Skip to main content

What’s the Big Idea? Integrating Young Adult Literature in the Middle School

NCTE English Journal
Drawing on New York City teachers’ experiences, this article examines three ways to effectively integrate young adult literature into the curriculum: use core texts (usually novels, but also other genres as well) that the entire class read and study together; organize literature study with text sets, allowing students to select from multiple texts to read; and incorporate independent reading into coursework (via Sustained Silent Reading or at-home reading assignments).

On this page:

Since entering the classroom as a teacher of English language arts 14 years ago, I have learned a great deal about exploring language and literature with adolescents, and my beliefs and approach to curriculum and teaching have evolved considerably. I began my career, as many teachers do, believing that a fairly traditional approach to teaching a very traditional canon-based literature curriculum was the best thing I could do to prepare my college-bound students for what lay ahead. I still believe that the literary canon has merit and should be at the center of the high school English curriculum, but I have come to believe that middle and high school students should also have significant opportunities to explore the ever-growing body of young adult literature. Ted Hipple states emphatically, “Literature written for young adults is fine literature, about themes that are universal, with quality that is stunning. Such literature merits — and rewards — attention” (14). Similarly, Barbara Samuels reminds us that adolescent literature “provides a perfect vehicle to help adolescents cross the bridge between literature for children and adult classics” (29).

In my dual roles as an English education professor and a public middle school language arts staff developer in the heart of New York City, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal from pre-service and in-service teachers about teaching and learning with urban adolescents. For the past two years, I have focused my research on one question: How can middle and high school teachers successfully integrate young adult literature into the curriculum? In an attempt to answer this question for myself, for the pre-service teachers I teach, and for the in-service teachers I work with, I have visited the classrooms of more than a dozen middle and high school English language arts teachers in the last three years. In this article, I share the stories of three New York City middle school teachers in whose language arts classrooms I have been spending a great deal of time.

Sixth-graders face their new-found responsibility: Kristen's story

As she began her fourth year teaching language arts, Kristen wanted to do something different with her sixth graders last year. She believed that the scope and sequence she had been using (studying short stories for one quarter, a novel during another marking period, followed by poetry, and so forth) was not motivating her students to love (or even like) literature as she did. In an interview she told me:

Last year, kids kept asking me, “Why do we have to read this stuff anyway?” I hate to admit it, but I was starting to ask the same question. It seemed like my goal was to work our way through the reading anthology, genre by genre, so that we could meet the standards of reading a variety of literature and learning the elements of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. I was getting bored, so I know my students were. I needed to do something different.

While her short story and poetry units relied heavily on classics from literature anthologies in the past, Kristen had been successfully incorporating works of young adult literature into her class’s study of novels and recognized that those works consistently captured her students’ interest.

After reading several articles and books related to interdisciplinary thematic curriculum planning (Stover; Kucer, Silva, and Delgado-Larocco; Lipson, Valencia, Wixon, and Peters; Mitchell and Young; Tchudi and Lafer; Walmsley), Kristen was intrigued by the idea of approaching curriculum planning thematically and decided that she wanted to organize the first semesters’ literature study around a relevant “big idea.” As we discussed a number of issues facing her urban adolescent students, Kristen told me that every year the sixth graders feel overwhelmed with the increased level of expectations and the new-found freedoms that come with making the transition from elementary school to middle school. For the first time in their school careers, many of her students would be changing classes seven times a day, studying with several different teachers, leaving campus for open lunch, and traveling unaccompanied round trip by subway to and from school each day. It was clear that these sixth graders could benefit from exploring the theme of responsibility. In planning a thematic unit, Kristen wanted to include multiple genres, so she pored through all of her resources to find literature that related to the theme of responsibility. Soon, she had created her first thematic multiple genre unit plan titled “Coping with Responsibility.”

At the end of the first week of school, when her kids were finally adjusting to the shell shock of their new middle school lives, Kristen and her students brainstormed a list of all of the new-found responsibilities that sixth grade was bringing them. Their list was more far-reaching than the one that Kristen and I had generated (larger allowance, more homework, bigger textbooks, gym uniforms, to name a few). She suggested that, as a class, they explore ways to handle this myriad of responsibilities and asked them if that was something they would like to do. The vigorous nods and appreciative looks on many of the 36 students’ faces told Kristen that she had picked the right big idea to begin the year with. She had found a meaningful way to motivate her students to read and write about literature with a purpose more significant than learning about (or memorizing definitions of ) the elements of literature. What they learned in language arts class was going to get them through a tough year, maybe even through middle school.

Kristen’s unit on responsibility included a number of short stories, poems, news articles and other nonfiction works, and two novels (Table 1). However, rather than teaching these genres in isolation within the unit, she integrated them throughout, often using a poem to introduce a short story and pieces of nonfiction as a response to a work of fiction. She discovered that her students were constantly making connections among works of literature, “as classes in past years had never done.” In whole class and small group discussions and in their individual reader response journals, students reflected on how

Table 1: A Sampling of Literature Used in the “Coping with Responsibility” Unit

Title Author
Poetry “The Voice”
“If I Were in Charge of the World”
“I Can’t Clean My Room”
“Lyin’ Larry”
“Those Winter Sundays”
Shel Silverstein
Judith Viorst
Charlotte Zolotow
Gordon & Bernice Korman
Shel Silverstein
Louis Ginsberg
Robert Hayden
Novels On My Honor
Marion Dane
Paul Fleischman
NonFiction “The Lie Detector”
“38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police”
Lewis Thomas
Martin Gansberg
Short Stories “The Necklace”
“After Twenty Years”
“The Lie”
“Thank You Ma’am”
“The Wash Woman”
Guy de Maupassant
O. Henry
Kurt Vonnegut
Shirley Jackson
Langston Hughes
Issac Bashevis Singer

characters faced responsibility (some more effectively than others), how they faced similar situations, and how a character from one story might have responded to a situation from another story. In their analyses, students questioned decisions made by some fictional and nonfictional characters and marveled at the insight and fortitude of others. Indeed, these sixth grade students were engaged in critical thinking and were developing an appreciation for literature as a means of exploring relevant issues. Not only were they learning about literature, they were learning from literature-gaining an understanding of the complexities that come with responsibility. By arming them with strategies for facing their new-found responsibilities maturely, Kristen was helping them make the transition from the fourth stage of moral development described by Lawrence Kholberg (role conformity) to the next level of self-accepted moral principles (Stage 5).

Indeed, these sixth grade students were engaged in critical thinking and were developing an appreciation for literature as a means of exploring relevant issues.

While many of the short stories in the unit were from the canon, much of the poetry was from collections for children or young adults. In addition, the two longer works, Seedfolks and On My Honor, are young adult novels. Seedfolks is a story about an urban community garden started by a child and nurtured by people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Each of the thirteen chapters is narrated by a different character, allowing the reader to watch as a community develops out of seemingly disconnected lives. Each character takes responsibility for his or her portion of the garden, so the unplanned communal project is successful. In contrast, On My Honor tells the story of Joel, who loses his best friend in a swimming accident for which he must take responsibility.

These two core novels, which Kristen’s students devoured, afforded the class numerous opportunities to explore the theme of responsibility as they examined the consequences of failing to meet challenges in a responsible way, as well as the rewards of responsible behavior. In addition, when her students were reading Seedfolks, Kristen had the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary collaboration with a science teacher. While the students read the novel in language arts class, they learned about plant life in science class. Inspired by the community garden described in Seedfolks, the science teacher and his students created a class garden right there in the middle school. Like the garden described in Fleischman’s book, the sixth grade garden brought the group together and taught them a sense of responsibility and ownership. This interdisciplinary curricular integration allowed students to “avoid fragmentation and the irrelevant acquisition of isolated facts, transforming knowledge into personally useful tools for learning new information” (Lipson, Valencia, Wixson, & Peters 255).

When I interviewed Kristen after the unit was complete, she reported:

I am a changed teacher. From now on I will be developing thematic units that integrate all kinds of literature. I have always taught On My Honor to sixth graders, but never before did they engage the text this way. I also want to try to collaborate with other teachers [in other disciplines] to link our classes together. That was great.

News of Kristen’s success has traveled throughout the language arts department, and other teachers have begun to explore multiple genre thematic and interdisciplinary curricular planning, incorporating young adult literature in lieu of the more traditional study of the literary canon.

Seventh-graders question equity and injustice in the past and present: Maria's story

In order to collaborate with a social studies teacher studying the Civil War era with her seventh graders, Maria wanted to find a book that dealt with slavery to read as a core novel in her language arts class. Although unfamiliar with the book, she decided to read Gary Paulsen’s Nightjohn with her class of struggling readers. As they read, her students were moved by the horrors of slavery faced by the protagonist, a young slave girl, Sarny. I observed a class discussion one afternoon when Tomeka, whom Maria described as usually quiet and uninvolved, spoke aggressively about the injustices associated with slavery. Her comments sparked an atypically heated and passionate class discussion, involving a number of students who rarely participate. Likewise, Maria was finding that the unusually detailed written responses to the book in the students’ journals often focused on their outrage at the injustices of slavery. Having heard about Kristen’s experience, Maria, too, decided to incorporate young adult literature into a multiple genre integrated thematic unit created around big ideas. Building on the interest of her students, she chose the critical ideas of equity and injustice.

Because the students were eager to know what became of the main character in Nightjohn, Maria did a read-aloud of the sequel, Sarny, during the week that her students worked on projects related to the book. Meanwhile, she outlined her first theme unit, including poems, short stories, and excerpts from memoirs that explored issues of injustice and equity. The students’ response to the injustices described in these literary works was as strong as they had been to Nightjohn and Sarny and led to passionate writing and class conversations.

A number of the students in the class represented minority groups and were intrigued by the fact that there were white kids who were marginalized by society as well.

In addition to reading works of poetry and fiction, Maria and her students also explored several recent events reflecting current injustices and inequity, not only in New York City, but also around the country and world today. Through newspaper accounts, they examined the stories of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who had recently been shot by police outside his apartment, and Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutalized by police inside a New York City police station. They also read a magazine article about the horrible death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, who was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die because of his sexual orientation. Class and small group discussions of these accounts of injustice in our own time were fervent.

Although responsive to and motivated by reading and discussing the short stories, poems, and media articles, the students were eager to read another novel. Maria was concerned that their study of injustice had focused primarily on racial discrimination, so she selected S. E. Hinton’s classic work of young adult fiction, The Outsiders, to broaden their examination of inequity. For three weeks students in Maria’s class read, responded to, and discussed the story of the white haves and have-nots depicted in that hallmark work. A number of the students in the class represented minority groups and were intrigued by the fact that there were white kids who were marginalized by society as well. This led to provocative and stimulating discussions. Although Maria had planned for The Outsiders to be the culminating piece to the unit, students asked to read “more literature about kids our age.”

Wanting to move away from core texts and whole class discussions, and feeling that her students had matured as readers and critics, Maria offered them the opportunity to read and discuss novels of their own choosing in small groups. She set up book clubs, similar to those described by McMahon and Raphael, with a text set of books related to the big ideas of justice and inequity. The thematic text set included Mead’s Adem’s Cross, Uchida’s The Invisible Thread, Lowry’s Number the Stars, and Blume’s Blubber. Though set in different time periods, each of these books tells the story of a young person who has to face the harsh reality of injustice and inequity. The most recently published of these books, Adem’s Cross, chronicles the horrors faced by a young ethnic Albanian boy and his family in Serbia-controlled Kosovo. Set in World War II Europe, Number the Stars reveals the story of a young Jewish girl in Denmark, who has to flee her homeland in fear of the persecution by the Nazis. The Invisible Thread relates the experiences of a young Japanese American girl whose family is placed in an American internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The only non-historical novel in the text set, Judy Blume’s Blubber, explores the way a young girl is cruelly tormented and abused by her classmates because she is overweight. Maria gave a brief book talk on each of the books, and the students (much to their delight) were allowed to select which of the four books they wanted to read.

For three weeks, students in Maria’s class of struggling readers read their selected novels, slowly but surely, and discussed in their small book club groups of four to six people the issues of equity and injustice revealed in them. Maria daily gave students a central question to consider in the book club discussions but mostly allowed students the opportunity to share personal responses to the chapters they had read for homework or to raise questions of their own. The books provoked enough response from the students that Maria reported they were rarely off task. Students who were normally reticent to speak up in whole class discussions found themselves passionately leading small group conversations about the literature they were reading. In a follow up interview, Tyneka, one young girl who read Blubber and took a lead in book club discussions one day, said:

I surprised myself. I usually hate reading. But the way they treated that girl just because she was fat was wrong. The boys in my class pick on everybody for being different. I felt like I needed to speak up about what I thought. I did that with my book club group but wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that in front of the class. At least I wouldn’t before we did this. [Now] I might not be so shy to speak up when our class is talking about a book.

