The Bridge to Literary Engagement

by: Stephanie S. Luckett

How do we compete?

Fortnite. Snapchat. Juuls. These distractions are just a few of the many, many distractions that cause my middle schoolers as well as yours to check out of reading and check into apathy and disinterest. Once they huddled around their ABC rug attentively with their Kindergarten teacher waiting to hear Clifford’s next big adventure. Now, they only want to huddle around their phones to see what antic Logan Paul did today or cackling at the latest meme. How can I, a middle school teacher, even try to compete with this pop culture palooza?

Then, the elephant in the room- the profoundly real challenges my students face every day. Some ponder if their absent dad will show up to disrupt whatever stability they’ve managed to build in his absence to what, if anything, they will have for for dinner - and hope something is in the food backpack the school sends home.

Yet, our content is abundant with richly told narratives that can help our students understand the world and themselves. I have discovered a couple of tools that will help get our distracted middle schoolers to see the relevance of school.

The power of choice

Wait for it. It is revolutionary. Choice. I know, right? Choice. Let it sink in for a moment. Sounds simple, but sometimes simple can be complicated. Isn’t it human nature to want to do something when it is our choice?! Well, of course, it is. We check in to choice and check out of coercion. I decided to give my students choice in what they read.

But, wait, I know your next question. How could I possibly give over 100 students choice? Who has that kind of classroom or school library? Well, I certainly don’t. But, I did have access to multiple copies of a few novels as well as free PDFs and some books checked out from my local, public library. These resources helped me transform my school’s multipurpose room into The Book Tasting Cafe with red checked tablecloths, candles, platters, and a cracking fire on the Proxima. Students “tasted” each of eight books while commenting on the novels on their “menus.”

At the end of the book tasting, students ranked the novels, and gratefully, I was able to give the majority of the students their first choice, with only, a few receiving their second choice. All of these novels had a common theme and tied into the unit’s essential question, “When is it right to take a stand?” Fitting as I felt that I, too, was taking a stand-a stand in my students being active global, literary citizens instead of passive learners.

I used the following novels: A Child Called It, Forged by Fire, Darkness Before Dawn, Speak, Hoops, That was Then, This is Now, Stargirl, and Watson’s Go to Birmingham.

At the end of the book tasting, my students completed a reflection that helped them to gain momentum for this reading endeavor. This nerdy teacher loved reading the feedback. Undoubtedly, many students commented that they loved picking a novel instead of me picking one for the entire class. With our little book horderves, they couldn’t wait to get their novels in hand the next day and dive into their books.

Speaking their language

Technology. Our students love to post their selfies, their new shoes, their food, so if you can’t beat them, join them. I used Google Plus Communities. After some help from my amazing school tech department, I set up a Google Plus Community for each book with all the privacy settings turn on. The only people who could see our posts were the few students reading that particular novel and me.

Every other day we completed our digital discussions; each time beginning with a post from me that was driven by our selected standards for the unit. The requirements were that each student had to comment under my post as well as comment on another student’s post.

My students became active citizens in their learning and in our classroom. The community building and collaboration was an unexpected surprise in this process. Since the Communities went beyond their actual class, they jumped on at home and random times throughout the day to see what others were posting. I would often hear, “I hadn’t thought about it like that.” These comments iced the literary cake for this teacher, and their active learning and listening the cherry and sprinkles on top.

Here are some of my posts to begin our digital discussions:

  • I wish that (name of character) would................................
  • I worry that .....................................................
  • I noticed..................
  • I was surprised that ..........................
  • I hope that .......................
  • The author might mean .........................
  • What does my main character want? In other words, what is their story goal? Who or what opposes my main character as they work to achieve their goal?
  • What's this book's greatest strength? That is, what made it good?
  • It's biggest weakness? That is, what made it not so good?
  • Internal conflicts build narrative. Internal conflicts are the mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles a person faces basically character vs. self. EXPLAIN an internal conflict that one of your characters is grappling with in your novel.
  • How has (character name) changed from the beginning of the book until now? And, what caused that change in him?

Lessons learned

Not everything went smoothly the first time. We had to have a discussion about quality comments. Students had to learn to avoid comments like, “Good,” “I agree,” or, “great post.” During class as students were posting, I was also online. In the evenings per true teenage mentality, they would jump on, so I checked our Communities then as well to keep the conversation going and maintain appropriate content if necessary.

Keeping the wheels of change turning, I did have to monitor their posts. As students would comment, I would offer a nugget of knowledge or deliberate discernment that would continue the deeper thinking or connections as well as model comments for my students who needed the scaffolding of the posts.

For example: I loved how you explained how the character …………………………….

  • I couldn’t believe that (the character) ……………………………………..

  • I really hadn’t thought about seeing it that way. It made me see ………………………….

  • Love how you ………………………………..

  • You know I felt the same way when ………………………………

  • What do you think will happen next ……………………………………..

What did I notice? Stuff that really revs the engines of teachers. The students who commented with voracious appetites were not the students who typically engaged in our classroom discussions. And, students who typically want to pull their hoodies over the heads were joining in, too.

The details

We completed eight digital discussions which means we divided each novel into eight sections. Three of my classes participated. So, each of the eight Google Communities had students from different classes which made for more literary diversity. My students who were absent still joined in the discussion as we are a one to one district. Digital discussions were technically assigned every other day, but students often chimed in more than the requirement.

Student comments

Justin: “I haven’t read a book in three years.”

Adrianne: “I finished last night. Do you have the next book?”

Elizabeth: “I read the whole book in two days.”

Dionte “This book is pretty good.”

Emily: “I know I wasn’t here, but I still posted in our group.”

Kayle: “This (Google Plus Community format) looks like Pinterest.”

Student testimonials


Well, it is middle school, but you know what really surprised me about this project? I had 85 students in eight novel with eight Google communities, and I only had to delete a four posts. So, that’s 680 posts, and only four deletions. Statistically a success in the land of puberty.

Ultimately, I had to turn these discussions into some grade for accountability. The more we posted, it did get a little difficult to juggle especially when the flu blew through school. Using the Infinite Campus blank roster, I documented when each student posted underneath my post and commented on another student’s on that particular date. Next time, I might assign extra credits to students who posted above and beyond the requirement.

Will I do this project again? YES, I WILL. I loved it! It removed me as the giver of knowledge, and it put us all on an equal playing field where we connected and related through the characters of these novels. Choice and technology helped make students stakeholders in their own education.

About the author

Stephanie S. Luckett currently teaches 8th grade language arts at Owensboro Middle School in Owensboro, KY. She is a member of the Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions, as well as a National Board Certified Teacher. She earned her middle grades education degree from Kentucky Wesleyan College and received her Master’s and gifted education certification from Western Kentucky University. She has spent 25 years in the middle school classroom. Besides her love of middle schoolers, she loves to spend time especially traveling with her husband, Mark, and their three children.
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