Yes, students want choice. They don’t want to read our favorite books – they want to discover their own favorites. But many high schoolers are out of practice and don’t know how to choose a book. That’s where the book talk comes in.
The teacher has to lead the way. Even if you are unsure about this whole workshop approach. Even if you haven’t read any young adult fiction lately. You can read the back of the book out loud. Or you can read the first few lines of the first chapter. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And you might find a book you want to read, too!
Start every class with a book talk and silent reading. Flip the order around from day to day if you want to, but start with these two things. Students should know that they need their independent reading books and their next reads lists. At the end of each book talk, remind students to add the title(s) to their lists if any of the books seem interesting to them.
I can share part of my workshop story here. At the beginning of the school year, I didn’t even know what Readers Workshop was. But I agreed to try it out.
I (naively? hesitantly?) started giving all of the book talks, but eventually the students wanted to join in.
That’s when the momentum really picked up.
And, they got to choose their own due dates. They love that.
Here’s how it worked: with a google spreadsheet, students signed up for a weekly due date that was sometime during the semester. During the week of their book talk, they would arrive to school on a Sunday morning, and in theory, were prepared to present the book talk first thing, or any other day that I might call on them during the week. About five students signed up for each week, so I would have anywhere between one and three students book-talking in any given class.
Here’s an example of the spread sheet the students had access to. If they changed their minds or presented on a different book, it was okay. But, as with all things, the teacher gets to set the boundaries in which the students have choice.
Some possible requirements for a book talk : students must like their book enough to recommend it, students have to have finished reading the book, they need to read a passage aloud, no spoilers!, talk about how they personally connect to t
he text, who the book might appeal to, “like-reads” (if you
liked this, you’ll love this). There’s no need to worry about a time limit – sometimes less is more – just be convincing. They were also required to have a visual, but simply holding the book in hand was enough, because a convincing book talk is really about content over flair.
The requirements were discussed within the class – there are student-created anchor charts up on the walls in my classroom which have qualities of a good book talk listed on them. When students work through that kind of thinking, they feel they have agency, and they have a deeper understanding of the task.
To be clear: this is where the magic happened. Students talked about books they liked, favorite books, books they had always wanted to read, and had authentic dialogue. Students asked insightful and authentic questions, and shared personal stories and information in order to convey how they connected to the text. Students started to pass books from one person to the next. For example, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns has been read by four or five students in one class this semester, simply because they are talking to each other about books, and they are starting to know what they like.
I’m still book talking during every class. During the first half of the year, I mainly focused on one book per class. Because students were also sharing book talks, the classes would be introduced to three or four titles per class. Now, I’m doing themed book talks. Students have responded with enthusiasm to the new themed talks.
Last week, because the inauguration was over the weekend, I grabbed books that had been penned by or about former presidents: The Audacity of Hope, Truman, 41, a Lincoln photobiography, and something else by George W. Bush. I used the books to talk quickly about the peaceful transfer of power, and shared that I have my own personal copy of The Audacity of Hope, but it’s special because it’s signed by the author (they love hearing about how I connect to the text, too). Then I went in to book talking something totally different – Confederates in the Attic – and I read aloud from chapter 1 when the “living historians” – aka reenactors – spoon on the battlefield in order to stay warm. It didn’t get the laughs I was hoping for, but when kids realized what was going on, they were intrigued.
Everything you try won’t work, and that’s okay. Sometimes the books I bring into the classroom fall flat and don’t find readers. That’s okay. But I digress…
At that point, if a student thought one of the titles sounded interesting, it was added to the next reads list, which I regularly remind the class to do. Invariably, if I forget to remind the class about the next reads list, someone in class will remind me.
The point of the next reads list is that it gets used, so it has to be accessible every time they are in a bookstore or library. They use the notes app on their mobile phones, as they seem to be attached to their mobile devices and always have them close by. Occasionally I ask them to send me a screen shot so I know they are keeping them up to date, adding and taking away when appropriate, and we can talk about possible titles and more choices at that point (these are also great conference starters).
Below are next reads lists – the first from a 9th grader, second one from a 10th grader, third one from an 11th grader.
Book talks are easy and powerful – a perfect combination for helping to kickstart or invigorate a Reader’s Workshop classroom. All you need is a collection of books – a classroom library, a school library, or best, a combination of the two.
Share your favorite books, write the title on the board, and talk about the book with passion. Do it for every class, every day. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.