During the first week of in-person learning in the middle school, Rectory students met in small groups with faculty members to discuss summer reading books. Twenty-one titles, chosen by adults who were thrilled to share a book they are passionate about, ranged from 150 to 900 pages and included stories about refugee struggles, autobiographies, comedy, mythical creatures, poetry, and some classics.
When planning for a full return to campus this fall, librarian Mary Tiebout and Head of School Fred Williams started talking about Rectory's summer reading program's role in that scheme. The answer was simple: bring the faculty, staff, and students together around a common interest and love. Why not have that something be a book?
Mrs. Tiebout solicited ideas from faculty and staff. Before spring's end, there was a list of 21 titles from adults who were thrilled to share a book they are passionate about and excited by the prospect of leading small group book discussions in the fall.
"Last year was chaotic with some students on campus and others online. We wanted to find a way to engage everyone when they returned to campus this fall. We wanted them to have direct contact with faculty who they might have only known through Zoom and for the students to get to know each other more. That bridge would be the book," Mrs. Tiebout said.
On a sunny mid-September day, middle school students and select faculty and staff gathered in groups of three to 15 throughout the campus to sit in comfy chairs, behind desks, or on the grass to talk about what they learned and thought and took away from their chosen books.
"It was an incredible way to start the school year," Mr. Williams, who led one of the discussions, said. "It was a good way to meet new people, develop relationships, and share interests around the books."
The 21 titles ranged from 150 to 900 pages and included stories about refugee struggles, autobiographies, comedy, mythical creatures, poetry, and some classics. There were two lists—one for Grades 5-7 and another for Grades 8-9. It didn't matter how the students arrived at their selection—whether for the book itself or the adult who recommended it—the purpose was to bring the students and adults together after a year that kept some separated.
The conversations didn't need to be a factual recitation of what happened in the book; instead, the faculty and staff encouraged students to reference certain elements and moments from their books but focused more on discussing the overall themes, lessons, and ah-ha moments that make reading interesting.
"We wanted them to bring their own experiences, opinions, thoughts to the discussion. For the adults to get the students' perspective is huge; students will see things they don't," Mrs. Tiebout said.
"There's value in discussion. There's value in broadening your own understanding of something you felt you had a pretty good grasp of, but then you think, 'I hadn't considered that point.'" Mr. Williams said.
English and digital arts teacher Ryan Finnegan welcomed the opportunity to share a book that he's passionate about--The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Hadden--and then talk with a group of 10 eighth and ninth graders who shared his interest.
"The students were very open to the conversation. They drafted their own discussion questions before we met, and I could tell they'd read the book. It was nice to sit and have a good conversation with them about the main character's story and how he overcomes his challenges," Mr. Finnegan said.
Mr. Williams had a similar experience with his group as they discussed Orson Scott Card's military science fiction coming-of-age novel Ender's Game.
"I love any opportunity to sit down with a group of kids, but this was particularly meaningful. It allowed me to engage students in an academic discussion around some interesting content and in a book that has always been of high interest to me," Williams said.
Ninth graders Money P., El GR., and Mohamed M. said knowing that the adults chose books that had meaning to them was a bonus when it came time for students to review the list of summer reading options.
"It was more than just a book that Mr. Finnegan assigned for class," said El. "It didn't feel like just another assignment because he had a real interest in it, too, and it was nice to hear his take and everyone else's opinion."
The students said they welcomed the opportunity to hear other people's opinions of the books rather than just expressing theirs in a more traditional book review. They then shared their views in a conversational-type setting.
"This year's summer reading gave us the opportunity to have discussions to hear about other people's opinions on the book, about certain morals, or thoughts. In the past, we just shared our own opinion of a book and didn't get a chance to talk with others about it, to be engaged with other people's thoughts," said Money, who was also part of Mr. Finnegan's discussion group.
Having the chance to share how he related to the book made the reading circle conversations even more valuable for Mohamed, who read Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah with Assistant Head of School and Director of Middle School Glenn Ames.
"I like to learn other people's perspectives and see what we have in common. In Born a Crime, I really connected to Trevor Noah and some of his experiences. In my past schools, I was usually the lightest tone person. It was good to be able to share my experience and then talk to other people and see how they related to the book," Mohamed said.
Overall, it was a beautiful day discussing books, sharing personal perspectives, and coming together as a middle school community.
You can view the Summer Reading 2021 book list by visiting Rectory School's website: https://www.rectoryschool.org/academics/summer-reading-2021
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