The Book Buzz: Promoting a Reading Culture by Letting Students Shine

Unintended consequences can be powerful.  They are probably the best thing about a new project.  You begin with an ending in mind, only to find that some of the best parts are those you never even dreamed of at the beginning of the project.  That’s exactly what happened with The Book Buzz.  

This year our entire school decided to participate in Jillian Heise’s #classroombookaday project.  Every classroom would dedicate time everyday to read a picture book aloud to students.  As a staff, we brainstormed books to share, built fun bulletin boards to track our reading, and educated parents about the benefits of this initiative.  I struggled to figure out how I could best participate as the principal of the building.  During the first two weeks of school, I took time to visit each classroom as a guest reader to help promote #classroombookaday.  I told students that I was excited that they were taking time each day to read a picture book and that I planned to read a picture book every day as well.  I even turned my office door into a giant grid where I would add the cover of the book I read each day so the students could see my progress.  Even after all these efforts, it felt like something was missing.  It felt more like I was participating alongside the students than with them.   That’s when the idea for The Book Buzz hatched.

I am always looking for new ways to build relationships with students.  It’s the part that I miss most about being in the classroom.  As a classroom teacher, you spend 8 hours a day with your students.  You know their wishes, their dreams, their fears, and their stories.  As a principal, it’s just not possible to have this same relationship with every student in the school.  However, I have never stopped trying.  My original idea for The Book Buzz was pretty simple.  I would talk to a student each day about a book they enjoyed during #classroombookaday, we would film it, and post it to YouTube.  I didn’t know anything about having a YouTube channel, other than my two boys spent an unbelievable amount of time watching a British guy with cool hair play Minecraft for hours each week.  Although I didn’t totally get it, I knew YouTube was a big deal to kids.  

After reaching out to a couple of colleagues and watching several YouTube tutorials on how to create a YouTube channel (none done by any British guys with cool hair), I was ready to begin.  I knew I wanted a short musical opening with pictures to introduce the show each day.  This was really easy to create in imovie.  I snapped a couple pictures from around the school, uploaded them to imovie, added a preloaded theme song, and the intro was complete.  Although this took time initially, it became much easier with each new try as imovie allows you to easily save the intro and add it to another video with one simple click.  

For the first episode, I asked the fifth grade teachers to recommend a student that really loved one of the #classroombookaday books that had been shared so far this year.  I made sure I had a copy of the book the student wanted to share, asked them to bring their independent reading book as well, and had the parents sign a permission slip for filming and publishing.  Within 20 minutes, the first episode was up and live for the world to see.

Now, it’s important to understand what The Book Buzz is and what The Book Buzz is not.  

The Book Buzz is not:

  • It is not a professionally recorded show.  We don’t have an expensive camera (I use my ipad) and we don’t have high tech microphones (although we are trying to find a way to improve the volume).  
  • It is not rehearsed ahead of time.  I have the student reread the story right before filming so it is fresh in their mind, and I usually ask them their favorite part immediately before filming.  That’s it.  
  • It is not a show with a lot of editing.  We usually film one take and leave our stumbles and mistakes for the world to see.  The goal is not to be perfect, the goal is to be genuine.  

The Book Buzz is:

  • It is so much more than I ever imagined when I first had the idea to start the series.  Originally I intended it to be another way to build the reading culture in our building.  Kids talking about books and sharing recommendations.  
  • It is a way for me to be more involved in the #classroombookaday initiative.  
  • It is an opportunity for kids to have an authentic way to talk about books.  

I knew they would think filming a YouTube show was cool and fun.  However, it ended up being so much more.  One of my favorite parts of starting any new project are the unintended consequences, those things that happen by accident that you didn’t plan for or imagine.  Unintended consequences are the cream in the Oreo for me.

My favorite unintended consequence from The Book Buzz is how The Book Buzz became one of my best relationship building tools with students.  I love that I have 20 minutes carved out every day that I spend one-on-one with a different student. We always spend the first 5 minutes just talking, sometimes about books but most of the time just about what is going on in his or her life.  It’s been awesome.  I have also noticed that I am having more meaningful conversations in the hallways, at lunch, or on the playground with the students that film on The Book Buzz.  It has also been a great relationship building tool with parents.  Just about every parent that has had their child film an episode has emailed or called to say how excited their child was to film the episode and that they appreciated their child being given the opportunity.  