This student’s comment suggests that small book clubs are a highly effective strategy for motivating and involving more students in the study of literature, whether canonical or young adult. (I’ve seen an eleventh grade teacher hold book clubs when reading The Great Gatsby with her class.) At the end of the unit Maria was elated, saying, “I had just about given up with that class. Earlier in the semester, I couldn’t get them to read much less talk about books in class. Now …” When I asked her to account for the change, she stated, “It was two things. First, the young adult literature. They really do like it, and a lot of it really is surprisingly good. Second, choosing literature related to a theme that they have strong feelings about motivated them to read and get involved in class discussions.” Although she employed different instructional strategies, Maria joined Kristen as a proponent of integrated thematic teaching.

Eighth-graders explore family relationships: Cindy's story

After reading the first volume of Joan Kaywell’s Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, Cindy, a teacher who relied almost exclusively on the classics from the canon, decided to use several works of young adult literature at the end of the year to complement her eighth graders’ reading of Death of a Salesman. While the class discussions that went along with the study of that classic drama covered a wide range of topics, the theme that her students seemed to want to discuss most often was the complexity of family relationships.

Inspired by the success she had seen and heard about with book clubs, toward the end of the year Cindy created a text set around this theme and set up literature circles in her classroom. Because she felt that her active class of eighth graders needed a great deal of structure during their final weeks of middle school, she implemented a discussion group model similar to that described by Harvey Daniels in Literature Circles, assigning each student a role for the discussions.

She built her unit around five books, each depicting a different family structure. Perhaps the most popular book was the sometimes-funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always engaging Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. When one group of kids learned that Chris Crutcher’s Stotan! is about athletes, they opted to read it. Likewise, a group of romantics was intrigued by the title Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene. Other students opted to read either Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt or Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The 36 students in the class were divided into small groups of five to six students, and a reading schedule was distributed. In keeping with Daniels’s model, the following literature circle roles were utilized: Discussion Director, Literary Luminary, Investigator, Connector, Summarizer, and Illustrator. Each member of the literature circle took one of the roles for the first literature circle meeting, and they rotated the roles during subsequent classes.

On one day that I was able to observe the literature circles in action, I was impressed when I heard how the students were interacting as readers and literary critics. One student analyzed character development in Homecoming stating, “Dicey seems kind of lame at first, but when she has to assume responsibility for the whole family it’s like she suddenly grows up and becomes an adult. I have to wonder if I would be able to do the same thing.” At another table a disgruntled student focusing on author’s style argued that “this lady [Bette Greene] underestimates the intelligence of her reader and overdid her writing constantly. I mean, I may be young, but I can get the point without her hitting me over the head 10,000 times with it.” As I circulated, I observed one group identify the school bus as a symbol of inequality in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and challenged other groups to identify major symbols in their books. Indeed, without being led to do so, students were engaging in insightful literary analyses of the books they were reading. Cindy took advantage of my challenge and put her students in jigsaw groups, as Aaronson suggests, to identify and discuss the symbols in their books.

Cindy was pleased when she heard students making so many personal connections with certain characters, sharing with classmates parallel situations from their own lives. This had not occurred so readily with some of the other works of literature the class had read during the year. She was pleased to hear a couple of “Investigators” who were adroit computer users sharing information that they had discovered on the Internet about the books’ authors. It was exciting to see the artists in the class who had chosen to be the “Illustrators” proudly sharing drawings and collages they had created depicting scenes from the reading. In short, the students were having very mature interactive discussions of the texts they had chosen to read, engaging in various approaches to literary criticism and drawing on their strengths and abilities to contribute to the group discussions. When asked to reflect on this unit, Cindy had the following to say:

The student reaction to the young adult literature was more positive than I imagined it would be. I thought eighth graders would think this stuff too babyish. I’m not going to replace the [canonical] literature I teach with adolescent novels, but will definitely use the YA lit to supplement the literature I teach. No doubt the best way to do this is to link the literature either thematically or historically. I would like to create a text set of historical novels set in Puritan times to complement our study of The Crucible. As for literature circles, I was really impressed with the discussions the kids had about the literature. They really blew me away. I’ll be using literature circles not only with young adult novels, but also with Gatsby, The Crucible, and other classics.

