Category Archives: Parenting

Why You Shouldn’t Use Acellus (among others)

Psst… I know I’m not around here very often. Mushroom and BalletBoy are working their way through homeschooling high school with some live online courses, some dual enrollment at a local community college, and some courses at home. I’m busy running things over at Simplify Homeschool. If you need help with homeschooling, especially with planning high school with college acceptance in mind, you can find me there.

My social media and search feeds are bombarded with ads for really bad homeschooling programs and well-meaning homeschoolers recommending those programs. If you’re new to homeschooling, there’s a good chance you’re being bombarded with them too.

Time4Learning, Acellus/Power Homeschool, Mia Academy, Calvert Homeschool, Monarch… and the list goes on. You probably also see ads for K-12, Connections, and other programs typically provided as part of online charter schools. Plus you likely see ads for math and individual learning programs such as Adventure Academy, Elephant Learning, IXL, ABC Mouse, and others.

In the last several years, these programs have come to dominate the homeschool conversation and scene. They promise that for a low monthly fee, you can have everything you need to homeschool or that for a monthly fee they can enrich your homeschool through digital learning.

Let’s look at one of the most popular options, Acellus, which is sold mostly through Power Homeschool. I’ve been around long enough to remember when Acellus was an upstart provider getting banned from multiple homeschool groups for running sock puppet accounts to post fake testimonials about their product. From that beginning, and a lot of money spent on advertising, they have grown to become a huge company, providing credit recovery classes, homeschool “courses,” and other software based education services. They’re a private company, so I can’t say how much they make, but suffice it to say that it’s a great deal.

On the Power Homeschool site, they use the word “complete” to refer to their product in several places. They offer various “reports” such as attendance and progress reports, just like a school would. Under the section on parent responsibilities, it only lists that parents must follow state laws and “supervise” their students. It makes no mention of doing any outside teaching, enriching, or even homework support. Sounds like a complete program, right?

Nope.

In actuality, Acellus quietly places a disclaimer that it’s meant to be “part” of a program. What’s the rest of the program? There’s no way to tell from their website materials. It’s really up to the parents. However, parents choosing Acellus are typically thinking of it as everything they’re doing for school. Because they aren’t immersed in a homeschool community where parents talk about enriching ways to approach education, they come to think that choosing this self-paced, video-based, multiple choice program, they’ve done their duty.

Most families turning to software based solutions for homeschooling as their primary teaching method would be better off leaving their kids in school.

I do think these online, software-based programs can have uses. Sometimes, you just need to check the box for a subject, especially for a student in high school who is busy with another subject or even a non-academic pursuit. Other times, parents use programs like these to fill in the gaps when someone in the family, either the student or parent suffers from a chronic illness or is going through a rough year, perhaps with a major life change. There are worse ways to deal with that than relegating a year of learning to a computer program. A few families do enrich these programs, though in my experience, they tend to use them briefly then move on in dissatisfaction because they realize how bare bones and boring the programs are.

What is the purpose of homeschooling? Sure, some people turn to it out of a specific need — a child’s physical or mental health issues, a child’s career such as in acting or the arts, a situation with severe bullying. However, typically, it’s to provide a superior education to our kids. The core of these programs is videos plus multiple choice and other very basic questions. That’s it.

Learning happens through interaction. It happens through experience. It happens by testing and trying things out. The idea that a student can learn how to write by choosing the best option for a sentence on a multiple choice quiz is preposterous to me. Many of these programs do offer ways for students to write paragraphs or essays. However, they don’t provide much, if any, feedback. What use is that? Sometimes they do ask students to read books for literature, but there are no opportunities to discuss. The overall emphasis isn’t on reading at all, but on information given in little video chunks. Even for a subject like math, where there usually is a single correct answer, the process of understanding how to get that answer is often too complex to be learned solely through multiple choice questions.

I’m hardly a Luddite and I’m a huge advocate for using screens creatively as well as using live or asynchronous classes with a teacher as part of your homeschool. However, parking a kid in front of a screen without even a human to talk to on the other end for their entire education is soulless, empty, and bereft of meaning. Education is more than a few facts. It’s a process that should be at the heart of a child’s life. Homeschoolers used to talk about raising lifelong learners. These computer programs don’t care about anything other than checking off a box.

