Teaching middle school English often feels like a juggling act. It’s hard to make time for everything that falls within the realm of “English” when I only have each group of students for 40-45 minutes most days. And it’s especially hard to make sure that students are reading independently when we have an ambitious list of novels to read and analyze together.
Every year, I struggle with how best to encourage and assess independent reading. I certainly understand the benefits of a curriculum in which students choose all of the books they read and read those books individually; I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration and ideas from Nancie Atwell’s materials, and this New York Times article from 2009 is great for sparking thoughts and discussions about the reading workshop model (I’ve actually read it with students in the past). But my school schedule, curriculum, and classroom aren’t really set up to have students choose all their own books. And as much as I want students to have time to explore books that excite them at their own pace, I also believe in the benefits of exploring great books as a class, and I feel much more confident in my teaching when we are reading a novel together.
So I juggle.
In addition to the books we read as a class and the writing assignments we work on, my students get independent reading time during class once a week. I try to spark their enthusiasm by telling them about books I’m reading, I recommend authors and series so if they like one book they might get hooked, and I set up online book discussion forums in which they can recommend books to each other (and sometimes I require them to post for a homework grade).
But still, I struggle to assess their independent reading and hold them accountable for it. They have so much going on outside of school, and so much work for other their classes. The ones who love to read make time to read (and certainly appreciate that I factor some in for them), but other students don’t seem to gain much momentum with the books they’re reading on their own. Some of them have been plugging away on the same book during independent reading time since the beginning of the year, and they aren’t making much progress.
One strategy that’s worked well for me, though, is a kind of compromise between whole-class and individual reading. If I can structure a unit so that I give students a list of related books and have them choose one and finish it by a given date, then I can give them choice while also holding them accountable. Last year, with the help of the wonderful middle school librarian at my school, I came up with a dystopian unit for eighth grade, which we began just after finishing Lord of the Flies. Yesterday, I introduced the dystopian unit to this year’s eighth graders.
We’ve talked about what a utopia is and how Lord of the Flies can be described as a dystopian novel, and now students have chosen books from a list of other dystopian novels. Because all of their book choices are linked by genre, we can explore similar elements and questions as a group; we can consider why the dystopian genre is currently so popular and what traits dystopian novels and stories share. They can write in response to common reflective prompts. We can all read dystopian short stories, including “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, and they can make connections to the books they are reading on their own. We can read articles that comment on the dystopian trend, like this one, about how Lois Lowry’s new book Son is different from the rest of the bunch, or this one, about whether contemporary YA fiction is too dark.
This unit comes with its own juggling—making sure students get one of the books they want, strategizing with some students about how they can finish their books in time while scrambling to find more choices for other students who are speeding through book after book, etc.—but last year it engaged students and gave them some choice, and I hope it will do the same this year.
In case you’re curious, here are the dystopian options for this year:
Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Carman, The House of Power
Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy
Condie, Matched and Crossed
Dashner, The Maze Runner series
Doctorow, Little Brother
DuPrau, City of Ember
Farmer, The House of the Scorpion
Goodman, The Other Side of the Island
Haddix, Among the Hidden
Huxley, Brave New World
Lowry, The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and Son
Lloyd, The Carbon Diaries
Mardsen, Tomorrow, When the War Began
Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go
Oliver, Delirium and Pandemonium
Pearson, The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Rosoff, How I Live Now
Roth, Divergent and Insurgent
Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
Westerfeld, The Uglies series