I’m very much a creature of habit, but when it comes to my classroom and the texts we read, I’m always looking for new material. One major change that my school corporation has implemented over the last several years was a push to have a more standardized curriculum; that means that, for example, all 8th grade English classes are reading the same texts during the same units at (relatively) the same time. This is all being done using the Rigorous Curriculum Design (RCD) format. From a planning perspective, this has been pretty nice—we get to collaborate and share ideas about what’s worked and what hasn’t. We get to pool our resources in terms of tests, quizzes, discussion questions, etc. On the surface, it seems like a pretty good idea.
…but there’s still something about it that bothers me. As I mentioned, I’m always looking for interesting content to share with my students, whether that’s a novel or just an article I think they’ll get into. We have three middle schools in our district, and the demographics at each school couldn’t possibly be any different. One school has a much more affluent population, while the other has a much more diverse and lower SES population. Scribner (my school) is somewhere in the middle. Therefore, what I think my students might be interested in isn’t necessarily what kids at another school will be interested in.
And then there’s the unspoken “claim” that certain grade levels always have on certain texts. It seems that freshmen always read Romeo and Juliet, and juniors always read The Great Gatsby, and so on. But as anyone who knows me well can guess, I don’t do well with following tradition just for the sake of following tradition. For that reason, I wanted to share some of the texts that we are reading now at the 8th grade level but also talk about why I choose (mostly for my Honors English class) to read things that may very well be above their “level.”
- Freak the Mighty — theme, figurative language (1st quarter)
This is probably the novel I have the most difficulty with in terms of interest level. This year was especially difficult because it was our first year using it, yet almost half of my students had already read it in earlier classes during 5th, 6th, or 7th grade. To me, that was a red flag that there are probably more rigorous texts we could’ve chosen. The novel actually went over well with the students, but I’d really like to find something more interesting to read. We start the year by discussion theme and figurative language, and there are several other books I think would be a better choice for this (namely, A Raisin in the Sun, which my block remediation and Honors classes read this year).
- Tears of a Tiger — elements of plot, narrative techniques, etc. (2nd quarter)
Tears of a Tiger isn’t the most difficult or challenging text, but the kids love it. It’s told in a multi-genre format (a mixture of letters, conversations, newspaper clippings, etc.), which is interesting for the kids because it’s not what they’d expect. It presents the story of teenager Andy, whose friend got killed in a drunk driving accident—and Andy was responsible. The rest chronicles his downward spiral into depression, the difficulty of coping with the loss of his friend, and how those struggles are affecting the other relationships in his life.
- Unwind — argument, supporting a text with evidence (3rd quarter)
I’ll admit. I was really leery of using this novel in class before reading it. All I knew was that I’d heard it was about abortion (it’s really not) and that it sounded like a parent phone call nightmare waiting to happen. But I was SO wrong! Yes, that is a topic related to the book, but that’s not what it’s about, if that makes sense. All you really need to know if you haven’t read it is that it was one of those books that the kids begged to keep reading during class. It’s told from a variety of characters’ perspectives (kind of like Game of Thrones), which keeps you on the edge of your reading seat throughout the book.
- I Have Lived a Thousand Years — heritage/traditions of author, nonfiction, theme/central idea (4th quarter)
I’m a bit biased toward this book because I’m a WWII/history nerd, but I Have Lived a Thousand Years is one of the better YA books I’ve read about the Holocaust. It gives enough background on life before concentration camps to create a foundation of the context of the war, yet it’s paced well enough (mostly due to the main character’s horrific frequent transfers between camps) that it doesn’t feel redundant. Elli, the author/main character, is 13 years old, so the students really relate to a lot of her inner struggles.
- Julius Caesar — theme, figurative language (1st quarter)
This is actually one of the changes I’m making this year after doing some serious reflecting (and complaining) last year. We tried reading Freak the Mighty with my Honors class, but it honestly was just not rigorous enough for honors students. SO, I’m going rogue this year and going back to Caesar since I had to cut it out this year. I’ve actually done this play in the past while we’ve studied argument and rhetoric, but I think it will still work well in our unit about theme and figurative language. I’ll probably still work in some argument elements (ethos, pathos, logos—I have a really killer assignment that requires the kids to analyze the funeral speech), so we’ll see how this experiment goes.
- Frankenstein — elements of plot, narrative techniques, etc. (2nd quarter)
Frankenstein is always the novel that I separates the weak from the strong… well, not really, but it definitely shows me who my avid readers are. This is one of the books I’ve caught some flack for using because it really is just plain challenging in terms of vocabulary for 8th graders. I always tell them, though, that if they can make it through those first four letters that the rest will be cake. Once they get through the initial shock about the vocabulary, they actually really get into the story. We’ve had some awesome conversations about topics like responsibility, the roles of religion/science, etc. Plus, it’s just a really great, spooky story to use around Halloween!
- Animal Farm — argument, supporting a text with evidence (3rd quarter)
I love this book; there’s no getting around it. I love Orwell, I love dystopian literature, I love history (Russian revolution). Every year, our final culminating “project” for this novel is holding a Socratic Seminar. We spend at least a week preparing for it—the kids put together a notebook full of journals, quotes/explanations, etc.—and they answer two essential questions: How does human nature undermine our desire for peace, equality, and justice? and How does the desire for power corrupt humans’ desire for social ideals? We spend two days debating those questions as well as others that the students come up with. I always love seeing what unique contributions the kids will make, and every year I’m so pleasantly surprised.
- A Raisin in the Sun — heritage/traditions of author, nonfiction, theme/central idea
This is another one that I might get flack over, but a) I love plays, and b) this play has become more and more timely and socially appropriate for my students. I actually read this one with my remediation class, too; despite the fact that they were struggling readers, they powered through this play with so much enthusiasm. They loved the characters—they identified with the characters. Both of my classes brought such interesting perspectives to the table while reading this. This was also one that we had a number of conversations relating to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s newest album To Pimp a Butterfly. If you haven’t listened to it yet and have also read this play, you should really take the time to do so. The parallels are unbelievable.