By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Twice each year, sixth-graders at Van Antwerp Middle School head home from school, have dinner with their families, do a little homework, and then head back to school for a bonus class.
Parents pull up out front and park. This is no quick drop-off situation; this is Book Links, a program that for 18 years has encouraged sixth-graders and their parents to read together. That means parents have to come to class, too.
Teacher Michael Pletman started the program at Van Antwerp and has been leading Book Links classes ever since. On Nov. 18, about 135 people were in attendance.
“The real goal is that they read the book together,” Pletman said.
He knows sixth-graders can read on their own, but he doesn’t think they necessarily always should.
Middle school is a transitional time for kids and, naturally, for their relationships with their parents. Pletman said the characters and events in books can help spark conversations that might otherwise be tough to strike up, and that can bring people closer together.
“I think parents miss a big opportunity when they don’t read with their sixth-graders,” Pletman said.
He doesn’t expect the books to be a disappointment to parents just because they’re OK for younger readers.
“I happen to think young adult novels are better than the regular adult stuff,” he said.
The books change all the time, but for the fall session this year, Pletman’s students of all ages read the book “Counting by 7s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan.
The subject matter is rather heavy: In the first chapter, a young girl, Willow, comes back from an outing to eat ice cream with friends and a school counselor to find a police car in her family’s driveway.
“There’s been an accident,” an officer says. She discovers her parents have been killed in a terrible traffic accident. The plot follows the Willow’s struggle to recover from the tragedy and discover who she is again after losing her family members.
During the Book Links event, parents and students sat together at tables and dissected themes from the book. The first thing they tackled was a quote from the cover: “If you’re lost, you might need to swim against the tide.”
Together, they tried to parse out all the different ways the quote applied to the story, and to their own lives. Students suggested maybe the quote meant to encourage people to try new things, or to seek out different solutions when things go wrong, or to embrace individuality. Throughout the discussion, parents were there to offer their own two cents.
Deb Orminski, a parent of two Niskayuna students, said she was surprised at the seriousness of Pletman’s selection when she began to read it with her son, Christopher.
“I would’ve thought this book was too mature, but he really understood it,” she said.
Orminski, whose daughter is three years older than Christopher, said Book Links has been one of her most cherished elements of the Van Antwerp experience with her children.
“They guide them well to books that are really interesting,” she said.
Plus, she likes it, too.
“It’s like sitting in class.”
Student Nolan Beattie said he read the book with his mom, and really enjoyed it.
“We just got to bond the entire time,” he said.
The text sparked conversations that he says wouldn’t have come up without the reading assignment from Book Links.
“When Willow’s parents died, it made me think, ‘What would happen if my parents died?’ ” he said.
Beattie said the conversation was tough, but worthwhile.
Pletman got his recommendation for the book from a source only a middle school teacher would take very seriously: one of his students. He said he often takes recommendations from the young readers around him. Over the summer, he stopped by the Open Door Bookstore and picked up a copy.
He read it twice and, despite the tough subject matter, decided his students could handle it and would learn a lot from the text.
At Book Links, he invited their feedback using an exercise he often employs in his classroom. Pletman posted signs around the room that said “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Strongly disagree,” and “Strongly agree.” Then, he reads statements about the book, and people gather near the poster that describes their reactions.
“The big thing to me is they get to share their opinion a lot,” he said. “You can see everybody’s opinion, whether they want to talk or not.”
This book analysis is especially valuable for the students because one prominent sixth-grade project at Van Antwerp involves authoring and illustrating original novels. The teachers do all they can to help students figure out what they like and don’t like about the books they read, so they can figure out how to emulate those positive qualities as writers.
More than anything, though, Book Links is about creating connections between parents, students, and teachers, several of whom joined Pletman at the event to help facilitate.
And, of course, it was about turning the tables of homework between students and parents. Student Paige Splendido sat beside her mom, Karen, at a cafeteria table during a small group discussion and teased her.
“I liked reminding her to read,” Paige said with a laugh.