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Getting the Cold Hard Middle School Truth

By Julie Scullen
 | Jun 15, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-78635418_x300Gosh, I love middle-schoolers. They are so. . .honest. Unquestionably honest.

Last month I asked our middle-school students some very informal questions about their classroom and out-of-school reading. These kiddos were enrolled in a full-year reading intervention course for students not yet reaching grade-level reading goals. We wanted to use their responses to plan and prepare for the coming year. The teachers and I braced ourselves for the answers these highly honest adolescents would provide. 

What I found out had me laughing—through tears.

Finding research to support increasing student achievement in literacy by encouraging independent reading is not difficult. We know choice is important, we know making reading social is crucial to today’s kids, and we know making reading meaningful and authentic is vital to keeping them engaged. Seeing that our students prove our theories and research to be true is always gratifying.

Our students advised us that the best place to find out about good books is to ask another student. Proof that for students, reading is social. They told us that they usually choose their next book on the basis of their favorite authors or the next book in a series. Unfortunately, “teacher suggestion” ranked almost equally with “chosen randomly from the shelf”. 

I asked, “How can your teachers make reading more interesting and fun in the classroom? How can they make it something you want to do?” Some of my favorite responses were the most honest. Note that I kept their initial spelling and grammar intact, as it adds to the authenticity. They are quite revealing. 

I don’t know, but the teachers could try and work some stuff into the lesson that kids like.  (If they only knew how hard we try to do just that!)

Just give me good book about fallen angels and stuff like that or a book that people die in.

Talk about sports. (This would create a very narrow curriculum, but we’ll consider it.)

Let you read whatever you won’t. (I’m pretty sure this youngster meant whatever you want.)

Don’t force a kid to read things they don’t want let them pick. (Also, don’t make them eat green vegetables or go to the dentist, right? But we get the point.)

Give us more books to choose from. (Oh, my! How many of your teachers frequent used bookstores, book clubs, and garage sales looking for new selections? If it were up to us, every classroom would have new books to choose on the shelves every week.)

There were many responses from students who wanted us to know they aspired to improve their world, and they wanted to read about genuine issues:

If we read an article have it be a powerful one that people should care about, and if it’s a normal book then books that get your attention right away. I want to read about something I really care about.

Many responses were reflective of current emphasis on testing:

Let us just read instead of analyzing paragraphs!

Actually let us independent read cause we don’t do that a lot

Let me read and let me injoy the book and NOT think about how I fell(This darling student likely meant, “think about how I FEEL”.  He has a few spelling needs.)

Then there were of course those few students who were hoping for sweeping change:

Don’t look to see if I’m really reading.

Give candy and don’t talk to us. Also, let us sit wherever we want.

These connections with kids prove to me yet again that our future generations are savvy, smart, and want to make our world a better place.

Overall, it should be noted I could easily separate their answers into categories.

  1. Give us a choice.
  2. Let us talk.
  3. Don’t give us worksheets.

Your advice is noted, middle-schoolers. See you next fall!

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.



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  1. Maggi | Jun 23, 2016
    Giving kids a chance to share about what theyare reading not only empowers them but lets other kids know what they are reading and that they really are reading. Maggi 6/23/16
  2. Hillary | Jun 21, 2016
    This article is so true and brilliantly captures the essence of how middle schoolers view reading (and the world), especially boys. I love how it opens up people to believe that kids this age, boys included, will read for pleasure if the conditions are right. When I taught middle school literacy, I discovered 10 essential, what I call "Building Blocks," that needed to be firmly in place before boys (and some girls) would even consider reading for pleasure. Believing they will read is #1 on the list and appreciating what they read, where they like to read and how they sit when they read is #6. And it doesn't matter whether they attend middle school in Minnesota or West Philadelphia. 

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