They also take away the beautiful flexibility of homeschooling. Why should a kid have to learn American history one year if they’re obsessed with medieval knights? Why should a high school homeschooler emerge with a transcript that looks just like a public school student? Shouldn’t they aim for more individualized work? Of course there are “elective” options on these sites, but they’re often relatively limited. The array of electives on Power Homeschool is fewer than what the large public schools offer here.

I sympathize with parents who are pressed for time and money but want to homeschool. I would ask them, if the education your child will receive through a computer is inferior to the one they’ll receive at school, then is it worth it? Homeschooling takes work. It takes your time and effort. If you don’t have that time or energy, that’s okay! It doesn’t make you a bad parent. If your child really needs out of a bad school situation, then maybe it’s a temporary solution until you find a better one. Maybe that’s another brick and mortar school. Or maybe you seek within yourself and your community and find those reserves to be able to help your student at home with interaction and work that does go above and beyond what these programs offer.

There are some amazing teachers out there teaching online and some great little curricula written by homeschoolers and teachers. Everyone deserves to get paid for their labor. However, the found of Acellus or Time4Learning do not care about your student’s education. They are looking to make a dollar. They have no philosophy beyond simply sales. Money and corporations have become the biggest force in education these days. I see it and weep because it is not helping homeschooled kids receive a better education any more than it helps kids in traditional schools.

In the end, I know these companies are going to continue to prey on homeschoolers. They’re going to continue to make it sound like it takes no effort to homeschool. They’re going to continue selling you snake oil.

I’m going to continue to rage about them, because I hate what they’re doing to a group of people who used to really care about the best way to teach our kids.

The Pop Culture Education

Are you watching “The Good Place” with your teens? Seriously, I want to take this show apart and assign a credit in philosophy for watching and discussing it.

But more on that in a minute.

Realistically, I preen a little when we go to a gallery and my kids can recognize an artist or when BalletBoy can name a ballet or Mushroom can cite a playwright. Highbrow culture is what we tend to value in education and I do think it’s important. I’m glad my kids know some Shakespeare and aren’t strangers to the symphony. I wrote a whole post about what great museum goers they are. Their favorite art museum is the Hirshhorn, which, hey, is not the favorite museum of someone who knows nothing about art.

But also, Mushroom stayed up late not long ago to watch the Video Game Awards on streaming and root for various titles, about which he had a multitude of opinions. BalletBoy made sure I saw the new Avengers trailer the minute it came out. Popular culture is alive and well in our house. And, honestly, gets more airtime than the other stuff, the stuff we’re supposed to value, at least if we want to be impressive academic superstars.

I can’t always seize on the things that the kids enjoy and turn them educational. Besides, sometimes it’s okay to just enjoy your junky television or movies. That said, when there’s a great discussion about morality, classical music, politics, history, or design arising from pop culture, then I’m on that.

Which brings me back to The Good Place. If you watch it, you already know, but ostensibly it’s a show about a group of people who die and go to… well, is it heaven, hell, or something else? However, underneath the over-the-top humor, it’s really a show about philosophy, making constant references to people like John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Don’t believe me? There are tons of articles exploring it – try this one, or this one, or this one.

Watching episodes like the one that explores the trolley problem or the most recent one that asks if it’s possible to even be a good person in a complex modern world with my teens is one of the highlights of my homeschool week. No credits being given as yet… I think I’d have to make a selection of readings and more in depth discussions to do that. But connecting with something that has the potential to be both fun and deep is one of the  best things about having teenagers.

The “Say Yes” Mentality

Years ago, when my boys were toddlers, I read an article where the mom resolved to try saying yes for one day to everything her very young child asked to do. There were limits, obviously. Kids need to be safe and it’s just not possible to get a pet unicorn (unfortunately!). But the idea was to say yes whenever possible to see how it felt.

That concept really stuck with me for a long time. We spend a lot of time telling young children “no.” I have definitely sat in the park and listened as a parent just said “no” to a 2 or 3 year-old over and over. “No, it’s not time for snack.” “No, not up on the big slide yet.” “No throwing.” “No, that’s not your ball.” “No, we can’t go over there now.” And so on, ad infinitem. Sometimes I see parents of young children telling their children “no” even as others say yes. I remember seeing a parent tell a child they couldn’t disturb a pile of mulch at a park once, only to have the landscaper turn and say, “It’s okay. I’m just going to spread it here in a few minutes.” The parent still led the frustrated child away.

