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Middle School Reading – Raising the Bar

  • October 5, 2016
  • By Donielle
  • 0 Comments

When we started our Co-op program for our middleschoolers (seventh and eighth graders), which we call “Colloquium”, I was determined to prepare them for some challenging high school reading.  I had already taught

A solid foundation of continuing to challenge reading levels through the middle school years allows you to conquer the great works in the highschool years.

A solid foundation of continuing to challenge reading levels through the middle school years allows you to conquer the great works in the highschool years.

some highschool classes to my siblings and was disappointed in the amount we were able to cover, because I had not laid a foundation of requiring much advanced, old or challenging literature (made more difficult because I was not with them all day, enforcing the reading).  When starting our co-op in earnest, elevating it from an educational playgroup to a school activity worthy of one day of our busy week, we researched some successful programs.  I recommend attending Classical Conversations 3 day Parent Practicum.  It is free and there is quite a bit of good information on classical education theory presented.  I found my favorite things from every co-op and program and we researched and synthesized it into a custom fit for us.

In the upper elementary co-op years each month I required our students to read one biography, historical fiction or classic set in the time period we were

Joan of Arc is always a favorite historical figure with our students.

Joan of Arc is always a favorite historical figure with our students.

currently studying in history.  In addition, they had to present to the class on one of the books, four times per school year.  They had a lot of fun dressing as historical characters, creating a project or cooking a dish from their book, along with sharing the plot and favorite things about the character, or what they learned from the book.  These books typically being over one hundred pages, then later several hundred (though with picture book options for younger siblings, those who got frustrated keeping up, or for December and May, those super busy months) we paved the way for introducing books with archaic language and thought provoking phraseology.

Lest you think my children and our co-op colleagues are geniuses, let me tell you at the outset, this is not easy for most kids.  My math minded second born has struggled through some of this.  This required lots of “I will read a page to you, then you read a page to me” negotiations.  More difficult books that her peers read themselves, I read to her.  But, her

Before you commit to a challenging curriculum, make sure all of the co-op parents grasp your vision and are on board.

Before you commit to a challenging curriculum, make sure all of the co-op parents grasp your vision and are on board.

reading level continually improves as a result.  We have at least two co-op students who struggle with some learning challenges.  It requires encouragement, sometimes grace and lots of praise.  And maybe a few small rewards – stickers, erasers, groovy paper clips, clever bookmarks and what they really work for – chocolate.

So what do we read in Colloquium?  We try to start with one of the more difficult books, and get it out of the way early.  That way, everything else we do seems a little easier.  We started with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  We were studying the historical period from 30 AD to 1400 AD.  It was heavy stuff.  If my students were at all immature, I would have held off a few years on this one.  But I had three girls and a boy, in 7th and 8th grade, and they tackled it like the champs they are.  Lest you draw your breath in, in shock at the horrors I exposed them to, look around.  Christians are tortured and beheaded everyday in the middle East.  It is a very current topic.  We read up through the account of the martyrdom of John Huss and wrote about him using our essay lessons we were covering from Lost Tools of Writing.

Next we conquered St. Augustine’s Confessions.  Even I took awhile to get through this book.  But nothing we have read before or since has made

Shhh! Here is my secret. I let my students read good modern translations and even abridged versions, if needed.

Shhh! Here is my secret. I let my students read good modern translations and even abridged versions, if needed.

such an impact in the lives of my students than this book.  This is recommended reading for everyone!  I saw God use Augustine’s testimony to bring conviction and maturity to my class.  They wrote an on why Augustine titled his book “Confessions”.  We also wrote a paragraph in the style of Augustine:  taking an illustration from nature and ending in a psalm of praise.

The following month we lightened it up a bit with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I recommend the translation by Simon Armitage.  I always recommend middle school students read the modern translations and the abridged versions where better suited to the reading levels.

Rolf and the Viking Bow may be an unfamiliar title to you.  It is a more modern book, written in an old style.  It is a book of revenge and forgiveness, a coming of age story beautifully woven with a cast of colorful characters.  It gave my students an abundance of truth, beauty, and goodness to think and read about.

In January we tackled the epic Beowulf.  I highly recommend the Seamus Heaney translation.  This story captured the imagination of my middleschoolers, like it has so many generations before.  When I assigned them to take one of the books or a portion of a book we had read and write and illustrate a children’s book, my daughter chose Beowulf, carefully

Fluellen, with leek in hat, converses with Captain Gower.

Fluellen, with leek in hat, converses with Captain Gower.

painting fire-breathing dragons and treasure-filled caves.  It was probably my students’ favorite assignment of the year.

Next it was Shakespeare’s time to shine in Henry V.  They enjoyed acting out portions of the play for the rest of the co-op.  I still hear Fluellen quotes thrown around class.  We dug rather deeply into the character of Henry and compared him to what we know about the real life Henry.  We compared the characters of Henry V and Pistol to see whether we thought Shakespeare intended them to parallel each other.  Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays is a terrific guide to getting up close and personal with Shakespeare analysis.

Still dissecting Shakespeare, we enjoyed some comedy in As You Like It.  We acted out our favorite dialogues and wrote an essay on which couple in the play had what it takes to stay together.

Dante’s Divine Comedy was our next big classic.  We used The Divine Comedy, Teacher Guide by Memoria Press as a helpful guide.  We ended up concentrating on the Inferno due to time constraints.  This was the

I will let you know my other big secret to raising the bar on middle school reading: Take them to a coffee shop to discuss their reading. When they feel sophisticated and grown, they will aspire, by themselves, to mature discussion.

I will let you know my other big secret to raising the bar on middle school reading: Take them to a coffee shop to discuss their reading. When they feel sophisticated and grown, they will aspire, by themselves, to mature discussion.

biggest challenge for them to read and understand, so we took it a little slower.  Our big swan song essay for the year was on whether Dante should have wept for those in hell.  We are now using what we learned in the Inferno to compare it to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Crispin, Cross of Lead was a relaxing finish before summer break.  It is a modern historical fiction set in medieval times.  Instead of being assigned an essay, I used this as a final exam for writing.  They had one hour to write an essay on whether Crispin should have left behind his cross of lead.  It was a big challenge, but it taught my students much about themselves and their organizing and writing skills.

It is time to get excited about middle school!  Let’s raise the bar – you will get out of middleschoolers what you expect from them.

By Donielle, October 5, 2016
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