Motivating Middle School Students to Read with Beanstack

Masthead Waves

Motivating secondary school students to read—and especially to read for fun—can be a monumental challenge. Research shows that, after elementary school, middle school students often experience a drop-off in reading for fun and, consequently, in their reading test scores. But many of our school partners are flipping the script and finding creative ways to engage middle school students using Beanstack. 


School success manager and former Orange County Public Schools program specialist Nicole Lopez gathered a group of librarians and media specialists from across the country for a roundtable to share success stories and tips from their middle schools. With compelling reading competitions, student recognition, small prizes, and alignment with local public libraries, these five middle school literacy experts are using Beanstack to uplift their culture of reading and increase their reading participation by big margins.


Boosting Book Reviews at Meigs Academic Magnet School in Tennessee

Amanda Tucker-Dye knows all about the ups and downs of middle school reading motivation after spending 14 years as a middle school librarian. “Getting middle schoolers and high schoolers to read in general is a challenge,” Tucker-Dye said on the call. But she relishes overcoming that obstacle. “I love the middle school age group,” she shared. “They’re quirky and weird and I love them.”


Early in her first year at Meigs Academic Magnet School within Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, Tucker-Dye was seeing good reading challenge participation throughout the school’s fifth to eighth grade student population. But she wanted to deepen reading engagement through conversations and reflections about diverse books, and to promote free-choice reading.


“I really wanted to get students reading and writing about what they read,” she said. “It’s so important that students are reading diverse books and talking about them.” So she started leveraging the book review feature in Beanstack, which allows students to earn badges for submitting book reviews. Media specialists then review and approve the book reviews to make them available for the students’ peers to peruse for their own reading inspiration. 


To further encourage students to get their reviews in, Tucker-Dye started giving away goodie bags. Each month, she randomly selects one or two students in each grade level who submitted a book review in Beanstack and gives them a bag of low-cost prizes, like candy and a free book. She also came up with completely cost-free prizes, like a “Reward Day,” where top readers can come in and play games in the library’s makerspace. 


To further motivate students to log reviews in Beanstack, Tucker-Dye also reached out beyond the library. She teamed up with fifth grade teachers to make logging a book and submitting a book review in Beanstack their students’ winter break assignment. 


“Each month, I probably get anywhere from 75 to 200 book reviews written. The students are really responding to it … and asking how they can win,” Tucker-Dye said.


Creative Experiences and Competitions at Seminole Middle School in Florida

Seminole Middle School in Broward County, Florida, has an innovative reading cheerleader in media specialist Celia Taylor. “I love being a media specialist. I love talking about books,” she said during the roundtable discussion.


Taylor goes all in when it comes to reading experiences and competition motivation. During the roundtable, her library was set up as a “book tasting”—complete with tablecloths, plates, and a menu of books. During the tasting, students read four books, each for 5 minutes. At the end of the block, they checked out their favorite and logged their “sampling” time in Beanstack. 


“At first, students come in and think it’s a party for teachers. They don’t realize it’s for them,” she said, laughing. “They’re so excited, and it just looks different. It’s not the same thing they come into every day.”


Adding an element of surprise or mystery to her students’ reading experiences is one of Taylor’s favorite tactics. During their seasonal challenges, when big prizes can be on the line, she hypes up the challenge on the school-wide morning announcements by broadcasting the top 20 readers—but without letting them know the actual rankings.


“I don’t write down how many minutes they have,” Taylor said. “I don’t even put them in order … I just say, ‘This is our leaderboard. Who wants to catch up and earn these prizes?’” Not knowing how close or far apart the gap is helps boost everyone’ reading, especially with a coveted 3D pen or portable phone charger on the line.


“Our fall challenge this year was 6 weeks [long], and we logged in almost 300,000 minutes, which was amazing,” Taylor shared. “It’s the most we’ve ever had, and it was really exciting … telling the whole population of students what we’re doing really works and gets them motivated.”



A Little Goes a Long Way at Milton M. Somers Middle School in Maryland

Longtime educator and media specialist Heather Hartman-Jansen works to uplift literacy at Milton M. Somers Middle School in southern Maryland’s Charles County. She voiced a common constraint for building reading engagement in middle schools today: time.


“As an educator, I’m stretched for time. I don’t have a lot of time to do big programs,” Hartman-Jansen said. “I’m here to say that a lot of small efforts do add up.”


Her advice is to keep things simple and small. “It’s a little bit extra, but it’s not so overwhelming that I lose time on it,” she explained. “Just try to keep their attention on Beanstack. It’s an amazing tool, my teachers love it, and the kids enjoy it.”


She spends most of her reading encouragement efforts on communication, competition, and recognition. In the school’s biweekly parent newsletter, Hartman-Jansen calls out the top readers, popular titles, and current challenges in Beanstack to highlight kids’ reading efforts and to continually encourage parents to support their reading. 