I knew The Book Buzz was going to have a positive effect on the reading culture in our building.  However, I completely underestimated the effect.  I never imagined that students would subscribe to the channel and watch the videos that didn’t feature themselves. I always ask the kids before filming if they have ever watched an episode of The Book Buzz and almost every student has responded, “Yes.  I watch them every day when I get home.”  I was amazed to hear how many teachers were showing the episodes in class as a book talk for a book they wanted to “bless” in their classroom. 

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The final unintended consequence from The Book Buzz and probably the most important was how it gave students a chance to shine simply by being themselves.  They were so excited to share their episode with family, friends, and other students.  I knew The Book Buzz was a success when I overheard a conversation in the hallway:  

“I loved your Book Buzz video.  It was so good.  I think it is going to go viral.”  

The featured student had the biggest smile on her face and replied,

“Aww. Thank you.  I feel like a YouTube star.”   

The Book Buzz isn’t a fancy production.  It has low sound quality at times and we often stumble over our words.  But it’s perfect to me.  It gives me a chance everyday to spend time, one-on-one with a student.  It gives me a chance everyday to build a better relationship with a student.  It gives me a chance everyday to focus on the most important part of my school: the students.  Most of all, it gives those students a chance to shine, everyday by simply being themselves.

“BE U x 2” – Peter Reynolds

You can watch an episode of The Book Buzz by clicking on the picture below:

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If you would like to start a similar project in your building, please feel free to email jcbailey@stcs.org.  I am happy to answer any questions or share any materials I have created for the project.

Reading Engagement in a non-AR School

This week Colby Sharp posted the most heartfelt message about Accelerated Reader and to say it went viral is an understatement. Colby’s passion and ire about a practice that we’ve long known is counterproductive bleed through in this video . If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s as real as real gets.

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Colby is mad and rightfully so. This topic is not a new one. We know there is little research to confirm that AR increases reading achievement, or turns out readers beyond the books in the system, as Donalyn Miller wrote extensively about 7 years ago. We know the assessment that “places” these readers and provides a reading level range is flawed. Pernille Ripp digs into that assessment in this blog post which includes a response from Accelerated Reader’s parent company, Renaissance Learning.  

We know all this, and yet AR is still widely used as a reading achievement indicator and reading incentive. Colby’s message lit a fire in me and I went down the rabbit hole of reading the comments. The sheer number of those in defense of AR still baffles me but what I really took away from these comments was that human connection was never mentioned. I find it difficult to believe that a computerized program alone is the sole factor in a school’s increased reading engagement and achievement. I would strongly argue that a computer is not what gets kids excited about reading….people do.

The school I work at is the only elementary building in our district that does not participate in Accelerated Reader. At a district-wide meeting a couple years ago, this came up and a colleague was utterly shocked. She didn’t ask about our readers. She didn’t ask about our teaching. She didn’t ask how we focus on literacy in a very large, very diverse school. She only asked, in an incredulous voice, “How do your kids pick out books?” In my shock and disbelief, I didn’t reply. What I would say today is this, “We build relationships with kids, and each other, around books. We get to know the learner behind the numbers.”

So how do kids pick out books in a non-AR school?

  • You read. Whatever your role in teaching is, you should be reading and talking about it with kids. No excuses.
  • You know authors. If you don’t, get to know them. They love to connect! Visit their website. Go to an author event at your local library. Follow them and connect on social media. Skype with them. Many authors Skype for free. Kate Messner’s website provides a nice list here.
  • You connect. Connect with kids over books you’ve read in common. Connect with other teachers in your school, district and on social media. Connect with other educators on Goodreads. Connecting leads to relationship building. This is where the magic happens.
  • You book talk. Put yourself out there and be a role model. Kids will read what you recommend.
  • You let students book talk. Kids read what their peers recommend. Katherine Sokolowski has a great post about student book talks over at Nerdy Book Club.
  • You give them total choice in the library. To quote our beloved librarian and some teachers in our school, “This is a library. They can get what they want.”
  • You use technology to provide more access to books in a variety of formats. Have you heard of Epic? I strongly encourage you to look into this because it’s FREE for teachers. It includes thousands of high quality titles and students can access through the web or mobile app. If your school or district has a digital library, include audiobooks. This can be a game changer for many kids.  
  • You talk to kids about what they are reading. This is a great way to personalize connections with students. You can get a lot of mileage out of a few well-planned questions. The wonderful thing about talk is it can happen in a variety of ways. It can happen as you’re greeting them in the morning, lining them up for recess, waiting during restroom breaks, etc.
  • You listen. There is nothing quite as authentic as giving your complete attention to a child when they are talking about a book. It shows you care about what they have to say. If you are doing reading conferences with kids, take a step back and just listen. Don’t always make it about completing a form.
  • You display what you are reading. Staff members all over our building display book covers of their reading lives. Kids notice.

