-class novel All American Boys—which examines the aftermath of an act of extreme police brutality through the eyes of a young Black man and a young White man—while studying slavery and abolitionism in their American studies class, allowing them to examine the history of slavery in America alongside modern-day racism and racial justice movements. To help students further explore and process racial justice activism as they read the novel, Chelsea presented them with a variety of nonfiction texts featuring activism in poetry, sports, and arts and music.
“I wanted them to see that there are movements outside of this novel,” she explained.
This experience not only grew students’ reading skills and knowledge of these areas, but also helped them feel more confident about engaging in some of today’s most important conversations.
“The kids really became able to talk about race and racism in a way that I hadn't seen before in middle schoolers,” Chelsea said.
Chapter 3: Readers, Writers, and Producers
Helping students learn how to have, as well as to lead, constructive conversations is essential in preparing them to live lives of purpose in an increasingly interconnected world.
“We're a global society,” said Jill. “We have to be able to communicate to a wide audience.”
Choice prepares students for this by getting them comfortable with thinking deeply, examining ideas, and seeking out information—habits that are built through reading. In the safety of class, students learn there truly is something for everyone, and they can experiment to find what works for them: physical or digital publications, novels or magazines, graphic novels or comic books. They can even listen to audio books, which build reading comprehension skills in the brain in the same way print books do, and are especially beneficial for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities (at Rowland Hall, these students have access to Learning Ally, an audio book resource, thanks to a generous grant from a family in the community).
“Students are moving through so many texts and making reading a daily practice, which is one of the best ways to grow as a reader,” said Chelsea.
And it’s not only students’ reading skills that are improving. The more language that kids are exposed to via books, the teachers said, the better writers they become.
“Good readers are good writers,” said Jill. “I'm starting to see the nuance of language emerge, and it's all organic: they're looking at the way writers write, and how they connect to it, and what it makes them feel.”
Books are human experiences, human stories. Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.—Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher
In other words, students are beginning to connect the stories they read to what it means to be human.
“Books are human experiences, human stories,” said Jill. “Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.” She pointed out that stories are the building blocks of our collective history—before we could write, we told stories around fires and painted the first comics on cave walls—which is why students who explore them are more likely to connect, and better communicate, with others, a skill that can serve any path they choose to take. After all, Jill pointed out, the best doctors are the ones who know how to connect with people. “To be a really good doctor you have to understand the human experience,” she said.
This connection to the human experience also might just spark the inspiration students need to become tomorrow’s producers: writers of the articles, the graphic novels, and the bestsellers that continue this long tradition of storytelling, that help connect us through our shared humanity, and that, perhaps, inspire the next generation of readers.