She also regularly briefs language arts teachers about the school’s current challenges, as well as their performance against other schools in the district. “Our district librarian will regularly update us about who’s in the lead in our district,” Hartman-Jansen said, “and I do find that a little friendly competition is always good.


When it comes to student communication, she does a lot of random recognition of top student readers. The unknown element keeps kids reading year-round for their chance at a prize and a classroom call-out. “For Valentine’s Day, I just sent out some heart-shaped erasers to my top 12 readers,” Harman-Jansen said, stressing the low-cost of her approach. “And my teachers tell me that the kids really enjoy it. And the other kids are like, ‘Oh, what did they get and why did they get it?’ It kind of peaks their attention and gets them interested.”


Hartman-Jansen stressed how important it is to continually remind students how to log their minutes. In all her communications, she goes over how to access Beanstack and participate in challenges. “They’re middle school students, they always seem to forget from one time to the next,” she said.


And when it comes to summer reading, the middle school partners up with their local public library system through Beanstack’s tandem connections feature. “Our students and staff are able to link their public library and school library Beanstack accounts, so that if they log on to one, they get recognition on the other,” Hartman-Jansen said. 


The public library system invests in big prizes that really motivate students to read, so by promoting their challenges and drawings, Hartman-Jansen is able to get even more middle schoolers logging reading over the summer—with less effort and expense for her. “A lot of our summer success comes because we partner with our local public libraries,” she said.



School-Wide Adoption and Big Summer Reading Prizes at Mabry Middle School in Georgia

When rolling out Beanstack at Mabry Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia, media specialist Anita Norton first focused on getting the principal and teachers engaged and trained. Norton went to ELA grade level meetings, hosted a school-wide training during their professional development day, and even co-hosted a tailored ELA training with the Beanstack school client success team.


“Everybody was just really on board, just because it’s fun for the kids and it’s a competition,” she said, “and there’s so much information that the teachers glean from it.”


Their middle school has a big focus on building a reading culture, with required D.E.A.R. time, or drop everything and read time, in reading classes and a Beanstack reading requirement built into their ELT, or expanded learning time, every day. Those both paved the way to school-wide adoption of Beanstack and a big increase in their overall minutes read.


“We have a really good culture of reading at our school,” Norton said. “Beanstack was just a great way to get it organized—and the kids love the competition.”


For their summer reading challenges, Norton builds hype by going big on the theme and the prize. “This year, it’s going to be ‘Unplug … Reconnect with books,’ and the prize is an Oculus,” she shared. “It’s a big prize. I scrape and gather money from wherever, and it’s huge. Those kids want it.”


Norton is also strategic about the books she highlights for summer reading. All of the titles are the first in a series of books in different genres, so middle schoolers come back in the fall with an itch to check out the second book, and then the third. “That’s how we increase the reading and just keep putting it in Beanstack,” she confided.


public-library partnership

Public Library Partnership and Activity-Based Learning at John Long Middle School in Wisconsin

Media specialist Jennifer Griffith juggles a lot. As the sole media specialist for the Grafton School District in Wisconsin, she handles the library and literacy operations at two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school—which means encouraging reading for more than 2,000 students.


Griffith discussed her growing reading success with Beanstack at John Long Middle School, where they started by participating in a district-wide summer reading challenge. They used Beanstack’s summer reading challenge template and partnered up with their public library via a tandem connection, which was a longtime goal.


“We had been talking for years about a better way to align with our public library for the summer,” she said, “because what we were hearing from families was they were either choosing what the public library was doing or what we were doing, because it was a lot of work to do both.” By aligning with their public library, Griffith were able to streamline the process for families and get more reading data and participation at school. They also added prize drawings for each earned badge and a grand prize drawing for a STEAM box subscription to sweeten the pot.


During the school year, middle school teachers use Beanstack during their school-wide resource time “to really boost our use,” Griffith said. Teachers monitor and advertise their classes’ progress using the insights dashboard, building up friendly competition between classes.


One key element Griffith uncovered for motivating middle schoolers is building activity badges into all their reading challenges. “We found that it helped engage some of our more reluctant readers, adding in some various things that they could do to earn badges,” she said. “Some of them have a very clear literacy connection, like writing a review, using Sora or audiobooks, or accessing our databases.”


With something for everyone, John Long Middle School is already seeing big participation growth in their first year using Beanstack. “We didn’t have very high usage last summer in my middle school in particular,” Griffith reported, “but many more are participating in the challenges we’re running during the school day.” She’s already looking ahead to summer 2022 to keep building growth and participation in her middle school readers.


Don't miss our upcoming roundtable discussions and training sessions where librarians and educators share valuable insights and ideas. Not yet a Beanstack client? Our team would be happy to show you all Beanstack has to offer.





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