The benefits of saying yes seem really obvious to me. Yes respects children as individuals, respects their wants and needs. Yes allows children to learn to self-regulate. Yes gives children the freedom to learn. Yes improves our relationship with our kids. It gives our no more weight because they recognize that it’s not empty and given in reflex. Sometimes you have to say no. But I like the impulse and stop and examine. Make yes the default.

As my kids have grown up, at some point, I thought, I have this “yes” thing totally down pat. Also, now that they’re teenagers, who cares? They know I respect them. They know I give them leeway. We’re all good.

Then, the other day, BalletBoy asked if we could start school a little late and play a board game.

I’m SO BUSY, I thought. I’m SO TIRED, I thought. Why THAT game, I thought. You have SO MUCH high school work, I thought.

And then I made myself say yes.

The yes mentality is something that I still have to relearn sometimes, I guess. But I needed the reminder that it’s still important.

It just changes. I don’t have to trail after my kids telling them no, no, no anymore lest they accidentally stumble into the mortal dangers of traffic or that mysterious thing on the ground that somehow looks appealing to stick in their mouths. Now that they’re teens, the dangers are so much more complex and so much more long term. You can’t just pull them back from the road like toddlers and know that they’re fine. They have to figure out how to approach first loves and complex friendships. They have to come to their own understandings of why they need to work hard or engage or have goals. And there’s not one moment when it will go right or wrong.

It’s as key as ever that I say yes so they can figure out their own boundaries and trust that when I say no, the no has weight. Just like when they were little, I still have to say no sometimes.

But the moments when they want my attention, advice, or my ears are also more precious and fleeting than ever. Yes, you can tell me about that video game strategy. Yes, you can play that song in the car. Yes, we can go for a hike instead of finishing up math.

So this is a reminder to myself. Say yes.

 

 

 

Cover and Title Reveal

Okay, it took awhile, but I have a title for my forthcoming book. I hope it sums up the middle school years. They go from tweens to teens. They rarely have smooth sailing throughout. They also tend to have big leaps in critical thinking and creativity that are very much worth celebrating.

More importantly, I also have a cover! This cover is really brought to you by Mushroom, who refused to take credit for it, but who did most of the heavy design lifting by altering the images and doing the basic layout. I swooped in and finessed some things, but I’m mostly just bursting with pride for him. I have no idea how to do half the things he did with the software he was showing me. This is middle school, guys! It’s kids who suddenly know more than you about something that isn’t just dinosaur names or video games, but something super useful!

Expect to see it on Amazon as both a paperback and an ebook in the next two weeks!

Our Beloved Co-op

Our tiny co-op had its final meeting last week and I’m still a little weepy when I think about it. It was time to end. Several kids are headed to school. My kids are starting high school, which brings with it some specific challenges in terms of getting in academics. But this co-op has been in existence for an amazing nine years, which is a really long time for a small, family based co-op.

We ended with an overnight camping trip that the kids planned. The kids planning it was pretty essential. Since its inception, this has been a child-led co-op in various ways, becoming more and more child-led as they grew and matured.

I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about our co-op. I don’t think this is that post. But it’s been a really amazing ride over the years. When we started, the kids picked the topics and the parents taught the lessons. We rotated houses week by week. We made decisions based on consensus, a habit I picked up working in Quaker schools. They learned about things like dinosaurs and history. When they were really little, we used to operated the “Co-op Time Machine,” a pillow fort in the basement that traveled in time to visit the Big Bang, among other things.

At some point, we transitioned to asking the kids to plan the units and decide exactly what they wanted to do. They put on a play, made a movie, staged a fundraiser, wrote their own roleplaying game, and many other projects.

Over the years, there have been all kinds of co-op experiments. The kids played with “co-op money” one fall, playing an elaborate game of trading goods and services. The kid who sold muffins every morning was the winner, I think. There was a co-op yearbook several years, as well as a co-op newspaper created by BalletBoy that ran several editions for a couple of years. Kids came and went over the years, though a few families remained the same.

