Engaging in Middle School Conversation

Haldane’s Community Reads Night explores empathy, compassion, acceptance

By Alison Rooney

Although the Haldane campus is an inclusive K-12 body, each of its three components seeks to forge its own identity. The middle school (grades six, seven and eight) may be the smallest, but it is determined to carve out its distinct place in the whole.

To bring middle school students, parents and teachers together, Haldane Elementary and Middle School Principal Brent Harrington, together with the Middle School Improvement Committee (MSIT) have come up with a Community Reads (CR) program, culminating in an event on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at the school.

“We wanted to promote a sense of community in the middle school by having a community read, and to foster a sense of literacy and engage in conversation about the middle school experience,” Harrington said.

The voluntary program has attracted more than 30 students, for a total of over 70 participants, exceeding the goal set in this first year it has been offered. Students may continue to sign up until the CR night takes place. “If you’ve read the book and are willing to engage in rich conversation, we’ll make sure there’s a seat for you in the circle,” says Harrington.

"Wonder" by R.J. Palacio, to be discussed by all at Haldane Community Read  (Photo by A. Rooney)

“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, to be discussed by all at Haldane Community Read  (Photo by A. Rooney)

It works quite simply: a book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, was chosen and student, parent(s) and teachers are expected to read the book. On CR night attendees will split into small, mixed grade student/parent/teacher groups. Each group will be seated in a circle with a Haldane teacher as a facilitator. The facilitator will put forth broad questions, which can be answered in many ways.

Pece says, “The idea is not to have a debate, but a safe place in which to disagree, if you do. If the facilitator sees new questions emerging, he or she will pop in a new question based on the patterns shown.” The overall idea is for everyone to emerge having gained knowledge not only of what others think but maybe understanding or altering their own interpretation.

Haldane seventh grade English Language Arts teacher Danielle Pece has been the key teacher involved in planning for this inaugural event. She uses the “Socratic Method” in her classroom, with students often gathered round in a circle for sharing-type discussions. Pece is excited about the participation rate.

“It started out with 10 or 12 sign-ups and then the buzz got out and more and more kids decided to participate, which is great — it’s almost a positive form of peer pressure,” she says.

Wonder was brought to Harrington’s attention by Celia Thomas, the Haldane teacher assistant who oversees the elementary library. She read it and thought it would be perfect to use with fifth grade classes last spring. Thomas notes:

After working for many years with children and adults who have special needs, ranging from problems focusing to the severely autistic I have experienced many challenges. The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio is an easy read that is well written. This book is uplifting, humorous and unsettling all in one. I think that it is so important for children to be aware of how lucky they are and to accept those who are in some way challenged. This book shows how cruel kids can be and also how caring they can be. Wonder makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you feel good all over!

Pece adds:

Wonder really speaks to students. Its protagonist is a boy with a facial deformity who has always been home-schooled. Now he is entering school. Everyone is uncertain of how to handle the situation. The book is not only about the challenges he faces in becoming accepted, but is equally about how the students grow. It touches upon bullying and acceptance. Sometimes, with Young Adult literature you can hear the adult voice in the writing, but this one really speaks to the kids. It’s a great book to use to discuss issues: it’s uplifting, inspiring and it motivates you to see your own problems in a universal light. These are issues that need to be talked about in middle school. The idea for Community Reads is for students to take time to be in a safe place, with their parents and teachers and just talk.

MSIT member Maeve Eng-Wong is developing an array of questions for facilitators to use as discussion prompts. She says, “Each group will be guided by questions that allow the group to discuss the book as a whole and to also consider the perspectives of different community members. The groups will explore the multi-layered process of accepting and integrating one young boy with a distinct difference into a new school. A seemingly small and normal event that is so much more.”

Some of the questions are quite straightforward, while others allow the students to consider a bit more, for example: “Do you think that Jack and Summer took a risk by choosing to be friends with Auggie? Explain.” Or, “What did Julian do to isolate Auggie? Do you think that the author, by not having Julian change at the end of the book, made the story more believable?”

Themes in this novel tie in with Haldane’s “Character Education” program, emphasizing the student as a whole and not just focused solely on academics. What separates this from other programs, says Pece, is that many “tell kids how they should be behaving, what they should be feeling, but on this community night they’ll have a chance to talk it out, bounce ideas around in a Socratic way, which will hopefully allow them to grow and understand it themselves. Students are much more receptive to peer ideas.”

The CR evening will begin in the auditorium, with a brief talk by Harrington. Two middle school students, Theo Bates and Justin Roffman, will show a video they are making, asking other students to reflect on Wonder. Melanie Campanile, a parent and member of the “Gang Up For Good” PTA sub-committee, which is focused on character education and building positive values, has arranged for a fun photo booth, in which kids can strike quirky poses, which will be shared — sparking another facet of community.


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