Shifting our Middle School Reading List to Include Authentic Voices

British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.

One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.

This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:

Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.

Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.

The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.

The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.

With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.

Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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