Stories help readers develop empathy. And when an entire community reads the same story at the same time, it's an opportunity to combat intolerance, foster belonging, and explore themes that might otherwise feel intimidating or risky. When empathy and understanding seem to be in short supply around the world, our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders came together, remote and in-person, for our first All Middle School Read with Jerry Craft's award-winning graphic novel, New Kid.
New Kid for Every Kid
From the author and illustrator's website, New Kid is "an honest graphic novel about starting over at a new school where diversity is low and the struggle to fit in is real. Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade."
Since publishing in 2019, New Kid has won the 2020 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Book Awards Author Award among a long list of other accolades. Most importantly, it's a book featuring a diverse cast of characters and experiences that offers something for every reader. Within that context, the author deftly examines concepts like friendship, bullying, bias and assumptions, everyday racism, economic disparity, and more.
The Right Book at the Right Time
Librarian Ms. Whitney Etchison has wanted to get our middle schoolers involved in an all-school read since working with the Upper School on similar programs in the past. After reading New Kid, she was inspired to move forward this year. In early March, she coordinated with English Department Head and Advisory Coordinator Ms. Laura Steppe and Middle School Head Mr. Dan Keller who fully supported both her choice of book and emphasis on reading, community, and inclusion. As their plans developed throughout the summer, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mr. Michael Glasby also took a leadership role in establishing DEI protocols to make the program as beneficial as possible for everyone.
"Our library's mission is to support the lifelong love of reading with a collection that caters to diverse backgrounds, perspectives, interests, and opinions. New Kid was the perfect book to get our middle schoolers interacting with each other while supporting that mission." — Librarian Ms. Whitney Etchsion
Although the COVID-19 outbreak presented several logistical issues, Ms. Etchison charged ahead. She distributed books to every student and faculty member, organized workshops for teachers, and scheduled the event amid uncertainty about reopening campus. The final plan included four, hour-long discussion sessions for each group over four days, some in-person and some on Zoom, with reflection activities in advisory to follow.
This book addresses diversity, equity, and inclusion from multiple angles and identifiers — from race and economics to personality type and interest in different activities. Ms. Etchison created discussion prompts for each group to explore characters and scenes from the book while thinking about the bigger idea of how to create a community that values everyone for who they are.
"The kids loved reading the book, their reaction to it was really positive. Teachers too. And from a DEI perspective, I think it's a win. In the book, the characters make assumptions based on a lot of things. Many times, the reader has to fill in the blanks as to what the characters are thinking so it encourages self-reflection. It's really about developing empathy in general and not making assumptions about people when you don't know them. There's such a great variety of characters that any student could find something they connect with. The author does such a great job with that." — Ms. Etchison
Because race and racism are prominent themes in the book, Ms. Etchison and Mr. Glasby worked together to group students so, as much as possible, everyone could see someone in the room that looked like them or with whom they might identify. Every faculty and staff member with previous DEI experience worked with Ms. Etchison and Mr. Glasby as well. It was a collaborative effort, making best use of varied perspectives.
"I think that when students can look to the left or look to the right and see another student or an advisor who they look like or can potentially identify with, they can be more vulnerable and honest about their feelings and experiences. And no two conversations were alike. We had discussion prompts, but every group had different takeaways based on how they connected with the book." — DEI Director Mr. Michael Glasby
Ms. Etchison surveyed the entire Middle School after they had time to process their thoughts. Their overall responses reflected what she anticipated when planning the program; students vary greatly in their exposure and comfort when exploring issues related to DEI. There are some for which learning new vocabulary and gaining awareness are valuable steps forward and others who want to push beyond these foundational activities. As we invest more time in explicit DEI work, through both community events and curriculum, we hope to meet the needs of every student wherever they are on that spectrum. A couple of students volunteered to share their ideas for this article.
"I really like that the book addressed a problem that is happening in the world today. In our discussion group we talked about microaggressions which are something very little that you can do or say that will hurt someone’s feelings or make them feel lesser than you. It showed me a point of view that I have never seen before so I can now be more cautious of some of the things that I say." — Allie Gheewala '27
"I think it was the perfect book for our purposes because of how tightly it replicated the Severn community and it was the perfect tie from literature to real-life. As far as how the discussion groups went, there was nothing that we discussed that surprised me. I don't think that we're even close to half of the work that needs to be done. I think in order to get students to actually participate and contribute we need to be held accountable. Our discussions didn’t move very far after defining our three key terms: microaggressions, assumptions, and stereotypes. If these discussions had been inserted into our English classes or if we had real assignments or writings for these discussions, I feel that we would have made a lot more progress than we did." — Eleanor Hill '25
Early Steps, Many to Come
Diversity, equity, and inclusion work isn't entirely new to our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. With Community Life events, the 6th grade class Identity, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Action at Severn, and guest speakers, we have introduced these concepts to our students in the past. But this event is an entry point to a more robust and deliberate program that will grow for years to come.
"The goal now is to take the conversations from these smaller groups, move them into the advisories, and eventually transition to having full-scale community conversations. The more opportunities you have to talk about something, the more comfortable you'll be. It needs to be a continuous and collective process — we want students to understand that talking about race or any DEI topic doesn't have to feel taboo." — Mr. Glasby