Co-op has been a hugely stable force in our lives for so many years that it’s staggering. Most schooled kids don’t get this type of stability in their peer group. I feel so lucky to have gotten this experience for them.

As we left the campsite for the final meeting, it was us and the other original family who had been there since the beginning. That’s it,  I realized. There’d be no more co-op. In the fall, the kids opted to do a STEM-centered day of classes once a week.

I feel like nowadays, if a co-op doesn’t have a slate of classes, a rented space, and an official nonprofit designation it’s not a co-op at all. However, this little, free endeavor has been perfect for us. It took the parents sharing a powerful vision for the kids. It wasn’t without its rocky moments and the kids are hardly perfect to each other. Many of the projects fizzled into nothing much. However, this is what homeschooling can, especially for the K-8 years. Cheap and child-driven. Filled with play and friendships.

Finding Empathy

One of the amazing things about watching kids grow up is watching them evolve as aware humans. Little kids are, by their nature, mostly self-centered. They have these moments of deep kindness, but also moments of sheer lack of understanding of others’ emotions or views.

One of the most beautiful things about having adolescents is seeing them fully emerge from that younger, naturally narcissistic viewpoint, to becoming kids who can really appreciate others, and empathize with them.

I feel like with teens, they can be moody, prickly, and self-centered at times. It can be easy to fall into this trap of seeing them as uncaring or unfeeling toward others. But the reality is that they’re not. One reason that young adolescents sometimes seem extra concerned with their image is that they can suddenly see that not everyone sees the world or themselves the way they do.

I think, as a parent, you have to catch them being their best selves. You have to catch them when they’re coming out of their shells to do kind things.

BalletBoy spent all year volunteering at his ballet studio, teaching a class of little kids. He did several volunteer stints at a soup kitchen by his own request. When he passes homeless people on the street, he stops and gives them his own money.

Recently, our lives were upended very briefly when we rushed to be at my grandmother’s side as she lay in hospice, dying. Every time he came into the room, Mushroom went to her side and greeted her. Even after she lost consciousness, he spoke to her and told her he was there and that he loved her. He didn’t shy away from holding her hand or touching her.

You guys, teens are the best. Young kids are special and wonderful too, but teens have so much more understanding and nuance. We’re really just at the start of the teenage journey, and I like to gripe about it sometimes. They are moody and sarcastic and all the things teenagers are. They ignore me and roll their eyes too. But they also have these moments of empathy and caring that go beyond the gestures I saw from them when they were little. It’s so beautiful and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.

The boys hugging their great-grandmother last fall.

Middle Schoolers

I mentioned before that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school. Then I joked on social media that another one of the things I’m not doing is blogging, but I really am working on this.

It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more resources targeted to homeschoolers and prospective homeschoolers about how middle school is the right time for homeschooling. I believe in homeschooling these difficult, glorious, crazy years so much! They’re so rewarding. The relationship you’ll have with your kids is so rewarding. The teaching and learning you’ll do is so rewarding. I know it’s not for everyone. Homeschooling never will be. But middle school. Think about it.

Anyway, with that in mind, below is a little except of what I’ve been working on.

Look at those grown up kids!

The kid you start middle school with will not be the kid you finish with.

The kid you start sixth grade with will probably be short. They will probably still have toys and enjoy some imaginative play, even if the toys are now more collectables and the imaginative play is sophisticated. They’ll still love playgrounds and enjoy children’s museums. Your son will still have a little kid voice. Your daughter may not be wearing a bra yet. They’ll probably be comfortable in their bodies and confident on the playground. Most of them will be natural early risers and may even get up before you if you’re not a morning person.

They’ll start out in all different places academically, but it won’t be unusual if your new sixth grader can’t yet write an essay or a short story on their own or still struggles with things like operations with fractions. Even your gifted writers will probably sound young in their writing. They’ll often be more focused on facts and trivia than deeper analysis. A lot of them will still be very black and white in how they see the world, with everything either good or evil and not a lot in between. While they’ll be well past learning to cut a straight line with scissors, a sizable number may still struggle with small motor skills that you keep thinking they “should” have mastered by now, like neatly measuring the flour or not overusing all the glue.

