Students pose after listening to their classmates’ oral reports.
Book-inspired artwork by Hana H-J. ’26 (I Am Number Four) and Lila D. ’26 (Crooked Kingdom).
In Kelly Brown's 8th grade English class, students have a say in the curriculum. This quarter, they each chose a book to read, study, and present for their Outside Reading Project. The oral report included a summary of the plot (no spoilers!), some author background, and a creative project of their choosing, such as designing a movie poster, creating a playlist, or collecting an anthology of theme-related poetry.
The free-choice unit empowers students to find books that speak to them––developing their language and comprehension skills while instilling a love of reading. “I encourage them to put down a book if it’s not taking,” said Kelly Brown, who, in addition to teaching English, is the 8th Grade Dean. “That’s what I do in my own reading life. I want them to enjoy books, to read for pleasure.” Along the way, the class also learns grammar and punctuation rules; a date on the white board reminds of an upcoming semicolon quiz.
“Ms. Brown is an incredible teacher,” said Andrea W. ’26. “She exudes positivity. I enjoyed choosing a book and I really enjoyed the book I read, a murder mystery called A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Zoe actually recommended it to me.”
At the beginning of the quarter, the 8th graders explored their options. Library Director Christiana Cuellar pulled a range of new novels and memoirs she thought would intrigue the class. Once each student had chosen a book––some at the recommendation of a classmate!––they read for enjoyment and with the concept of mirrors and windows in mind, thinking deeply about how they do and do not relate to the characters. “Mirrors and windows” pedagogy was first introduced by Emily Style for the National SEED Project and then deepened by children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, Ph.D., who explained that books can be mirrors, reflecting back a child’s experience and allowing them to feel seen, and windows, offering a glimpse into an unfamiliar identity or lifestyle.
Emmy M. ’26, who said she “really had fun with this project,” read Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up and put together a 30-song playlist inspired by the characters. In her oral report, she said the book was a window. “The character Bri and I have some things in common, like our hobbies and social life, but we’re mostly different. I don’t have problems at home,” she said, “and I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman in today’s society.”
While speaking about Rick Riordan’s novel The Last Olympian, Cameron J. ’26 shared a surprising and vulnerable connection to the characters. “I can’t always relate because these characters have superpowers,” he said, “But I can relate to one character, Jason, who is the son of Zeus. People expect a lot from him, sometimes too much, and that's how I feel sometimes.”
“We can probably all agree with being pushed,” said Kelly Brown, “by teachers, parents, or even coaches. I appreciate you being vulnerable with that.”
When he’d finished his presentation, Zoe H. ’26 raised her hand to ask Cameron an insightful follow-up question: “How accurate do you think the Percy Jackson series is to real Greek mythology?”
“It’s not historical fiction,” he said. “It’s not always not super accurate. It’s based on it but doesn’t exactly follow Greek mythology.”
Beyond thinking about the characters and themes, the students also studied the authors’ lives, connecting their personal histories to the books themselves. Ishaan B. ’26 shared that Angie Sage, author of Magyk, is the daughter of a book publisher, who’d bring home blank, dummy books for her to illustrate when she was young. She ended up studying art and, in addition to her YA novels, she also illustrates kids’ books. Cameron taught the class that Rick Riordan created Percy Jackson as a bedtime story for his daughter, who has ADHD and dyslexia, so he decided to make most of the characters, demigods, also have ADHD and dyslexia.
The oral presentations allowed students to practice public speaking and to listen with interest. The students praised one another’s presentations, calling out their strengths. “I like the symbolic side to your artwork,” Evan F. ’26 said to Lila D. ’26, who drew a scene from the novel Crooked Kingdom. They also asked questions, pulling one another into conversations about the books: “Who is your favorite character?” “What’s your favorite book in the series?” and, a comment heard more than once: “Oh my god, that’s on my to-read list!”
It’s clear, from this energetic and thoughtful class, that fostering a love of reading equips our students with social-emotional intelligence and the capacity to become compassionate members of society. Psychologists have found a correlation between reading fiction and developing empathy––but middle school English teachers already knew that!
Ishaan B. ’26: Magyk by Angie Sage
Lila D. ’26: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Hana H-J. ’26: I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
Cameron J. ’26: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
Emmy M. ’26: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Andrea W. ’26: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson