Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice

“I’d like to talk to you about some books.”

That’s how I start nearly every class period. My students are ready with their own independent reading books, and their phones are usually on their desks, which is what I want. They’ve got their next reads list in the notes app, and they are ready to add some new titles to the lists. They just need some inspiration!

I’ve tried a few different ways to introduce students to books, and there are all sorts of strategies that work. I’ll describe the one I’m currently using; students are enjoying it, and I am getting titles in front of them en masse.

I’ve explained in previous posts that my students set some second semester goals by drawing randomly themed cards out of a bag. The themes offer challenge and choice, and generally serve to expand their comfort zones.

I’ve started drawing cards out of the bag, too, and those cards are now shaping my themed book talks.img_7298

Today’s book talk theme was nutrition. Included in our grouping: a multicultural cookbook, some nonfiction about the Irish potato famine (also counts for the immigration card), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer, the Neil Flambe series, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a quirky graphic novel titled Chew by John Layman, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. By the end of the day my students had added more titles: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to name a couple. Continue reading “Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice”

Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud

I try to confer with students every day and every class period. I try to confer with each student at least every two weeks. These are challenging, measurable, and attainable goals. But I rarely meet them. Life gets in the way, and official conferences don’t happen as much as I’d like. So when we have conferences, I really try to make them count. I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated, though.

In chapter six of Book Love, Penny Kittle describes three different purposes for conferencing with students:  Monitor a Reading Life, Teach a Reading Strategy, and Increase Complexity and Challenge. 

I’ve gotten comfortable with the first category, Monitor a Reading Life, which is essentially a check-in. I absolutely do this type of conferencing in class, but I also do it informally all day, every day. It’s the “What are you reading?” when I see a student in the hallway. Kittle’s go-to question is now my go-to, and it has power while still being casual and comfortable. It’s a great way to help make up for the lag time I’m experiencing with students between more official, sit-down conferences. I also ask questions such as:

  • “How is Angela’s Ashes working for you?”
  • “How many pages did you read last night?”
  • “What’s on your next reads list?”
  • “Do you have enough to read over the weekend?”

There’s a lot of power in these unscripted, impromptu hallway conversations. I can tell right away if a student is excited to read a book, whether I should consider counseling a student to drop a book, and most importantly, if a student is regularly reading enough.

I’ve also gotten comfortable conferencing with the third category, Increase Complexity and Challenge. After I’ve monitored the reading life of a student (the time required varies from student to student; trust your teacher instincts), I can easily judge whether or not a student is challenging herself.

For example, when I noticed that one of my students was only reading books that contained essays or short stories, but not text of any significant length, I talked to her about choosing a short novel so that she can increase her stamina and stick with one longer narrative. When I noticed that one of my eleventh-grade boys was only reading Percy Jackson, through a series of conversations I encouraged him to read something different; he reluctantly chose A Thousand Splendid Suns, and has since moved on to enjoy an expanded comfort zone.

For the whole-class text complexity challenge, students drew categories of text out of a bag and then committed to at least trying to read some of these new categories during semester two. Some cards are speciimg_7294fic- like Biography A-J. Others are more general, like Long Title or Setting in Asia. Students had fun with that activity and there was really good energy about the challenge. I pictured the bag of challenge cards here on the right.

The category of conference that really intimidates me is Teach a Reading Strategy. My inner dialogue is all “You aren’t a reading teacher! You teach literature! Reading teachers teach the little kids! Your students are almost adults!” All semester I doubted myself and my ability to teach  mini-lessons that I could just conjure out of thin air. At least that’s what it felt like.

The flexibility that is required when conferencing with students is vast and unpredictable. As teachers, we often pivot when asked questions during class, we allow students to explore different ideas and topics, then we bring them back to the topics we think they are supposed to learn. That’s hard enough when dealing with one whole-class discussion. How was I supposed to do that with each and every individual student in each of my classes? How was I going to prepare for unpredictable, off-the-cuff mini-lessons? Continue reading “Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud”

Book Talks Make a Difference

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. Continue reading “Book Talks Make a Difference”