True to her word, Cindy began the following year collaborating with a colleague, an American history teacher, to coordinate the study of works of literature in the language arts class with historical time periods being studied in the social studies class. Corresponding with the history curriculum, her class began the year reading a text set made up of four historical adolescent novels set in Puritan times. Using the same approach she had with the family relationships literature circle, she allowed students to choose from Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village, or Witches’ Children by Patricia Clapp. Cindy reported that the classroom conversations stimulated by these books served as an introduction to the “big ideas” found in The Crucible and made the eighth graders’ study of that engaging, yet sometimes difficult work go more smoothly than it had in previous years. Later in the year, when the eighth graders studied slavery and the Civil War era, the social studies teacher joined in as Cindy and her students read Walter Dean Myers’s The Glory Field as a core novel. The language arts class discussion centered on literary elements of the novel, while the social studies teacher focused on the historical aspects of the work. Cindy reported, “Students love having the same reading assignment from both classes and came to my [language arts] class very excited that they knew more about the history of the time period than I did!” Like thematic planning within language arts class, this interdisciplinary curricular planning has been highly effective in helping students make connections between the disciplines that they study each day.

The answers to my question

Through the stories of these three teachers, I have begun to answer the question I set out to explore over the past three years. How can middle and high school teachers effectively integrate young adult literature into the curriculum? While there are innumerable ways to do this, I found that teachers tend to broadly organize their study of this literature in three ways. First, they use core texts (usually novels, but also other genres as well) that the entire class read and study together. This is perhaps the most common approach to the study of literature in middle and high schools today. All three of these teachers read core novels with their classes. This popular approach seems to afford the teacher more control of the class; however, in my opinion, this may stymie student discussion and is likely to limit participation in literature conversations. All three teachers described above, however, have worked hard to overcome these obstacles and have had success in engaging their students in discussions of big ideas in whole class conversations about a single work of literature.

Next, some teachers organize their literature study with text sets, allowing students to select from multiple texts to read. This approach relies less on whole class discussion and more on conversations in book clubs or literature circles. All three of the teachers described above have begun to successfully integrate book club/literature circle discussions of text sets, reporting that they integrate the multiple text approach between one and four times a year. In my observation of these literary experiences, I have noted that students seem more engaged, participate more actively, and gain a deeper appreciation for the literature that they are reading. Perhaps this is because, as Daniels suggests, they have more “voice and choice” in the classroom. Finally, most teachers of middle and high school language arts seem to incorporate some independent reading into their courses, occasionally relying on periods of sustained silent reading or, more commonly, on at-home reading assignments. I have not seen many middle or high school teachers in New York City incorporating reading workshops, such as those described by Linda Reif and Nancie Atwell. Having had success with reading workshop in my own seventh grade classroom several years ago, I encourage teachers to find a way to incorporate this practice into their classrooms, at least for part of the year.

From my observations, it appears that the teachers I have spent time with in the past three years go about integrating literature into the curriculum in a number of ways. Following the format of many textbook literature anthologies, some choose to isolate the texts, studying literature one genre at a time. This seems to me to create a lack of cohesion in the curriculum, making it difficult for students to make connections among works of literature. More effective, the teachers described in this article created multiple genre thematic units, where a variety of texts are linked by some common theme. This allows students to use literature as a means for exploring big ideas and to make connections among the various genres. In addition, these teachers have integrated literature across the curriculum by creating interdisciplinary units in which they can collaborate with teachers of other disciplines. I heartily endorse this practice, as it helps to break down some of the artificial divisions that exist in our school curriculum today and allows teachers to work together to explore ideas with their students. Perhaps the best curriculum framework would be a “big idea” curriculum, where, like Kristen, Maria, and Cindy, middle school teachers can break out of the proverbial box and use young adult literature to explore the themes and issues that face teachers and students alike in the 21st century. This is, at least, one answer to the question I am seeking to answer. No doubt, this year I will learn even more about bringing adolescents together with young adult literature in the classroom.

Copyright (2001) by the National Council of Teachers of English. Used with permission. George, M.A. (2001). “What’s the Big Idea? Integrating Young Adult Literature in the Middle School.” English Journal, 90(3), 74-81.

Marshall A. George teaches in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, New York City.