At the beginning of the year, the air in my classroom and the hallways of my school is thick with excitement and anticipation as we look forward to the preteens and teenagers who will soon fill the halls. The chatter, the liveliness, the drama of another year of middle school awaits. And as I carefully organize my classroom library each summer, I cannot wait to get good books into the hands of my students. It is stories, our own and those written by others, around which we will build our community.
During the first few days and weeks of school, it is almost easy to get my classes excited about books. They look around at our classroom and school libraries while I offer them ample time to explore and engage with hundreds of books. We talk purposefully about strategies we can use to choose books, and we practice those strategies together. By the end of that first week of school, each child has a book in hand. I am beaming. Let the conversations begin!
Then a week or two passes. A week or two of brief check-ins and short reading conferences, and I am beaming a little less. It becomes clear that although some—maybe even a small majority—of students are diligently plodding through the books they chose, many of them aren’t really into their books. Several of them have given up on two or three books already, having connected with none of them. It is at this point each year that I realize we need to revisit our book choice strategies in greater depth.
It is important that I remind my students about thoughtful choices repeatedly throughout the year. Sometimes it may just be a quick “Turn to your book choice strategy page in your notebooks and remind yourselves what works for you.” But at this point, when we are just getting into the groove of reading workshop, I want to offer my students more time to delve into one specific strategy at a time. When they’re looking for a new book to read, often they look at the cover or title of a book and decide right away whether they will like it. Obviously, this is why we create a list of strategies (beyond looking at the cover) that we can use to choose books, but I want to make this idea really hit home for my kids. So it is with intentionality that I do a whole-class minilesson on reading the first few pages of a book before we decide to pick it up or pass.
I begin by pulling the book baskets off the shelves of our classroom library and placing several random baskets on each group of desks. Then I have a chat with my students.
“How many of you have looked at the cover of a book and immediately thought to yourself, Ugh, no way! and quick as you can, you pop the book right back onto the shelf?” Almost every hand goes up, including mine.
“Yeah, me too. We’ve talked about judging books that way, and we have a list of strategies we use, but it’s pretty much a natural reaction—either the title and cover grab us or they don’t.” A splattering of nods lets me know some of the class agrees with me.
“Conversely, how many of you have had the opposite happen: You look at a title and a cover and you think, Yeah man! This book is gonna be awesome! Then you invest hours in reading it and realize that it is not really a good book after all.” Again, almost every hand rises into the air.
“I know—it’s so disappointing when that happens! We are going to look into one of our strategies more closely today. We are going to practice reading the first few pages so we can see how useful this strategy really is. Let’s talk about this book.” I hold up a copy of After Tupac and D Foster. “This book is written by one of my favorite authors, Jacqueline Woodson,” I explain, “and the title intrigued me.”
After I read the title, there is a chorus from about half the class, mostly boys who are muttering things like, “Oh yeah, man, I’m gonna read that.” One student, Marcus, even calls “dibs” on it.
This happens every time I show this book. I first noticed this during a round of book clubs a few years ago. I had several kids who knew a little about Tupac Shakur, and when they saw his name in the title, they automatically figured they would love the book. A few of these boys weren’t super-thrilled with it when they realized the book is not all about Tupac. Don’t get me wrong: The story is beautiful, well written, and poignant. It is a sort of coming-of-age story that delves into the lives and hardships of three young teenage girls who live in New York City. It is not what my 11-year-old rap-fan boys are (and were) thinking it will be about.
“Turn and talk,” I tell my students. “Judging this book by its title and cover, what are you expecting it to be about? Would you pick it up to read or put it back and move on, and why?”
After a few minutes of talk time, we debrief with a few of my students’ thoughts. As I expect, many of the kids say they would read it because they are fans of Tupac. And this year, no one has said they need to read more to find out if they would like it or not. We do a quick vote—hands up if you would read it. Most of the class is game to read it.
Then I read them the first few pages. We are introduced to the narrator, and the story begins to come to life. I have the students turn and talk again to discuss their thoughts now after reading the first few pages. Many of my students who were not interested before, because they have no interest in Tupac, are now singing a different tune. They like the voice of the narrator and the sense that this is going to be a good, maybe even important, story. And, as I have seen time and again in book clubs, several of the kids who thought this was going to be a story about Tupac are now less interested. These are readers who are more interested in big drama and action and adventure or silliness. They are not into poignant and deep. They are 11—that is okay.
Together we have a brief discussion about the reasons our thoughts about the book may have changed. “What changed your mind?” I ask my students. We share as a whole group, and the answers are always varied. Some readers are more thoughtful and able to explain with ready reasoning, whereas others simply say, “It’s not what I thought it was going to be like.” Either way, my students have learned something about book choice. Of course my students and I know not to judge books by their covers, but we also know that the truth is that we do judge them in that way. “If we are going to spend our precious reading time enjoying books, then we need to take the time to give books a chance and be thoughtful about our choices.”
“You are going to mosey around the room, and within the span of five minutes you will grab two books based on their covers and titles. One should be one that you think you will like simply based on those two things. The other should be one you think you won’t like based solely on the cover and title.”
My students are set free to choose two books as I pass around the thinking sheet for them to complete. My goal is to have students stop and take the time to be truly thoughtful about a book before just jumping in. For mature readers, simply grabbing a book and reading often works out just fine, but even then, doesn’t it make more sense to take the time to find something that will be memorable for us in some way—either for its entertainment value or the way the book speaks to us?
The thinking sheet asks students to think about each book independently and first reflect on the title and cover and why they think they will like or dislike it. Then, I ask students to read the first three to five pages and reflect on their thinking. Does the book seem to be about what they originally thought? Does it still seem like a book they would want to put back or keep reading? Why or why not? How has the thinking changed? Maybe it hasn’t.
Many students still want to read the book they thought they would enjoy and don’t want to read the book they thought they wouldn’t enjoy, and that is okay! This is not a trick or a “Ha! I told you so” lesson. This is to allow students the time to practice being thoughtful about reading. It behooves them to see how—not all the time, but some of the time—a book we would have passed up can end up being an amazing read, and how the opposite can also be true. If we want to be successful readers, we need to be thoughtful about our choices. That can take some time.
Finally, the last item on the thinking sheet is a way for students to be thinking about our community. Our classroom community is the most important aspect that I work on each year. Without a supportive community of children who work well together, who challenge, encourage, and respect one another, our reading and writing can go only so far. So, I simply ask that each reader take a second to recommend at least one of the books they chose to a classmate who might enjoy it. It is a quick way to connect with a peer, and it helps us keep in mind that we are a team and part of our job is to get to know one another as readers. It also helps to reinforce the idea that even though we may not like a book, it doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t. We don’t judge people by what they choose to read.
To wrap up this lesson, I allow my students talk time in their small groups. Each child has the opportunity to share about their thinking—something they noticed or realized as they worked through this more thoughtful process. This time there will be no whole-group discussion. I will stroll around the room and listen to these sixth graders sharing their new insights or lack thereof with one another without judgment. Book choice is personal. There are no right answers.