Nurturing Middle Grade Students’ Reading Lives

Nurturing Middle Grade Students’ Reading Lives

by Carla España, The Educator Collaborative Fellow

Register to watch Carla España and Shawna Coppola’s 2018-2019 Study Series Session, “Teach Writing with Energy, Intention and Joy,” on-demand through June 30, 2019.




Nurturing Middle Grade Students’ Reading Lives

“One of our goals this summer is to create a personalized reading list,” I announced to my 8th grade students the first week of our summer program, in 2018. I explained how I would help them reflect on their reading lives and find titles, authors, genres and places to access books. “You mean these we can read books that aren’t assigned?” was a common question I got throughout the day. “Do graphic novels count?” was another heartbreaking question I heard. Although I had set up graphic novels, historical fiction books, realistic fiction texts like Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson that we read together, and informational texts on window sills and around the room, students were still shocked. The excitement in the room once I explained this project could only be matched by the enthusiasm I saw and heard three other times during this summer: during world cup match days; making collages on our second to last day of class with their goals for 8th grade and life; and applauding for their classmates when they acted out scenes from the book, shared poetry, and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during our end of summer program celebration. In other words, creating their own reading lists was up there as a highlight of our time together.

Summer Program classroom setup for the day when seventh and eighth graders were together. Different book options shared on tables, windowsills and websites.
Books displayed at the entrance of the classroom.  Students borrowed to read for themselves and/or read to siblings and other family members.


Our Identities

About ten years ago, in a class with in-service teachers, I was assigned the following by my professor, Dr. Yvonne De Gaetano, who is now my mentor for life: think of the groups you belong to, the way you self-identify, interests, and pick one to introduce yourself to the rest of the class. I introduced this activity to my students, this time asking them to pick one of those identities that matters a lot to them now, write a bit more about it, and share it with one other person in the class. This helped me get to know the students and often returned to their notebooks to make book recommendations, ask questions, and connect with them on several levels. I learned memes were a big deal for a lot of them and so designed a whole mini-lecture on master narrative and counter narrative with memes. It was a hit and the day they took the most notes so lesson learned! I also learned that the student who created this representation of their identities pictured here, is an “aspiring civil rights activist!” With this student I shared text sets that included John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March trilogy (had my signed copy in the class to show them so that was exciting). Students followed up their circles of identities with notebook pages on characters from Piecing Me Together. Pictured below is one student’s work at the beginning of the summer as she is getting to know Jade, the narrator of our shared class text. To the right is an illustration of Jade that the same student created for our end of summer celebration. This kind of activity where we thought through our own identities and those of characters we were getting to know in our book was helpful for self analysis, character analysis and informed our discussions on intersectionality that followed on the second week of our program.

Reflecting on Our Textual Lineages

This kind of work has been instrumental across my school visits for years and besides thanking my mentor mentioned above, I must give shout outs to Alfred Tatum and Mary Ehrenworth. It was Mary who recommended Tatum’s Reading for their Life: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males back in 2012 when I first started supporting schools with their literacy teaching. This summer, we asked all seventh and eighth graders to share with us their responses to the following questions we asked (using google form):


  1. Do you have a New York Public Library Card?
  2. What is your favorite book?
  3. Who is your favorite author?
  4. What genre or topics would you be interested in reading more about this summer or later in the school year?
  5. Rate your relationship to reading (on a scale from 1 to 5)
  6. Rate your relationship to writing (on a scale from 1 to 5)
  7. What is your favorite type of writing?
  8. What would you like us (Dr. España and Mr. ___) to know about your reading and writing life? Write any comments or questions here. Examples: 1. “I love the book (insert title here). Can you recommend others like this one?” 2.”I love the author (insert author name here). Can you recommend other authors like this one?”  3. “I worry about my reading when I (insert challenge here). What are some tips you can give me?” 4. “I really don’t enjoy (insert something about reading or writing here) but I am happiest when I (insert activity or subject that you feel great in).”


We noticed how fantasy, historical fiction and realistic fiction were common genres that students enjoyed reading. For writing, essays were the least favorite. Writing poetry was shared by many as something they enjoy. “I really like reading poetry, fiction, and realistic fiction. I like reading about real world problems and about struggles that people go through,” wrote one student. Another student shared, “I enjoy writing poetry about my life and others.” Although I will not be teaching the students during the academic year, this is really important information for teachers to have for their planning. This is helping all of us reflect on the lengths of reading and writing units, selections of whole class texts, and book club sets that students can read and discuss in community. The latest update is that the middle grade students will be reading the following in book clubs this upcoming year:


6th Grade 7th/8th Grade
Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

Flying Lessons and Other Stories ed. by Ellen Oh

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston


I hope to visit and/or get updates from this community of readers as they engage these texts!


Creating Personalized Reading Lists & Visiting Our School Library

The third step in this process was creating our personalized reading list. I shared an example of my reading list for the next two months. My partner is finishing up Children of Blood and Bone and I have several teacher friends planning to read it next month (including colleagues from this school). Where did this list and interest arise? I told students how I went to see an opera on The Parable of the Sower by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, and how this experience was so moving that I knew I had to return to the text, one I don’t remember reading in full length in any of my schooling. I also told them how I would see Kindred by Octavia Butler in schools I visited in Brooklyn, Harlem, the South Bronx, so much so that I knew I had to read it when so many ninth graders and teachers were recommending it. I walked them through my plan that included my rationale with my interest on this author/genre/topic, texts, reading plan, and community I would engage with during this time to discuss the texts. Also, this is my not no subtle invitation for you, reader, to join me if you’d like! I showed them the following in my presentation, shared helpful websites and we visited the school library where some students walked around looking for texts while others sat at computers to search for texts.

This is the start of a process I hope to continue and contribute to during the rest of the year, writing letters to students with more text recommendations and reminders to visit their local libraries and independent bookstores. My original idea was to write these just in time for the last day of summer program and hand them as gifts to the students but that teacher life running out of time issue is real! For now, I’m thrilled that students saw some examples, started their own lists, and were affirmed in their interests from genres to authors and graphic novels. I’m hopeful as a group of students looked around their school library and shared ideas on how they would like to help make it their own. “That could be our legacy!” said one student, as they came up with ideas to organize books, set up book recommendation areas and descriptions of author of the month. I’m also hopeful because there is a staff at the school that believes in nurturing students’ reading lives and reflecting on assigned texts, creating more diverse book lists for their Language Arts department, and listening to the students as well as the issues in their lives.