The kid you graduate eighth grade with will be tall. Your daughters will likely be close to their adult heights. They’ll look mature and be able to wear adult clothes. They’ll be ready to start shaving if they choose. Your sons will still be growing, but many of them will be taller than their mothers with shoes as big as their father’s. A few of them may have even shaved for the first time. Their bodies will surprise even them sometimes. Your boys may bump into things because they don’t realize they take up so much space. Even your girls may seem to regress in their physical abilities for awhile. Hopefully, they’re starting to be comfortable in these new bodies by the time they head to high school, but it’s not unusual for many of them not to be completely at ease yet. They’ll like to sleep in and may even need to be prodded out of bed every morning to ensure that they don’t stay up half the night.

They’ll mostly be finished playing with toys and make believe. Their interests will feel more grown up. The kid who loved to play will be channeling it into sports even more than before, the kid who loved imaginary games will be playing roleplaying games, the kid who loved to color will be doing art with more serious materials, the kid who loved to tinker will be building things that are more sophisticated. It’ll be a subtle difference, but their interests will seem serious and not like childhood fancies.

Academically, they’ll still be all over the place, but the leaps in skill you’ll see will be stunning. Barring learning differences, your student who struggled to write a paper will sort of have the hang of it. Your student who kept forgetting how to add fractions will be puzzling out algebra problems. Your students who started out ahead of their peers may be dipping into college lectures and work worthy of high school credits. The students who seemed to revel in trivia and expertise will have mostly moved away from listing fact after fact to ask you big questions. In fact, they’ll all be asking these big questions more often, and be more interested in questions that don’t have easy, black and white answers.

Like I said, the kid you finish middle school with won’t be the kid you started with.

In It for the Long Haul

We’re cleaning off the shelves as part of our break, filing work away and updating portfolios. I told Mushroom and BalletBoy that if they wanted to consider high school, that this was it; they needed to speak up now.

It’s never really been entirely up to them. I wouldn’t have allowed them to go to middle school barring a very good reason. And I’ve been pretty sure we were going to go all the way through for awhile. However, they’re about to be teenagers. I think they should have more of a say at this point.

It’s not that high school would be impossible down the road if our circumstances changed. I know that in some states, once you start down one path for high school, it’s almost impossible to switch, but in the District, there are flexible options for high school credits. However, once the deadlines for applications to charter and selective public school programs have passed in the winter, a lot of doors will close. If we were going to even consider that, I explained, I needed time to get things in order, let them tour schools and research options, and create applications. This is eighth grade, I said. Tell me now.

BalletBoy, no surprise, answered immediately. No way. He wants to homeschool. It’s an easy answer when you know it’s enabling your passion. His ballet moves to six classes this year. I can’t imagine managing that plus school, much less more classes and high school.

Mushroom dithered. Would missing out on high school close off any job options or college options down the line, he wanted to know. That’s my long term thinker. I reassured him. No, absolutely not. I couldn’t promise that he absolutely would never run into a hassle because he was homeschooled, but it is pretty unlikely overall.

The thing is, I am almost positive at this point that I can give them a better, richer experience for high school than school can. I used to teach high school and I’ve never found it as intimidating as some people seem to. I know many people get nervous about high school, but right now, I’m in the midst of planning our eighth grade year and looking ahead to future possibilities and I’m not nervous, I’m excited. Neither of my kids are ever going to be the sort of kids who pull in high test scores and piles of AP exams and honor roll awards. They would just be mediocre in school. Mediocre and worn out by the long days and heavy amount of busy work. But at home, we can do targeted work and make time for passion projects and intense extracurriculars where they really do get to show their best selves.

Mushroom has a real interest in design and I tried to explain how excited I am to push him to do certain programs and internships in high school, how he can really pick and choose the sort of university he wants to attend. How doing high school at home won’t hold him back from that. In fact, the opposite, it might enable it.

“I don’t really want to go to school,” he admitted. “Then don’t!” I said. So we’re decided for sure.

Whew. And with that off my plate, now to focus on being in the moment and getting the most out of the end of middle school. After vacation, that is.

It’s Okay to Be Out of Sync

Playing pool at the grandparents’ on the second day of school for kids here.

