Middle School News

Middle School Students Explore Social Justice in Lit Clubs
Judith Worrall, middle school writing teacher & communications team member

Middle school students recreated the Just Mercy book cover.

Founded in 1982, the Nueva Lit Club curriculum has provided middle school students with many opportunities over the years to practice reading strategies and literary analysis. This year, students have been faced with a challenging and changing world—in all of their classes, Nueva students have engaged in complex conversations and have raised important questions about race and social justice issues that were reignited this past summer.

Given the significance of this moment, interim Division Head Karen Tiegel and librarian Marilyn Kimura decided that it was critical to address these issues and make a change to the Lit Club focus. In previous years, teachers selected genres and themes for their Lit Clubs and then students chose the Lit Club that most interested them.

“In Lit Club 2020 the structure hasn’t changed; students still develop their critical thinking and reading skills,” Karen said. “But this year our focus is different, as all groups will explore books with a social justice theme.”

Lit Clubs, which meet every Friday for an hour, are small, allowing for plenty of teacher support to encourage reading stamina and a shared love for literature. The new sessions focus on Nueva students discussing more complex and socially conscious books, enhancing abilities developed through previous clubs. The range of literature has been deliberately chosen to be diverse—culturally, racially, ethnically, socio-economically—so that all of the students will share an understanding of how to discuss social justice and equity, exchanging personal reactions and viewpoints in a free, and safe, environment.

While all Lit Clubs will focus on social justice, book selections will vary by group and will include a combination of fiction and nonfiction appropriate. All fifth and sixth graders began the year reading Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes, a novel about race, family, and the power of sport. Students will also have an opportunity to hear from the author, as Jewell Parker Rhodes will be speaking as part of the Nueva Book Fair this year. 

All seventh and eighth graders are reading Just Mercy as their first book, a memoir by civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson about racial injustice and capital punishment in Montgomery, Alabama. A 2019 film adaptation of the book, starring Black Panther actor Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, stirred up excitement in students; many groups shared clips from the film so students could see what they read come to life. In both the book and the film, Stevenson shares the challenges he faces in trying to overturn the unjust death-penalty conviction of Walter McMillian, a black man and entrepreneur, who was innocent of any crime.  

Liv R., an eighth grader, shared, “Just Mercy is about Stevenson's career in redeeming justice for people who were unfairly accused. It's about America's broken system of punishment and trials and their bias. Especially with the current events, we all need to become educated on the incredibly unfair situations in the world and we need to take action.” 

“Lit Club is a great space other than SEL class to talk about racial and social injustice,” eighth grader Cat F. noted. “Lit Club is also a good place to talk about books and how they are one of the most powerful ways to communicate people’s stories; they teach us how we can help create a better and brighter future for everyone.”

Lit Club leader Rachel Freeman said, “Not only are the students reading some really great books, but we’re also engaging in conversations that I think are instilling hope in students during a time when it might be hard to find hope. As a leader, I have been moved by the ideas students are bringing up, as well as the books they are selecting to read. Next up, my group will be reading The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden, a story that explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate from one girl’s point of view.”

“Lit Club is great,” said eighth grader Rohan T., “It allows me to gain new perspectives on the books we read individually. Just Mercy is a book about racial justice, and for many that is a tough topic to speak to everyone about. However, in Lit Club, teachers have activities planned to help us digest everything in the book and feel comfortable about speaking what we think. Through discussion questions, we can talk about specific details in the book, and not feel overwhelmed by everything.”

Eighth-grader Kian S. added, “In these times of social and racial injustice, it is essential to comprehend what is going on by first taking heed of individual stories and then interpreting the collective thoughts of our society. For that and many other causes, there lies no better answer than in books.”

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