Literacy Tools Smooth the Ups and Downs

10 ways to develop middle schooler’s social-emotional skills

Hanna’s adoption was never a secret. It was a fact of life, like her black hair and her fear of spiders. She didn’t give it a lot of thought until she turned 13. At the beginning of seventh grade, she desperately wanted to find her birth mother. She felt like a puzzle with a missing piece, and she wanted to fill the gaps in her story. Her parents launched an exhaustive but unsuccessful search, and Hanna was deeply disappointed. There was so much she wanted to know and even more that she wanted to share.

“I’m worried that I’ll forget everything,” she told me. “Like who my friends are and what I like to do. If I ever find her, I want her to know what I’m like right now.” I asked Hanna how she felt about writing her birth mother a letter. She wouldn’t be able to mail it immediately, but she could start harnessing her memories. Hanna liked the idea. “Maybe I’ll even be able to give it to her someday,” she said. Writing can be a powerful tool, especially when kids are young adolescents, an age when they’re starting to think abstractly, engage in moral reasoning, develop self-awareness, and look for meaning. Here are ten ways that literacy activities help kids manage this tough phase and develop strong social-emotional skills.

Empower Them to Use Their Voice

Middle school kids tend to have a heightened sense of justice and equity, and they like to right wrongs. At the same time, they’re expected to follow rules and may be hesitant to question authority. Writing is one way to practice voicing their opinion. They can write letters to politicians to support a bill or cover causes they care about for a school paper. Many teens blog online to combat bullying or raise awareness about mental health or environmental issues. If students want to tackle an issue in their own school, they can present a written argument to a teacher or principal. One of my former students crafted a long list of reasons outlining why the school should have a Gender and Sexuality Alliance. Students don’t have to focus solely on solving problems. They also can reach out to a favorite author, actor, athlete, or musician to exchange ideas.

Book recommendation: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Form Healthy Relationships

Students are learning about love and friendship from every source imaginable, and books can provide examples of both good and bad relationships. If kids are reading novels such as Twilight or The Fault in our Stars, adults can initiate discussions about nuanced issues such as respect and reciprocity. If the class is reading a classic such as “Romeo and Juliet,” that also can kick off a dialogue.

Book recommendations: Bitter End by Jennifer Brown; Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Dollner

Develop Resilience

When children understand that they’re the main character of their story, they’re less likely to crumble in the face of setbacks, whether they’re bullied or struggle academically. To underscore this point, kids can read books like the Harry Potter series that follow the hero’s journey model. They can see how a main character hits bumps in the road but learns valuable lessons and emerges from adversity.

When it comes to building resiliency, writing is equally effective. One study found that people who write down their worries have less anxiety. Another showed that people who write about break-ups cope better with heartache. Researchers have found that people who focus on positive outcomes when writing about negative situations have less emotional distress. To maximize efficacy, teachers can urge students to move beyond logging a basic summary. Journaling is most effective when kids reflect on their experiences rather than simply recapping their day.

Book recommendations: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds; Serafina’s Promise by Ann Burg

Self-regulate Emotions

At Sheridan School, the sixth grade teachers ask students to keep a gratitude journal. Every Friday the angle shifts. Students might be instructed to express appreciation for their family or their classroom or their music teachers or something more open-ended. Taking stock of both big and small blessings helps kids soothe themselves and process difficult feelings.

Book recommendation: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Bolster Social Skills

When kids send thank you notes or write letters to camp friends or pen pals, they practice social etiquette. As they inquire about others and disclose details about their own lives, they learn how to forge bonds and build trust.

Book recommendation: Invisible Lines by Mary Amato

Build Creativity

When kids read across genres and generations, they’re exposed to a broad range of writing styles. Children who understand that there’s no right or wrong way to tell a story are more likely to take creative risks and find their unique voice. The act of writing also may help students generate ideas. Focused attention on one concept may help them tap into an undiscovered well of ideas.

Book recommendation: Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Understand Differences

Some teachers are partnering with classes across the world so their students can exchange letters with kids growing up in different cultures. Reading also bridges differences. Recently, my 14-year-old daughter and I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for a teen magazine. Purple Hibiscus follows the story of Kambili, a 15-year-old girl in Nigeria, and despite the differences in their experiences and lives, my daughter chose to highlight their similarities. She noted that they both put a lot of pressure on themselves, take friendship seriously, and are trying to figure out what’s important to them.

In addition to writing Purple Hibiscus, Adichie delivered the famous TED talk “The danger of a single story.” The lecture warns about the dangers of reducing an individual to one characteristic. At Sheridan, the seventh graders write Tiny TED talks. They share personal stories that address what it feels like to be defined by one facet of their lives, such as their socioeconomic status, race, or learning disability. The activity can be emotionally difficult, but it helps kids realize that everyone has a rich, complex story.

Book recommendations: American Born Chinese by Gene Yang; Blossoming Universe of Violent Diamond by Brenda Woods; All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Develop Self-awareness

Embracing others starts with understanding yourself. Both reading and writing can further this goal. Our middle school students write poetry using adjectives that best describe their personality. Another assignment asks kids to fill interlocking circles with words that describe the way they see themselves as opposed to the way others view them.

One Sheridan teacher uses photography as a writing prompt. She shows kids thought-provoking images, such as a visual of kids being rescued from Hurricane Harvey, then asks them to write down their feelings. Another teacher asks kids to respond to a series of questions in writing. “Who am I? How am I? What am I? Where am I? When am I?” Each question is then broken down into more detail. “Who are the people that have had a significant influence on the person you are right now? What are the situations or circumstances when you show people the real you? What impact do you hope to have on the world? How does your family create and honor traditions?” These types of assignments encourage kids to identify their core values.

Book recommendations: Another Way to Dance by Martha Southgate; My Basmati Bat Mitvah by Paula Freedman

Foster Kindness and Empathy

To teach kids kindness, we need to show them how to adopt someone else’s perspective. Reading is a great way to step into someone else’s shoes. As they follow a character’s journey, students can imagine new identities and adopt different attitudes.

Book recommendations: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers; Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; Wonder by R.J. Palacio; Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine; Deafo by Cece Bell; Hate List by Jennifer Brown; The Invisible Thread by Y. Uchida; The Color of Water by James McBride.

Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Teachers can help kids dissect literature and popular media stories. To develop critical thinking skills, take advantage of opportunities to ponder ethical or moral dilemmas, argue two sides of the same issue, or evaluate the reliability of a source. Kids can be trained to spot bias, including their own, and they can learn to distinguish between distracting and pertinent details.

Writing also teaches kids how to consume information. When they’re writing a book review, research paper, or personal essay, encourage students to break down ideas and view them from different angles. By taking this approach, they also may begin to question their own assumptions.

Book recommendations: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah; Children of the River by Linda Crew

As for Hanna, writing represented a turning point. Once she started chronicling her experiences for her birth mother, she didn’t stop. Her initial tentative thoughts quickly expanded to more than 30 pages. Writing helped build her resilience and soften her feelings of loss, but it also helped her compartmentalize. Once Hanna committed her thoughts to paper, she had a much easier time staying focused on the everyday ups and downs of middle school.

Book recommendations courtesy of Elaina Wells, librarian at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C.