One of the things I have to remind myself of every single year is that it’s okay that we’re out of sync with everyone else.

You’d think that this would be obvious. When you homeschool, you step off the beaten path to make your own trail. We all know we’re not in sync with the goals, curriculum, or style of brick and mortar schools. And we’re often in while they’re having teacher workdays or other random days off, and out and about while they’re in class.

However, a lot of homeschoolers loosely follow the school calendar for a whole host of good reasons. That’s why, in the last week, my social media feeds and my friends have all been talking about starting back to school.

The thing is, we did school most of the summer and we’re taking our break now. It’ll be another month until we start properly. And it hits me on some level every year that we’re really far off from everyone else, including our fellow homeschoolers. There’s a sort of discomfort and defensiveness, which is silly, but it’s there.

So every year, I have to remind myself that it’s fine. And that we can do things our own way. If you’re also way off from everyone else’s school year, remind yourself that having your own schedule is one of the benefits of this homeschool gig. I don’t know about you, but I need to tell myself that I wasn’t a meanie for making the kids do math in July and that I’m not lazy for letting them relax through most of September. There’s nothing special about math that it needs to be done only from September through May and nothing special about vacations that says they need to happen in the summer months.

Short But Meaty: Middle School Books for Less Prolific Readers

You may dream of reading thick classics of literature, long YA historical novels, and piles of other great works in middle school. But not all kids are up for those choices. Some kids read fine but rebel at required literature. Others have reading issues. Others excel at nonfiction and want to keep their required books as short as possible. Basically, there are lots of reasons that the dream of starting in on the canon of Western lit may not be happening at your house like you anticipated.

And so I give you an alternative to giving up: the short but meaty middle school novel. Middle grades and young adult novels started becoming tomes in the wake of Harry Potter two decades ago. But many older classics are shorter. What follows is a list of twenty books that are all about 200 pages or less (page counts can vary greatly by edition, obviously). All of them have rich themes, language, or both.

2839

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Pages: 143
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy to understand.
What it’s about: A boy becomes friends with a new girl who lives nearby and they invent an imaginary world together, where she encourages his love of art and imagination.
Why it’s worth the read: This book tends to starkly divide readers, which is interesting in and of itself. The very jarring, sudden death of one of the main characters causes some readers to feel betrayed by the quiet narrative up to that point. However, the author wrote the book that way on purpose to try and reflect her own child’s experience of a friend’s death. There are class and economic themes as well as family relationships all worth discussion, but the main theme of grief is the reason to read this story.

47281Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Pages: 137
Difficulty: This is a very easy read in language and style.
What it’s about: This is the story of how a Danish girl and her family help their Jewish friends escape to safety on the eve of being rounded up by the Nazis. It’s one of the gentlest Holocaust related novels you’ll find.
Why is it worth the read: The writing isn’t a standout, but the themes around the Holocaust are really important ones and discussion of the true story of how the people of Denmark saved so many Jews from the Nazis is a really inspiring story. It’s told with such a child’s innocence and exploring how that innocence changes during the novel is an interesting topic of discussion.

22232Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 186
Difficulty: This is a fairly easy read.
What it’s about: A formerly homeschooled girl begins attending a suburban high school and really shakes things up. The narrator slowly develops a crush on her but has to figure out how important fitting in is to him.
Why is it worth the read: The tension between conformity and individuality is basically the tension for all middle schoolers. Discussing Stargirl and Leo’s various choices is one of the meatiest discussions you’re likely to get at this age for many kids.

3636The Giver by Lois Lowry
Pages: 208
Difficulty: This book is very much on the easy end.
What it’s about: A boy grows up in a seemingly perfect society and is chosen to become the next Giver. However, as he acquires knowledge his peers and even parents lack, he may never fit in again.
Why is it worth the read: The ideas and themes that are thought provoking and discussion worthy in this dystopian novel. Imagining a world without color and passion can spark discussion, as can the costs of living in a utopia where everything is orderly. What are we willing to give up for such a world? What is the value of conformity? The ending of the book is nebulous (there are sequels, though they don’t pick up the story right away) and talking about why the book ends where it does is also worth the time.

