By January 18, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Encouraging Middle-Schoolers to Choose Books

There’s been a lot of discussion among the librarians I know about what to do with middle-schoolers: they just don’t seem to read as much as they used to. I know that here in Chicago, we have a unique perspective on this situation, since our schools run K–8. In my former school system in Maryland and in North Carolina, where I did my field experience, middle school is grades six to eight, so no one really knew how many books the kids had read when they were in elementary, but here the change is obvious.

I would say that my sixth-graders still check out a whole lot of books. (The question of whether or not they are actually reading them is harder to answer.) But by seventh grade—oh, seventh grade—they start doing that middle-school-looking-for-books thing. (On a possibly related note, sometime between sixth and seventh grade, students at my school students switch from running to be first in line to hanging back to be at the end of it.) 

I’ve been having more conversations with my middle-schoolers this year about their reading habits and found that they have more homework and therefore less time to read for fun, as well as having trouble finding books they want to read. Very few middle- schoolers check out books when left to their own devices—in other words, when they’re not doing lessons about finding books. But on days when I have a lesson in which I put books in their hands and say, “Here, you must read,” at least half the class checks out. They tend to stick with their books, too: no one renews more frequently than my middle-schoolers. We do lessons on other things, obviously, but I try to make sure that, at least twice a quarter, I’m giving middle-schoolers the chance to actually put their hands on some books. (And by “give them a chance,” I mean, of course, that I make them.)

Among my favorite strategies to force books upon my middle-schoolers is book talks, consistently one of the best ways to get them interested in reading, as well as one of my favorite things to do. My best book talks involve books I’ve read. This certainly adds to the prep time, as does making sure we have enough copies of each title for all of the seventh- and eighth-grade classes. Some books make for consistently fabulous book talks, like Roland Smith’s Peak and N. H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul among them. Luckily, we have multiple copies of each because they made our state’s children’s choice award lists in years past.

I’m also a huge fan of Book Speed Dating. To do so, we move our chairs into a giant circle and, depending on the class,  I’ll seat the students within it or let themselves. I distribute clipboards and rating papers. I pass out the books I’ve pulled, the students write down the book’s title, author, and call number, and then it’s time to start reading. I set a timer for a few minutes (and for less and less time as they get the hang of the exercise), and when the timer goes off, they rate the book, either passing it along or putting it under their chair if they think they might want to check it out. I love that I can look around and see if books are finding readers just by glancing under chairs. Not every kid finds a book this way, but it increases their chances. Sometimes, they find books that become absolute favorites. (Several years ago, an eighth-grade boy compared Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun to Beyoncé: “It was love at first sight.” He ended up keeping it and rereading it all year long until he finally returned it the last week of school. Another eighth-grade boy asked me if I thought Sarah Darer Littman’s Backlash was a “girl book.” I asked him if he liked what he read, and when he answered enthusiastically, I said he’d answered his own question. It was only later that I told him I didn’t think there was any such thing as a girl book or boy book and we had a discussion about it.)

A humble storage bin

 

Some classes just can’t handle sitting in a circle. For those classes, there is the Book Pass, an exercise in which students pass bins of books from table to table; unlike Book Speed Dating, it gives them some choice about what to read. The bins contain a random assortment of different books that I think might suit them—after all, our library has books for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and it can be tricky for students to trawl through all of them to find something they might like. After students write down the book’s title, author, and shelf location, they read for about five minutes. (For some classes, it takes the first minute to focus.) When the timer goes off, they either put the book back in the bin or under their chair, then pass the bin onto the next table. (If I have a class that can handle it, I let them spread the books out on tables and rotate from table to table rather than passing the bins.) At least once a year, I like to genre-fy the bins, usually dividing the books between realistic and fantasy fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, classics, mystery, and recently, even a small bin of novels in verse. Before I let the kids dive in, I have them do a little writing about the genres they enjoy, then at the end, I ask them to reflect on the genres they enjoyed, and whether or not their answer surprised them. They answer yes often enough to make the question worthwhile. 

I’m always looking for more ways to get any kids excited about reading, but this is especially true for my middle-school students. What are the best ways that you’ve found to help get middle-school students excited about books?

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About the Author:

Gundry Rowe is a K-8 librarian at Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago, IL. She is National Board Certified in Library Media and has been working in children’s bookstores and libraries since she was 16. Although she prefers to balance reading kids' chapter books with books for adults, instead she finds herself reading Little Blue Truck for the 57,000th time to her two little boys.

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