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This list is by no means conclusive nor is it earth shattering or cutting edge. However, it does address the age old question of how your kids pick out books without a computerized system. It starts with you. People are what drive engagement and achievement not computers. 

 

Honest Conversations

Hallway Talk:

“ I cannot believe that I said yes…” I shared with a colleague one busy October morning as we walked our students back to our classrooms after art and music. I explained to my friend about an upcoming presentation I agreed to do at our neighboring middle school.  

“Do you think middle school teachers could really use any ideas I have to share?  I think saying yes to hosting this presentation was a mistake…” I added with a jittery feeling of dread.

“Well you’re not sounding very confident…” came a bubbly voice a few steps behind me.  I pivoted to see the smiling face of Gabby, a charismatic and outgoing student and the source of the unexpected comment.

“Do you want to talk about this with us?” she said with her dark eyes shining while beaming a most genuine smile.  

Surprised was an understatement describing my immediate reaction to Gabby’s question.  I was not expecting a child to hear, let alone listen and then process my worries. Unexpectedly, Gabby reacted and reached out to offer caring support.  Moving past the idea of looking under-confident to a child, I was intrigued by the possibilities of this learning opportunity.  What would students say when their teacher revealed her nervousness about an upcoming presentation at another school?

“We always talk about characters and the conflicts they face in their stories.  This time we could problem-solve with you and figure out this inside problem.” chirped Gabby, scurrying to walk beside me so we could chat.

Wait…what….???  My eyes must have widened-so Gabby continued her chatter.

“In class we always talk about characters having conflicts that happen on the outside in their world and also the struggles they have on the inside with their feelings.  Well… I can tell you are worried…your eyebrows have that crunched together look and your voice doesn’t have the usual pep.” replied Gabby.  

The life of a teacher is filled with the necessity of being flexible and accepting the spontaneous needs of children.  Ordinarily, I was accustomed to being the one supplying advice or helping students to craft solutions.  Taking a risk and accepting advice were two choices I often encouraged my students to  consider.  What would happen if I showed my students the power of reflection and the acceptance of help?  What did I have to lose?  More importantly, what did my students have to gain?

 

Unexpected Conversations

“Gabby is going to lead a discussion…” I announced to my students as we settled into our classroom’s community area.

“So you can make an oval to chat.”  directed Gabby, finishing my sentence.  Once she had the team’s full attention, she explained why we were gathered and shared her thoughts on the conversation she overheard.

“And I wasn’t really eavesdropping…” she added. “Mrs. Smith was talking about a presentation, which is just like a lesson with us, so I figured it wasn’t a private topic.  I think she would pick a better place to talk about private topics than the hallway.”

(Note to self-always assume someone is listening to you in the hallway.)

“So it seems that Mrs. Smith is worried about talking to a group of teachers for a presentation.” Gabby stated with a serious and confident voice. “I think she needs a conference.  Who would like to start?”

“What are you going to talk about with the teachers?” asked Michael.

I explained how my talk would focus on conferences with students during Reading Workshop.  I would describe how we talk about books and students’ reading lives. I was greeted with smiles and lots of nodding heads.

“Is that all?” asked Steele.

I continued, explaining how I would also show the way we use Google Forms to collect information about readers and then how we use the information to keep growing as readers.

“Why are you worried about sharing?”  added Steele after hearing the additional information.  

I was intrigued by the comfortable conversation hosted by students; their questions peeled away the layers to reveal my question:  Were my worries stemming from my teaching practices or the perceptions of my middle school colleagues?

 

Honest Revelations

“I don’t know my audience very well…so I am wondering if the information I share will matter to them and their teaching.”  I confessed.

“I felt that way when I had my first reading conference with you.  I figured you had already read the book, so what else could I say about it?” answered Tony.

