Fanning the Flames: Building Connections and Strengthening Reader Identity (Part 2 of 2)

“Middle school reading was so much fun and refreshing. It opened my mind to new enjoyable genres and I always had a book in my hand. I loved learning what a book can do and where you can go while reading.” - Juliana

With literature circles as the springboard, my classroom’s reading culture has become centered around great books, read alouds, and deep dialogue that inspires students to connect texts to their own lives, other texts, and the world around them — even (and especially) during what has been one of the most difficult school years. 

“It hasn’t been the same in the pandemic because not everyone is in-person, but it’s still more exciting reading together because we get to hear different reactions from each person and see the (Zoom) chat.” -Manuel

While the pandemic limited our ability to enact literature circles this year, our reading routines and read alouds were even more essential for sparking engagement and comprehension. Students loved utilizing the virtual chat room, and in-person students requested to join the Zoom when we read so they could discuss with their remote classmates. Below, 6th grade students react in real time to a defining moment in The Lions of Little Rock (and one makes a pivotal realization that girls brush their hair!). 


“It’s very important to relate to a character in a book because you could understand the book on a deeper level and you could grow a strong bond and love for these characters that the authors provide you with.” -Tanya

Building connections to, between, and beyond texts is a critical part of igniting the literacy fire. Tanya pointed out how important it is for her to make text-to-self connections by relating to characters and the bond that’s formed as a result. Another student reflected that she thinks “it's important to relate to characters in books, but to also have differences because it's also important to see different perspectives on certain subjects.”

“We like interacting with each other and comparing our books. It's important to interact and compare books because we need to have a sort of communication about how we feel about the book and it's details.” -Mauricio

As students expand their reading repertoire throughout the year and over multiple years, text-to-text connections become a natural part of our discussions. "Sounds like we've got a Meg 2.0," a 6th grade student remarked as we read The Lions of Little Rock, comparing the protagonist, Marlee, to Meg from A Wrinkle In Time. In 7th grade, a student said, “This is total Maniac vibes," likening the character Mullet Fingers from Hoot to the legendary Maniac Magee, who we read about the previous year. 

“While reading, I thought about all the real life world issues going on.” -Marcia, 8th grade

Creating safe spaces with routines and expectations that are modeled and practiced make literary and scholarly discussions amongst students not just possible, but engaging, fruitful, and a prime space for students to begin making text-to-world connections. After reading Dear Martin and To Kill a Mockingbird with 8th graders, both of which examine racial injustice, students mentioned that “looking at social media and the news, we were reflecting on how it could relate to the book.” Another student added “in Dear Martin, I connected the plot to what happened with George Floyd and was able to write about it.” 

“I liked reading Nyxia because of the plot and the character development. I thought the third book [of the trilogy] was bad, but the second was probably the best. I had never read three books in a trilogy before, but I wanted to finish this one because I needed to see what happened to the main character and his crew members.” -Max

Max needed to finish the trilogy! His engagement with Nyxia demonstrates how one book can help students start to discover their reader identity. I love that he said the third book was bad (I’ve actually heard him call it “total garbage”) because it demonstrates his ability to independently engage with and form opinions about multiple texts. Another student said, “I thank the school for giving a wide selection of books to read because without having it, I wouldn't have been able to discover what kind of books I like.” 

As we start to wrap up our fourth and final novels, I couldn’t be more proud of how my students have engaged with and discussed literature in a year that’s been unlike any other. The literacy fires we’ve set together are ones that I hope never extinguish! I’m confident they’ll stay aflame as they continue to make their own connections, expand their reader identities, and enter society on fire and ready to change the world. 

Our 2020-2021 Reading List

  • 6th Grade: Maniac Magee, Because of Winn Dixie, A Wrinkle In Time, The Lions of Little Rock
  • 7th Grade: Walk Two Moons, The Outsiders, Nyxia, Hoot
  • 8th Grade: The House On Mango Street, Dear Martin, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Giver