May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Conquering Middle School Miasma

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

Looking at the torn and tattered copies of Juliana Farrell, Beth Mayall, and Megan Howard’s Middle School: the Real Deal from Cafeteria Food to Combination Locks (HarperTrophy), Arlene Erlbach’s The Middle School Survival Guide (Walker), and titles in the “Middle School Confidential” series (Free Spirit) in my K-Gr 8 library, it’s clear that guidance about this uncharted territory is of perennial interest to our rising and incoming students. Cubbies have given way to lockers and indoor lunches to snacking and socializing outdoors, as these students navigate new subjects, teachers, classmates, and schedules. Fortunately, two new books can help guide the way.

surviving middle school1In Surviving Middle School: Navigating the Halls, Riding the Social Roller Coaster, and Unmasking the Real You (Aladdin/ S. & S., 2016; Gr 5-7), Luke Reynolds, a middle school teacher, offers practical advice and encouragement. He covers a range of topics from friendships and self-confidence to teachers and parents, understanding that these years can be both scary and challenging. Throughout the book, the author shares abundant stories from his school years and his work with students, while stressing the importance of being true to oneself even in the face of changing relationships. Occasional writing (and thinking) activities will help readers put their experiences in perspective; for example, he asks that readers look at an incident (the “bad thing” that happened at school today, witnessed or experienced), then try to list some aspects that were unknown about it, or might have been happening “below the surface.” Knowing that responding to these exercises might be difficult for many, Reynolds walks students through them as he underscores that sometimes “…life exists below the surface of what we can see” and that by exploring that level, we tend “to treat ourselves (and others) with more kindness.” Before sending students on their way, a final chapter addresses the “other stuff”—the day-to-day beyond grades and relationships—initiative, organization, sleep, etc. Throughout, Reynolds’s empowering messages are replete with humor, pull-quotes, and gray tone spot-art drawings that help make the advice go down smoothly.

middle school academic successSome of the most successful programs and conversations to ensure that students who want to pursue higher education are able to do so, occur early in a child’s academic career. Consequently, many elementary and middle school administrators schedule group and individual meetings to encourage early planning to make college a reality. For motivated parents and students, Blake Nemelka and Bo Nemelka’s  The Middle School Student’s Guide to Academic Success: 12 Conversations for College and Career Readiness (S. & S., August, 2016; Gr 7 Up) will be a useful tool.  In a note to parents and mentors, the authors stress that their book should not be forced on a student; it’s a guide for the willing, with “action” items that require assistance and/or feedback from an adult. They admit that some of the work may “sound suspiciously like homework,” but emphasize that these can be “life-changing” steps for those who take them. Topics covered include setting goals, time management, grade point averages, extra- and cocurricular activities, service and work experiences, college testing and applications, and more. Each of the 12 chapters is divided into “things to do now” and “things to start thinking about” and structured with “listen,” “learn,” reflect,” and “act” exercises.  Worksheets, which can also be accessed and downloaded from a website (address provided), are included. Throughout, chapters open with quotes from historical, literary, sports, and pop-culture figures, while shaded boxes offer additional tips and inspiration. This is a book that takes time to advance through, but students who stick with it will be rewarded with having established clear personal goals and knowledge of the work that will be required of them in the future.

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.



  1. Megan Fink says:

    Thank you for these suggestions!