I write this article about the masterful work of Amy Simmons, a teacher in my building. Her official role is “Instructional Support Teacher,” which means she is in charge of . . . well, anything to do with instruction. As an educator, she is an inspiring blend of smart, hard-working, committed, and creative.
Last year, at one of our literacy team meetings, Amy introduced the idea of “Book Hooks.” She explained how it would work: students would volunteer to talk about a book they enjoyed and explain why they recommended it to others. We would film and show the book hooks on morning announcements.
Amy organized it all. She developed a “Book Talk” template, found some students who were willing to participate, filmed their talk, and saw that it was broadcast to the whole school on Monday mornings.
As principal, I fully embraced the idea, but I was sadly ensconced in administrative work. IEP meetings. Bus duty. Evaluations. Discipline. Professional Development. Learning the Common Core Curriculum. Parent meetings. And so on. Fortunately, Amy completely managed the whole thing, and I was thrilled to see its success.
And a success it was. Students who watched the Book Hooks absorbed the tips about books, and considered new books to read. Teachers began to pinpoint students who were passionate enough about their reading to do a Book Hook for the school, recommended them to Amy.
Expanding the Concept of Book Hooks
We decided to continue the Book Hooks this year, but we changed our approach a bit. For one thing, the first Book Hook was done by no one other than me. Second, we don’t show them on the morning announcements; we show them at lunch on the ‘Big Screen.’ Far from being distracted or disinterested as we’d feared, the students truly do engage in the show, eating slowly and listening carefully to what is being said.
For the first Book Hook, I talked about Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. This is one of my favorite books. Aside from the memory of my mother reading it to me often, it also evokes strong memories for me. As a child, my mother took all her children — four of us — to the blueberry patch every year. We picked countless pounds of blueberries, which were frozen for use all year. The patch belonged to an elderly couple, Buss and Elsa Clark, who lived a few miles from my parents’ farm. Their faces were lined and wrinkled with years of working their farm in the hot sun and brutal cold; these wrinkles jumped out as they laughed. They loved seeing us arrive at the blueberry patch. They certainly weren’t concerned about making much money on our family. “Now kids,” Elsa would smile fondly down on us, “Make sure you eat more berries than you pick, alright? I want to see your tongues when you’re done, and I want them to have turned blue.” When we got our berries weighed to pay, Buss would chuckle, “Shoulda put you kids on the scale before and after, to see how many berries are in your tummy.”
My mother took all four of her kids with her to the patch several times each summer, gathering enough blueberries for a whole section of the freezer — berries that would appear in pies and pancakes all winter. We were expected to fill our buckets each time. Much as I loved to eat them, I hated picking blueberries. They are small. It takes forever to fill a bucket. Especially if you’re a little girl more focused on eating than picking. And the first few berries? Well, they sound exactly like kerplink, kuplank, kuplunk.
Some of these things, I shared with students in the Book Hook we filmed for students. I told them my mother had read the book to me when I was a little girl. I explained how I loved the illustrations in the book. I enjoy the story of a little girl, sharing a blueberry experience with her mother. Amy’s Book Talk Template allowed me to compile all these thoughts in two minutes or less.
Then, after the filming and showing of the Book Hook, I went into every classroom and actually read the book aloud to the students. When finished, I spent time sharing a few more detailed reasons why I love Blueberries for Sal. I loved the connection of a mother to her child and eating blueberries all winter. I love how Sal only ends up with three blueberries because she spent all her time eating them. I tell them Sal reminds me a lot like myself as a little girl: a bit of a mess, overalls disheveled, a little lost, and dreamy.
Yes, reading the book threw me embarrassingly behind schedule with all the other administrative duties I perform; I was left to return emails and solve problems late at night, completing tasks I simply couldn’t get to during the day. And, quite frankly, after reading to 24 classes, I was good and sick of Blueberries for Sal. But the students saw me sharing a book they knew — from the Book Hook showing at lunch — I truly enjoyed. They saw me taking time out of the day for them. The teachers saw me stopping my frantic pace to read a book — slowly . . . carefully . . . and with a connection to my own life.
Afterward, many students asked their teachers if they could do a Book Hook. They had mindful conversations with their teachers and friends about what they could say about books they loved. They weighed the social risk: have every kid in the school see how much I love to read? Yes? No? Maybe?
Many students chose yes. Thanks to Amy’s good idea and follow-through, Book Hooks are here to stay. We’re fostering the love of reading with one another — not teacher to student, but reader to reader.
So to all readers, who still adore a child’s book above all else . . . I raise a bowl to you. A bowl of blueberries.