Middle school students are assigned readings all the time, but when given a choice (and not distracted by other forms of electronic media) what books do they want to read? What speaks to them; inspires them; entertains them? Barbara Truluck is a middle school counselor and recipient of 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year for Cobb County schools (the second largest school district in the state of Georgia). We asked her about the reading habits of today’s middle school students.
Middle Grade Mafia: How important is it for children to read books with characters that are similar to them in race, socioeconomic, religious backgrounds, etc?
Barbara Truluck: As a middle school counselor, I know the importance of students
developing a multicultural perspective in order to function in our diverse world. However, kids first need to understand who they are and develop their own self-identity which is a developmental skill. As children grow and change through adolescence they are continually learning their own personality, gaining knowledge of their own skills and abilities, and developing an awareness of their own physical attributes. Understanding who they are, their ethnic background, their values, and beliefs must be developed before they can look at their relationship to the world and more importantly create the person they want to be.
In the developmental theory of Erickson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion, adolescents must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, develop a sense of right and wrong, and find where they “fit in” socially. A strong sense of personal identity helps kids build their self-esteem, feel part of their culture and family, and build confidence in an overall sense of belonging. This is why, in my experience, both in the classroom and in school counseling, I see students gravitate to reading books about characters that are similar to themselves in race, socioeconomic, interests, and religious backgrounds. While children are in the developmental stage of self-identity, relating to characters like themselves help builds character and strengthen their own positive identity.
MGM: Many books explore some difficult topics like poverty and racism, etc. Do you find kids pick up these books on their own? Do you recommend them to kids who are experiencing similar problems?
BT: The adolescents I work with every day as a school counselor are for the most part interested in reading fantasy and fiction. They are not at the developmental age yet where books purely on social justice issues are their motivation to read. However, children have a keen awareness of fairness and differences from themselves. Current research suggests that when children are exposed to prejudice and racism they can unlearn any bias when exposed to diversity in a positive way. In today’s society, there are disagreements regarding what constitutes justice and which values are considered right and wrong. Today’s educators and children’s book authors need to be sensitive not to usurp parents prerogative and perspectives in shaping their children’s ethical beliefs, values, and morals.
MGM: What kind of books are kids in middle-school drawn to these days?
BT: The tween years are a time of turbulent change and character building. Let’s face it, in today’s fast-paced technology world, the majority of kid’s I see prefer social media outlets and the constant cell phone usage over reading. We have seen a drastic drop in reading Lexile scores with this generation. As educators, we are seeing that many students are so addicted to social media they cannot part with their cell phone long enough to pick-up a book to read. Middle schoolers are still moving through Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and become extremely egocentric and care more about the opinions of their peers than anyone else. Social media feeds that need.
When adolescents do read, they most often choose to read literature that mirrors themselves and their peers. They chose books created from the imagination like mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and uplifting stories that inspire them to dream. That is why kids like to escape when they read a story. Children like to envision themselves in-bedded in the story. During this time of self-centeredness, middle school students want to be inspired and yearn for positive story themes.
There is so much negativism in the world today when kids sit down to read a book they want to be inspired and uplifted. Kids love books where good wins over evil and the main characters resolve their issues in a positive manner.