18131A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 211
Difficulty: It’s not a hard read, but for a novel that has a great deal of plot, it also has a lot of discussion of ideas, which may not carry all readers forward very easily.
What it’s about: This book is difficult to describe. In a nutshell, Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin, are taken by three mysterious alien women to help save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who is being held captive on a strange, evil planet.
Why is it worth the read: There’s an amazing looking film adaptation coming soon! If that’s not enough, the ideas about good and evil are thought provoking and worth discussing. Readers may identify with how Meg often feels like she’s not the special one. Exactly what makes IT so evil, and what makes the darkness so pervasive and how we see it in our own world are all wonderful discussion topics. The science tie ins to dimensional theory and hyperspace may also hook some readers.

598117Sounder by William Armstrong
Pages: 116
Difficulty: The language in this is pretty simple, but the fact that it’s slow moving in places as well as a small amount of colloquialisms and dialect can make it a little harder for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age novel about a black boy in a sharecropping family. He and his dog, Sounder, survive hardships after his father is imprisoned.
Why is it worth the read: This Newbery gem isn’t read like it used to be. However, its depiction of racial issues and poverty in the Jim Crow south still have a lot of resonance. Reading this book and pairing it with some modern discussion of how small tickets and fines can keep poor people always under water would be a good way to bring the issues even more to the forefront. The language is stark but beautiful, so it’s also worth a read for the writing. There are many other great books by African American authors that are commonly read in middle school, but most of them are a lot longer. This is one of the shortest books on this list.

1852Call of the Wild by Jack London
Pages: 172
Difficulty: The vocabulary level and excellent descriptions make this a difficult read for many kids. It’s a good stretch book for middle schoolers.
What it’s about: Buck is a well cared for city dog who is sent to the Alaskan wilderness and must learn to survive.
Why is it worth the read: Obviously, this book is worth a read for its status as a classic. It’s a good choice for nature lovers since the power and cruelty of nature are major themes. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, as well as Buck’s transformation as the story goes on. The whole theme of survival of the fittest is one that’s full of meaty discussion potential.

84981Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Pages: 132
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy.
What it’s about: The Tuck family has the ability to live forever. A young girl, Winnie, joins them, but learns that their lives are not all others might imagine.
Why is it worth the read: Babbitt is just a great storyteller and created a very good fable in this book. The language is easy to read but rich with metaphors. The book begs the reader to consider immortality for themselves and what they would do in Winnie’s place.

231804The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Pages: 192
Difficulty: Some of the bygone language may throw kids off, but overall it’s not a very difficult book.
What it’s about: This is a story of 1950’s era teenage gangs. When a fight leads to a death of a rival gang member, the main characters have to deal with consequences of their actions.
Why is it worth the read: The themes of violence and youth are still ones that resonate today, especially with class overtones like in the novel. The extent to which people are a product of their environment and to which they can change their fates is also a theme. It’s also still just a compelling read for many kids.

4381Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Pages: 158
Difficulty: The language is somewhat old fashioned and may be difficult for some readers. The themes are definitely more adult than some other books on this list.
What it’s about: In a future dystopia, the main character has the job of burning books. However, as the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not that’s right.
Why is it worth the read: The themes definitely hit you over the head in this one. There’s nothing subtle about book burning as the story’s central plot. Even the melodrama in the characters’ personal lives is over the top. However, sometimes over the top is good for readers this age. And no one does over the top but thought provoking like Bradbury.

13642A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Pages: 183
Difficulty: The language in this is definitely a stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age story about a young man named Ged who becomes a wizard. He must grow up and undertake a quest to defeat a mysterious dark force that’s after him.
Why is it worth the read: This story is so dripping with archetypal plots and characters that it nearly bursts at the seams with them. It’s incredibly well-crafted and the writing is strong. However, introducing students to these recurring archetypes in writing is a must and this book is one of the best for doing that. Reading it will enhance any fantasy reader or movie watcher’s enjoyment of the genre by deepening their understanding of it.

