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Middle School Monday: Reading in Class. Minus the Worksheet or Report. Just, you know, READING. By Julie Stivers

MSM1Disclosure: I love writing. I love when students write. One of the goals for my library this year is helping to integrate more creative writing opportunities into multiple classrooms. Not for a grade or to tick off a curriculum line, but for the incredible social and emotional benefits of encouraging student expression.

But, here’s the thing. I think sometimes we get in a trap of always linking reading and writing. After a student reads a chapter or a book, we (as educators) want them to write about it: complete a worksheet, a summary, or (horror) a report. This makes me uncomfortable as it can be at odds with developing a love of reading.

Imagine the last book you read. What if when you finished it, you had to write a report on it or complete some plot and theme worksheets? Hmmm. Would that make you want to pick up another book?

It was these thoughts, plus the abundance of great World War II MG and YA fiction and narrative non-fiction that led to one of my favorite collaborations last year: the 7th grade WWII Historical Fiction Choice + Expert Project.

WHAT do I mean by Choice and Expert?

Our goal was for students to dive deeply into one aspect of WWIIspecifically, a topic that interested them. We introduced this project just as they were about to begin their WWII study and we were hoping that as elements of this wide-reaching and global unit appeared, students would feel empowered by already knowing interesting information from their chosen title.

To generate interest in the project introduction, I showed a series of trailers and historical footage to tie into available titles. [If you’ve clicked through to the link, several of the images and titles are hyperlinked.]

Giving students choice doesn’t make any sense if the options they have to choose from are not wide. I worked to have different formats, lengths, and main characters representing different communities. I was not as successful as I would’ve liked to be at this. (See below for an example…which has a happy ending!)

In addition to giving students choice in which book they chose, they also had complete power in how they chose to show us what they had learned. Their choices included:


  • Set up a time to come talk to Ms. Stivers in the library.
  • Write an imaginary text conversation between two of the characters.
  • Write a Top Ten List related to the book.  [Top Ten Reasons I Liked This Book, Top Ten Scenes, Top Ten Bloodiest / Scariest / Unbelievable Moments, etc.]
  • Draw a picture based on the book.
  • Think of three questions you’d like to ask the author.  We’ll try to connect with the author via Twitter to ask those questions!
  • What’s your idea??

They didn’t need to decide on their product until AFTER they had read the book. The response was overwhelmingly positive when they saw how the project would end. Our great 7th Grade Social Studies Teacher gave students time each week to READ and, just as importantly, gave students TIME to finish. The end date became fluid as the project progressed.

What did most students choose? Over 90% came to talk to me in the library about these titles and I loved hearing their impressions of the book. Two wrote book reviewswhich I uploaded to the library website. Several drew pictures whichjust like the book reviewsI shared with authors if they were on Twitter. [Sidebar: I love Twitter. Deeply. For bringing the world IN and sharing our students’ talents, work, and brilliance OUT to the world.] One of our students read Unbroken, never having read a book half as long. His teacher and I were so proud of him that we gave him the copy to keep.

The Happy Ending. Which Starts Out Disappointing.

41MpOzu9H-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I liked my list of WWII books. Didn’t love it. One of its glaring flaws is that we had no authentic historical fiction on the Tuskegee Airman. I am thrilled that our library has TWO new titles on the Red Tails to share and booktalk with students this year and also include in this project.

American Ace by Marilyn Nelson (2015) is a powerful and engaging title, written by the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman!

Below is SLJ’s review from December 1, 2015.

Gr 8 Up-When she dies, Nonna Lucia leaves a letter to Connor’s father, her oldest son, which reveals that he is not the biological son of her husband but rather of an American who died during World War II. It is as if Connor’s father has lost himself as well as his beloved mother; he is devastated. The confusion and questions emerging from the discovery propel Connor to explore who this mysterious grandfather might have been. It emerges that he was one of the storied, heroic Tuskegee Airmen. Through 45 poems in Connor’s voice, Nelson considers such matters as identity, heredity, nurture, race, and family. Connor and his father, who is teaching him to drive, have ample opportunity to probe tentatively and delicately into their feelings about such things while they’re on the road. Connor’s research takes on urgency after his father suffers a stroke, and his gradual recovery is deftly linked to Connor’s increasing pride about their newfound heritage. VERDICT Nelson packs a good deal into these verses, and though the subject matter is weighty, she leavens it with humor and deep family affection.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Library, NY

When I introduce this title to students, I will actually begin with the illuminating author’s note titled:

How this Book Came to Be,

And Why an Older African American Woman

Ended up Writing as a Young White Man

you-can-fly-9781481449380_hrThis fascinating and informative note could lead to some interesting and powerful discussion with students. [BTW, I would feel perfectly comfortable using this book with seventh graders.]

Amazingly enough, the second Red Tails books is ALSO a novel-in-verse. You Can Fly by Carole Brown Weatherford (2016) is another beautiful title and impossible to read without thinking of the myriad ways to use with students!

Below is SLJ’s review from February 1, 2016.

Gr 5 Up-This distinctive collection of verses lets readers journey with the African American men who dreamed of flying despite racist attitudes. Through 33 poems, readers will travel beside these determined men as they become pilots and fight not only the Nazis, but prejudice as well. For those who have never studied this time period, this book sheds light on the Tuskegee Airmen through stories filled with authentic voices and hard truths. For those who already know of the Airmen’s accomplishments, the book offers a more personal connection to the men and their ideas and feelings through poems such as “Operation Prove Them Wrong” and “No Hero’s Welcome,” which demonstrate that despite their proven skill and heroism, the aviators were still denied acceptance and respect. Scratchboard illustrations by the author’s son bring the subject to life. VERDICT A unique and very readable addition to supplement black history and World War II collections.-Laura Fields Eason, Parker Bennett Curry Elementary School, Bowling Green, KY

I also love that this slim novel has a powerful epilogue, a helpful timeline, and a great list of additional resources. If you’re reading the above and thinkingthis would make a perfect 7th or 8th grade Social Studies (whole) Class Text, I like the way you think! It would also be interesting to pair specific poems to additional texts, for example Private Joe Louis (page 28) with Matt de la Peña’s A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (2013).

Welp. This post was too longI’ll stop talking! I would love to hear about the WWII collaborations or historical fiction lessons you have done! The more we SHARE with each other, the more we can DO each year in our own libraries.

Have a great week!

Julie Stivers


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