“Yeah…me too.  But you let us talk.” added Sheri.  “You wanted to know what we thought about our books.  Isn’t that what you are going to do?  Share what you think about reading conferences?  So really this presentation is just like a conference.  Instead of one teacher listening, you will just have a bunch of teachers listening…Don’t you think the other teachers want to hear what you have to say?  You always want to know our thinking in a conference.”

“I never thought about it that way before.” I answered.  This conversation was more than a pep-talk.  I was learning about my own classroom community and the bonds created through reading conferences and conversations.

“Are you going to tell those teachers about the Google Forms because they help us?  Are you going to explain how the conference forms lets us feel confident and helps us tell you more about the books we’re reading?” asked Maria.

“The form helps you to feel more confident?” I asked, rather surprised by this news.

“Well of course…when you started conferences at the beginning of the year, you kept the form on the SmartBoard for everyone to see- even if we weren’t having a conference.  We saw and heard what you were doing in a conference. Then we knew what to expect when it was our turn to talk with you.”  Maria added, looking surprised that I had to ask that question.

“Letting us see the form on your laptop during conferences really helps too.   You also have our Book Partner charts nearby to help us with possible topics for our conference talks.  All of this stuff made our conferences easier… and then conferences became fun.  Didn’t you know that?” responded Emma with kind disbelief.  

“So about this talk.  I’m really confused.  Are you worrying about the talking or about whether or not people will listen?”  Gabby finally asked.  

Wow.  In one kind but direct sentence, Gabby summarized my worries.  The wisdom of children means you need to be ready to wrestle with some hard truths.  It never dawned on me that it wasn’t the talking that had me worried, but would my audience care enough to listen.  This short “conference” helped me focus on empowering ideas and now I could conquer my concerns as a presenter before a new audience.

 

Lessons Learned

A 10 minute conversation with my students accomplished more than easing my worries about a professional presentation.  Our talk confirmed my beliefs about class conversations and the confidence gained from a powerful literacy environment.  My students reaffirmed how meaningful conversations build the foundation of a supportive classroom community.  This confessional conference reminded me of the following truths:

Be a listener.  

Let students talk so you can discover their perceptions of selected classroom practices, routines, and rituals. By slowing down and letting a child lead the conversation, who knew I could receive reflective and powerful feedback from my students?  By publicizing my worries about an upcoming presentation, I actually discovered how important reading conferences were to my students.  In turn, my students realized that their observations and advice helped me feel more confident; their words helped me realize the necessity of being brave so I could share my ideas with others. Empowerment can be a shared experience.

 

Be vulnerable.  

We all have our worries and baggage that we try to compartmentalize and hide away when we live and work in our communities.  Decide when sharing your concerns and looking vulnerable is worthwhile so you can hear truthful comments from those around you.  Be open to the messages of your colleagues, your school families, and from children.  My unexpected confession to students reinforced the idea that we need one another.  Sometimes we need support.  At times we need to celebrate.  Each of us needs someone to listen.  We all need caring people in our lives to grow.  When students understand they play a role in creating a supportive community, we encourage children to be invested in themselves and in others.

 

Be appreciative.

When our short ten minute conversation came to a close, I was compelled to share my gratitude.  I made sure my students understood that I valued their advice.  I commended their empathy, thanked them for listening and congratulated them on supporting me even when they didn’t quite understand my concerns.  Their ideas shed new light on the powerful possibilities of Reading Workshop conferences. I thanked them for the way they focused on positive elements and solutions, helping me to find my purpose, and in the end my confidence.  I let them know that instead of making me feel silly for speaking my worries, I felt stronger for sharing the truth.

 
Confidence In Our Communities

No matter where you teach, our classrooms hold the potential power of a supportive community.  When we listen to the honest conversations of our students, their words and perspectives reveal perceived roles in our carefully designed community.   How do students value classroom practices, routines, and rituals?  Do students see themselves as contributing members with ideas to share?  Are they confident enough to offer advice?  Do students care about one another, including their teacher?  

As educators, we know our roles as leaders, mentors and guides.  Do our students understand their roles in classrooms?  We need our students’ perspectives and ideas to create thriving communities.  When Gabby asked me:

“Do you want to talk about this with us?”

I never anticipated the empowering feedback I could receive from children.  I learned that our team gatherings and individual conferences were more than instructional practices.  Our classroom communities can be the places we find our people, our voice, and the confidence to speak.  Our communities can help to discover the power of us.

In A Million Words Or Less…

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today.

