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Speak is a profoundly valuable book to read in class because it encourages individuality and teaches compassion.
The modern adolescent is confronted with the pressure to conform. Technology and social media have increased this pressure. For example, "everyone" has an Instagram, posts their selfies, and "has to get the new phone." While individuality is valued, it seems that social acceptance borders on necessity. Students who don't fit in are often made to feel terrible about it. Speak is valuable because Melinda is an outsider. The entire novel is about someone who is on the periphery of the high school social scene. It is important for students to read about someone who is not "popular."
Entering the summer before her Freshman year, Melinda embraced the goals of social acceptance. Yet, her experience at the party and the social ostracizing she is forced to endure make her a non-conformist. The book is valuable because it talks about this victimization. Students who embrace the joyful superficiality of adolescence must confront some of the painful reality that is also a part of it.
When Melinda examines high school through her perceptive lens, she is able to cut through the conformity that is so much a part of it. Whether it's the pep rallies that make her want to scream, the education that does not inspire, or the "lies" that are a part of high school, Melinda learns to be aware of the importance of individuality and individual thought. For adolescents who place so much on social acceptance, reading Melinda's narrative is extremely valuable. Even the most popular of students has to acknowledge some of what Melinda says as valid. When this is evident, meaningful discussions can emerge as to why our world is structured this way and whether it should be. These are reflective talks that enable students to think about the world and their place in it.
The fact that students would spend a couple hundred pages reading about a someone who has been victimized and alone most of the time is powerful. Even more powerful is the transformation of Melinda from one who is silent to one who learns to "speak." Melinda changes from a student who feels her "throat squeezes shut, as if two hands of black fingernails are clamped on my windpipe" to someone who is able to confront her abuser and exclaim, "I said 'NO!" Students learn to respect Melinda and her narrative. As a result, students recognize the importance of voice in their lives. When students acknowledge the plurality of voices that should be present in our world, a sense of compassion is fostered. In many respects, high school is a world that lacks it.
The book's affirmation of voice is critical: "When people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time.” Teaching how important it is to prevent this from happening by hearing people's voices is a valuable lesson. In high school and middle school, we need to develop people to be more like Mr. Freeman than like Andy Evans, "IT." Speak becomes a very valuable weapon in this mission.
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