The Joys of Middle School

So this year I started a new job (I would like to write an entire post about recent life transitions, but given how sporadically I post to begin with, I can’t make any promises).  I’m working at a school spanning grades PreK-12, and, among other firsts, it is my first time teaching formal classes to middle school students.

There are both joys and growing pains that come with this experience.  There are certainly those students in these middle grades who test my patience, get on my last nerve, and are the source of my gray hair.  But there are also the amazing, insightful, kind, hardworking, and super-smart ones, who make me wish I ONLY had middle school students.

One of the challenges for me is teaching all of the important library skills (research, evaluating sources, citations, etc.), while also promoting a love of reading.  If it were up to me we would spend every library class talking about books, looking for books to check out, and reading.  But libraries are about more than books (don’t get me wrong-I love this aspect of my job as well!  I think it’s both important and interesting, and I love teaching those skills, and seeing students go through the whole process or completing a project, from initial brainstorming to final product).  As a result, it can be difficult to find a balance between the projects and the book promotion/checkout.

Initially, I was planning to allow 10-15 minutes for browsing and checkout for middle school, just as I do for my elementary school classes.  It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to work, though, as there were a number of students in each group that refused to check out books, and used that time to chat/fool around/cause chaos.  Then, I stopped doing any type of in-class checkout for middle school; middle school students can use the library during lunch and break, so I told myself that if they really wanted to check out books they could do it on their own time.

But this didn’t make me happy-I felt as if I wasn’t truly doing my job to the best of my ability, because I do still want to promote reading and give kids the opportunity to browse and find books they’ll love-there’s no point in having a library full of books if no one is reading them!  So I thought there had to be a better way to find a balance, and I decided to start small, though there are a couple of really great ideas that I’m working up to.

I see each middle school class twice during each cycle, so I decided that on one of these days, the last 10 minutes would be reserved for an activity called “What Are You Reading Now?”  I had a couple of goals for this short time period: quickly booktalk whatever I’m currently reading, to show students that I have a reading life too; highlight some library books we have from a particular category/genre/theme to make students more aware of what the library has to offer; and have students briefly share what they’re reading, so students can get recommendations, learn about new things, and see reading as somewhat social.

I decided to “pilot” this with my sixth graders, because they’re overall a really great group, and I thought they would be most receptive and responsive to it.  Even still, I thought they might take some coaxing, so I was planning to do my booktalk and then see if there were MAYBE a few kind souls who would volunteer.  Well, before the words were even completely out of my mouth, hands shot up in the air.  Students were incredibly enthusiastic about sharing what they were reading.  Almost every single student wanted to talk about their book choices, and they were reading an incredible variety of stuff, from Rick Riordan to the physics of roller coasters.  I had a similar reaction from my second group of sixth graders, to the point where we ran out of time before everyone who wanted a chance to share got to speak.  It was great to see them all so excited about reading, but I didn’t get very many checkouts.

I then expanded this to the fifth grade class.  Several of them shared what they were reading, and then I booktalked THE IRON TRIAL by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.  I left them with a cliffhanger, of course, and all of a sudden everyone was clamoring to check out books.  We only have one copy of the book, so there were a couple disappointed kids, but several put holds on it, and the boy who did check it out asked me to put a hold on THE COPPER GAUNTLET as soon as I get it (it’s on order right now).  But then.  My favorite thing happened.  A girl asked for other fantasy recommendations while she waited, and I got to introduce her to another great fantasy series, DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE.  And then, after the class was dismissed, a boy CAME BACK IN AND ASKED IF I WOULD RECOMMEND A BOOK FOR HIM.  I was so excited!  He wanted a fantasy book with a lot of action, and he really likes THE YOUNG ELITES, so I hooked him up with GRACELING.  I definitely still had the boys who would rather sit off to the side and do nothing, but all but 3 students checked something out.

It hasn’t been perfect, of course.  I tried it in seventh grade and only had two students willing to share, and I haven’t been able to try it with the eighth graders yet.  I’m hopeful that once it starts happening consistently, I’ll see students more excited about reading for pleasure, along with the added bonus of increased circulation.

This is just laying the groundwork for some of my other ideas, including book speed dating, genre of the month displays, and free reading Fridays.  Unfortunately, the YA section of the library is a bit underdeveloped (probably because middle and upper school students don’t check out a ton), so I’m waiting for some book orders to come in so I have the books necessary to support these endeavors.

Anyway, to make a VERY long story short, I have loved getting to know the middle schoolers, as students and as readers, and seeing them enthusiastic about reading and eager to check out books is one of the many joys of my job.  (I bet you were expecting a sarcastic post after reading that title, weren’t you?  FOOLED YOU!)

I hope that I’ll be able to provide more updates on life in the library soon.  Until then, happy reading!