Ask any veteran teacher. The first year is survival. Thankful to have a shiny new job, wide-eyed and just starting out, we rookies learned routines, deciphered curriculum, wrote late-night lesson plans, navigated new hallways, memorized acronyms, and treaded the proverbial waters of education. Frantically and relentlessly.

Remembering back to the days when spelling tests and whole class novels were expectations of the curriculum, overhead projectors were THE technology standard, and students each had a desk with a nametag on top and a tornado of papers inside, I cringe to think of myself as a teacher in those early years. But we are meant to evolve, as teachers, as humans. When we learn more, we do better. When the excuses for “the way we’ve always done it” become crushed under mountains of research that support something more effective, we take that new path. We appreciate the teacher we were, but look forward to the teacher we can become.

There is one thing, however, I have done every year on the first day of school, from my very first year of teaching until now. It continues to prove to me that it is one of the most robust and authentic ways to get to know my students. It is…The Million Words letter.

On the first day of school, students take home an assignment from me to give to their parents/guardians at home. It contains a brief letter on a mostly blank piece of paper and it reads:

It’s the beginning of an exciting school year in third grade! You can help me be the best teacher I can be for your child if you share with me. So…

In a million words or less, please tell me about your child.

Besides my signature, the rest of the paper remains empty, wide open for a response. There are no extra prompts, explanations, or requirements. Like a blank canvas, it invites parents to fill up the space with a colorful and layered picture of their child. I receive handwritten notes, typed pages, photographs, and timelines.

I have read parents’…
detailed observations
hopes and dreams
unfiltered love
anxious worries
confessions

They are…
proud
thoughtful
grateful
awed
hopeful
honest

They tell stories of…
community
family
love
divorce
talent
difference
potential
loss
resilience

When I sit down to read through these pages, I often tear up or feel my breath catch in my throat. The adults who love and care for my students pour their hearts out onto the page, many with refreshing honesty and fierce love. They entrust me with personal stories. The Million Words letter gives a welcoming invitation to share and a sweeping space to lay out all of the complicated and wonderful facets of their children.

At the beginning of the school year I inherit files and documents, cumulative folders and data sheets, running recs and district testing results. But nothing gives me a truer, more meaningful picture of who a child really is than this letter. When parents are empowered to tell the story of this human being they know by heart, and when teachers take the time to read and listen to these stories, students go from a name on an attendance sheet or a statistic on a data wall, to a multi-dimensional individual. I learn about the children who ride the city bus for an hour each morning to get to school. The dearly missed grandparent who recently passed away. The newly blended families. I learn about the yellow belt test in tae kwon do. The weekly visits to the library. The Diwali celebrations at the temple. Students emerge as athletes and artists. Siblings and scientists. Introverts and innovators.

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today, but reaching out to say to parents, “tell me the story of your child”, with a mostly blank piece of paper and an open ear was, and always will be, a good decision.

 

*(To be clear, The Million Words letter is not my original idea, but whoever inspired me to do it definitely deserves an extra doughnut for Friday staff treats. Please be inspired to do the same and use this idea now, the beginning of next school year, or whenever you want to know more about your students’ stories.)

Profesional Self-Care

I recently had something happen outside of my classroom community personally and I needed to reach out for some guidance and advice. The guidance and advice I got was helpful. I was feeling more at peace and then a twist came, “make sure you practice some self-care for you. Whether that means going for a run, eating ice cream, watching TV – take time for you, alone.” I was completely caught off guard. I wasn’t seeking guidance and advice for me but someone thought I needed a nudge. This idea of self-care has been on my mind a lot this week personally and trickled over to my professional life.

In the past seven days, I’ve spent three of them in professional communities; physically and not online. These professional communities took me away from my classroom for two days and away from home for half a day. As I wrapped up the second day yesterday, I realized these three days were burst of professional self-care. Not only do I need to take care of myself personally but my professional life needs nurturing too. I’ve been attending workshops outside my school day for years and extending my learning beyond my teaching degrees. I had an administrator ask me once why I like going to conferences and reading so much. I wasn’t prepared for that question and was a bit surprised but now I have an answer. It’s my professional self-care. I learn new things and often my thinking is reaffirmed. I connect with other people and have conversations to help me process my work with students. I get guidance and nudges to push my thinking. This may sound silly – but I feel loved. When people choose to come together the energy in the room is positive and uplifting. The positives of professional self-care make “the hard to make it happen feelings” diminish.