18553The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Pages: 105
Difficulty: The old fashioned style of this book and the dialogue written in dialect may make it a slight stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: A boy is shipwrecked and blinded and must turn to an impoverished West Indian man to help him survive.
Why it’s worth the read: I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this novel, but some people really love it. Taylor does a great job of building up the adventure and survival elements of the story and those are things that many students love. The racial and class issues at the heart of the story are obviously worthy of discussion. In some ways, the story feels a little pat by today’s standards, so that’s definitely something to bring up in thinking about the book as well.

87226Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 176
Difficulty: This is a pretty easy read.
What it’s about: Crash and Penn, two seventh grade students, are opposites in almost every way. A series of events bring them together and force Crash to change his bullying attitudes.
Why it’s worth the read: This book covers a great deal of ground in short time. There are references to literature, history, and religion. There is a lot about friendships and bullying as well as family relationships. Penn’s religious beliefs are worth a discussion. It’s also just a very identifiable “everyday kid” novel for most middle schoolers.

15595The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Pages: 128
Difficulty: The language is very sparse and easy, however, some of the style and historical terms might throw off some readers.
What it’s about: A young, homeless girl in the middle ages is taken in by a midwife and trained, but she may lose her confidence before she ever delivers a baby.
Why it’s worth the read: This book has one of the most amazing, beautiful passages in a children’s book about confidence and the loss of it. While the story is from the middle ages and the details are true to life then, the author does an amazing job of making the themes feel very contemporary and very much something middle schoolers will identify with, especially girls.

139253The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Pages: 110
Difficulty: This is a surprisingly easy read, though the style is probably different from what most students are used to and smatterings of Spanish may throw some students off.
What it’s about: This book is a series of short tales about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Why it’s worth the read: The writing is often lyrical and compelling. The story looks at coming of age issues like identity through a different lens than most other novels. Racial identity and immigration are both strong themes of the book as well as women’s roles. It’s very short, but it packs in a lot of worthwhile topics to consider.

39963A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Pages: 160
Difficulty: The language isn’t too difficult, but it’s not a breeze either.
What it’s about: These are short tales about a brother and sister and how they spend summers with their grandmother during the Depression.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a hilarious book. I can’t think of many books better for looking at characterization and humor in writing. The writing makes a great creative writing model as well.

24780The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 190
Difficulty: The old fashioned language is denser than some students may expect, though the plot is straightforward.
What it’s about: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest and a fight against an invading bad guy with a prince when his magical pig is kidnapped.
What it’s worth the read: Like A Wizard of Earthsea, this book is a classic of fantasy and reading it brings a better understanding of the conventions of the genre as well as archetypes in literatures. It’s also just a very well crafted, well-written, classic quest story. It’s a good book to read for sense of place as the writing vividly brings to life a world that only exists in imagination.

24783Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 184
Difficulty: The language is slightly dense. Some students may struggle with it.
What it’s about: This is a fantasy story without magic. In Westmark, Theo becomes a wanted man through a mistake and ends up traveling with a con man and a homeless girl who is more than she seems.
Why it’s worth the read: This series explores ideas related to the Enlightenment in a sort of fake European country of the 1800’s. It especially looks at what makes good governance, why freedom of the press is important, and how power corrupts. What people can morally do to survive when hunted by the law unjustly is also explored. This first volume of a series just touches on those issues, but it does it within a lively story and a short page count.

Homeless BirdHomeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Pages: 192
Difficulty: The writing is pretty easy in this book.
What it’s about: A young girl is sent to an arranged marriage in India, but when she becomes a widow, she has to figure out how to make her own way, even though she’s still only a child.
Why it’s worth the read: Whelan is really good at conveying complex historical and contemporary themes in a simple way through a straightforward story. This is no exception. Gender, religion, and tradition are all strong themes in this book. The symbolism of the title and the various homes that Koly finds are good ways to look at symbolism. It’s excellent for learning about one side of contemporary Indian life (it would be wise to pair it with something else, such as a film, that shows other aspects). There are literary allusions to the great writer Tagore and reading some of his poetry would be a good tie in for the novel.

165149The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Pages: 176
Difficulty: The language is fairly simple in this plot driven story.
What it’s about: A Korean family struggles with what to do as World War II ends and their country is divided, with them on the wrong side of the line. It’s written like a novel, but it’s actually a memoir of the author’s childhood.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a great look at history that has deep connections with current events today. It’s also a good story of political oppression and how individuals deal with it.