Freedom Middle uses school-wide book study to build relationships

Students in a classroom sitting in desks reading a book while video images are playing on an interactive board
Susannah Gentry

Providing a strong academic program while also building a community of learners who support and respect each other is difficult. But Freedom Middle School has found a fun and engaging solution to this age-old challenge – a school-wide book study.

Endorsed by the school administrators, the book study is designed by the literacy team, who work with the media specialists to choose the right young adult novel. This year’s selection is The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, a story told in poems

The middle school years can be a time when peer circles shrink and if there are few opportunities for students to bond, schools can face a difficult shift in relationship building. Providing a strong academic program while also building a community of learners who support and respect each other is difficult. But Freedom Middle School has found a fun and engaging solution to this age-old challenge – a school-wide book study.

boy with crazy hair hat sits in desk reading The Crossover

Freedom Middle seventh-grader Bennett Miller reading his copy of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Endorsed by the school administrators, the book study is designed by the literacy team, who work with the media specialists to choose the right young adult novel. This year’s selection is The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, a story told in poems, and the book study kicked off January 12. “We are always very intentional about selecting texts that represent the diversity of our student body which allows our students to see characters and authors that represent the whole of who we are,” said Freedom Middle Instructional Literacy Coach Tequila Cornelious. “Plus, this text was written in verse, so we thought that was super cool.”  Previous texts were WonderThe Outsiders, and The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora.

While the book study has many academic benefits, that is not necessarily the main goal, according to Cornelious. “One goal of the read is to build community across our building. In many ways, it's a social-emotional tool and a few of our advisory lessons will be dedicated to lessons in the book. This text isn't something that we ‘teach’ in a traditional way.”

Every student in the school is part of a weekly advisory group, a small group of students and a faculty member who guides the discussion. Freedom Middle Media Specialist Leah Bishop is part of the committee that develops discussion questions for the advisory groups. “Throughout the book, the dad gives his sons ‘basketball rules’ that are really life lessons.  We will use some of these as anchors for advisory time,” she said. Freedom Middle principal Dr. Charles Farmer said the advisory groups were the perfect place for the book discussions to occur. “Advisory time is set aside to build student and teacher/staff relationships. They give each student an adult in the building, one who doesn’t give them a grade, who they can go to if they need anything,” Farmer said. “Many times, discussions are initiated by the adult but the students really lead these conversations.”

“Another goal of the book study is for kids to see that reading can happen across the school, not just in English/language arts. We are readers together,” Cornelious said. The school-wide nature of the book study generates conversations outside of class. The themes of this year’s selection include resilience, relationships, hard work, and navigating conflict. These are things that happen to students in real life every day. Relating fictional stories to real-life issues give students words and sparks thoughts about alternative ways to handle some of life’s tough situations.

boy with gray hoodie sitting in desk reading The Crossover

Freedom Middle seventh-grader Angel Loayza Torres reading his copy of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

The Crossover will be read over a period of four weeks. In an effort to generate buzz about the book study, the school asked author Kwame Alexander to send a video welcoming the students to the book. The personalized video message was shared on January 12 and Alexander began by telling the students that it took five years for him to write The Crossover and that he was rejected 22 times before it was finally published. Once published, the book won a Newberry Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Alexander tells the students in the video message that his philosophy on life is, “Dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, SWISH! You got to keep shooting your shot! Never give up.” While the book is written in prose and it is sports related, Alexander tells the students, “It’s ultimately about family and friendship, sibling rivalry, first crush, jealousy” and how to be a star on and off the court.

In order to keep the students excited and engaged as they move through the book, the school has arranged special activities and events, such as prize giveaways like tickets to basketball games at Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, and Lipscomb University.

Bishop said all subject areas will have fun extension activities. “We will continue into the spring with poetry contests and a poetry slam because this book is written all in free verse poetry. Because the book deals with heart health, our culminating activity will be our American Heart Challenge and a family trivia night,” she added.

Every year, students and faculty alike provide the literacy team with feedback from the book study that always makes the next one even better. Feedback from last year informed the structure of this year’s activity in that faculty felt the experience would be even better if students had their own copy of the book. Cornelious said, “Dr. Farmer made sure that happened. Our administrators are a huge piece of this because are very supportive of this initiative.”