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Sending a Powerful Message: How One Middle School Used Literature to Break Down the Stigma Associated With Mental Illness

By Allison Glickman-Rogers & Beth Zirogiannis
 | Sep 25, 2019

As middle school educators, we are keenly aware of our role in supporting the social and emotional well-being of young adolescents. The structure of our school, the classroom environment, curriculum, and extracurriculars are all implemented with this goal in mind.

The New York State Education Department recently mandated mental health education in schools. Oceanside Middle School (OMS), an Essential Elements School-to-Watch, has long been addressing this important topic through a robust health curriculum, a group guidance class that promotes social-emotional competencies, and various assembly programs. However, knowing the statistics on young people personally experiencing mental illness or living with a loved one who is experiencing mental illness—the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 20% of youth ages 13–18 live with a mental health condition—the staff at OMS wanted to do more.

As a school, we wanted to push beyond the curriculum and programs in place to further eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness, a stigma that can isolate students and prevent them from accessing appropriate support. We agreed that literature was the perfect vehicle to further this dialogue.

Coming together through literature

The New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) was seeking schools and organizations to devise programs to promote mental health awareness. OMS applied for and was awarded a $5,000 grant by the New York State OMH to conduct a schoolwide read-aloud.

We first had to find the right novel. We decided that a middle grade novel with a mental health lens would make the best fit and fell in love with The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller (Random House Books for Young Readers).

Natalie, the novel’s main character, embarks on a personal mission to “rescue” her mother, who suddenly has difficulty getting out of bed each day. This novel, named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, had a relatable middle school setting, an accessible plot, and endearing characters. We believed these qualities made it the perfect entry point into what we hoped would be a meaningful dialogue focused on mental health and wellness.

We kicked the program off in September 2018 by selling copies of the novel at Back-to-School Night to encourage families to read alongside their children. In November, we launched the read-aloud and witnessed the entire school gather around this singular topic.

“It was a whole new experience knowing everybody around you was listening and reading the same story,” says Noah, an OMS seventh grader.

Nearly every department in the school read aloud over the course of several weeks. For example, on one day, every math teacher in the building read their assigned chapters aloud to their classes, and the following day, every science teacher read the successive chapters aloud to their classes, and so on until the book was completed. “I loved sharing a different side of myself with my students and seeing a different side of them as well,” says math teacher Dan Art.

English language arts (ELA) teachers participated just like every other department and provided students more context and support when needed, but they were not participating in this literacy initiative alone.

“The best part about the read-aloud was that students had the opportunity to talk to teachers, other than me, about a book they love,” says ELA teacher Alexandra Mangano.

This event was even more powerful because it culminated with a visit from author Tae Keller in December. She conducted grade-level assemblies, visited classrooms, autographed students’ books, and hosted an evening community book talk for our families.

Creating a safe place

Although a schoolwide read-aloud is not going to solve the mental health crisis currently facing the United States, the positive participation of the OMS staff sent a very powerful message to the students: This is a safe place.

“It was good to expose middle school students to the topic of mental illness and how it affects everyone involved, not just the person suffering,” says Juliana, an OMS eighth grader.

And, according to our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers, students and staff have been more open to discussing mental health concerns. The assistant principals have also shared that students are taking greater advantage of Sprigeo, a confidential reporting system subscribed to by the middle school, to report situations in which they are concerned for their peers.

At OMS, we do have plans for another schoolwide read-aloud, and we have gathered feedback to ensure our 2019–2020 event is even more successful.

“This isn’t only about sharing the love of reading or only about learning a valuable lesson through literature; it’s about both,” says Art.

Allison Glickman-Rogers is the principal of Oceanside Middle School in New York.

Beth Zirogiannis, an ILA member since 2007, is the director of English for the Oceanside School District in New York.

More Titles to Think About

Although we chose The Science of Breakable Things, there were four other excellent middle grade titles that we considered:

  1. Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff (HarperCollins) portrays the struggle of a young girl who is overcome with fear after the sudden death of her brother. Lost in the Sun (Puffin Books) is the companion book for this title.
  2. Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) deals with adolescent anxiety and depression. The protagonist, Finley, has to face her parents’ issues, try to understand her “blue days,” and get to know grandparents she never met.
  3. Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Candlewick Press) focuses on how the protagonist deals with his mother’s mental illness. After Jack’s mom abandons him, he works hard to find his way back home without notifying anyone who could potentially separate him from his mother.
  4. Nest by Esther Ehrlich (Yearling Books) portrays the impact of a mother’s severedepression and suicide on an entire family, specifically the protagonist, “Chirp.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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