Tips to Make Professional Self-Care Happen

  1. Find a local organization that brings people together from different districts.
  2. Attend a weekend event. Weekends are more relaxing, it feels more enjoyable,     there are no sub plans and hopefully your personal life can support some time                                  away.
  3. Attend with a friend, there’s accountability here to make it happen.
  4. Commit to attending and get it on the calendar.
  5. Find a state organization hosting an event.
  6. Make new connections, often a simple hello is the doorway to more and wear your name badge.
  7. Attend a session out of your comfort zone to stretch yourself.
  8. Find a way to stay connected with people in your professional communities.
  9. Offer to present because sometimes the conference can be free or discounted.
  10. Offer to share your learning with the staff when you return for financial support.

 

Classroom communities nurture learners as a whole and as individuals. Make sure you take some time to step away from your classroom community to nurture your professional side of life. I promise it will give you strength, hope, and fresh thinking to carry on.

 

 

The 7-Minute Debrief

With eight weeks complete in this school year, I can officially declare writing workshop as the favorite time of the day for most of the students. Lately, it seems like this chunk of time is when our class bonds the most. I’m blessed to have a class of passionate and creative writers this year.

For many of us, the best moment of writing workshop is when it ends.  In other words, the last few minutes of workshop time when my students and I gather on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.” This 5-10 minute conversation between writers is a quick way to build relationships as a writing community. I try to keep this debriefing focused on the writing product as well as the writing process. I usually facilitate our debriefing with three questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What are you heading as a writer next?
  • What did you work on today that we can learn from?

I view this as an opportunity to teach and to assess. I always look forward to this discussion because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days. Plus, the students and I get to hear what everyone is working on. I am noticing that my students are starting to become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.

This past Wednesday was like any other day. It was the end of writing workshop, and my stomach was growling as lunchtime was just a few moments away. I started out the debriefing session by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process. As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page.  Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another.  They were talking like…writers.

I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying.  Here is a sample of what I observed:

  • Josh shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes.  Nathaniel, who is Josh’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology.  Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs To Know and gave it to Josh.
  • Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts I had suggested including poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
  • Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.”  This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!” from about half of the class. “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
  • Hannah shared that she started writing workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration.  Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
  • Ella mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets.  I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
  • Ahmed, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer he was going to make for a story he was creating.  A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
  • Donya announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.

All this occurred in about seven minutes. What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing and asking questions.  For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect.  Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue.  These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture.  The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display.  This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process.  Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.

Matchmaking with Books

When I first started building my classroom library, I only had one copy of each title. My classes didn’t do any independent reading during actual class time way back then, so there was rarely a need for multiples of any one book. At most, I would have to replace The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it inevitably disappeared again.

Even as independent reading and choice became a bigger part of what we did in our reading classroom, it was still only by accident that I would end up with multiple copies of a single title.

Later, I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and she mentioned something about having multiple copies of a single title so that students could recommend books to each other. “I want to read that book,” a student could say, pointing to a classmate’s book, and you could pull out your extra copy of The Hunger Games or Everything, Everything.

Several years ago, I ended up with several copies of Thirteen Reasons Why in my 8th grade classroom. This was long before the book became a Netflix series. One 8th grader read it, then another, until it seemed like an entire section’s worth of 8th grade girls had either just finished or just started reading it. And so each class would begin and end with my students discussing and debating Hannah and her choices.

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My current school’s ELA curriculum explicitly recommends matching up readers in pairs and small groups. This is a lot about comprehension—students can help each other clarify confusing parts as they read the same novel—but I think it’s okay to do a little book and student matchmaking here as well.

I’ve done this two different ways recently.

When a student said she wanted to take a break from her long read, I asked her neighbor, who had read two different graphic novel trilogies recently, to show her where those books were hidden. (I’ve replaced titles within one of the trilogies multiple times, so now they’re in the reserve section.) He gestured vaguely in the direction of my desk. “Tell her about the books,” I coaxed. “Help her choose.”

The two girls above were stuck between books, reading and discarding several titles. “Want to read a book together?” I asked. I showed them some titles that I had multiple copies of, and they picked one and decided how many chapters to read by the following week. And for a few days they read side-by-side. While they both ultimately decided the book was a little boring (and I agree), a few days later a different pair of students decided to read The Fault In Our Stars together.

I’m glad that I picked up two copies at the used bookstore instead of just one.