I have worked hard over the past ten years to create a culture of reading in my 11th and 12th grade English classes. From book passes to book talks to daily time devoted to silent reading to an ever-growing classroom library, books are in the forefront of my classroom. As my students will soon be leaving the world of high school, I feel that my class is their last stop — their last chance to develop a reading habit, to refine their tastes, and challenge themselves as readers before they go to college, enter the workforce or military, or basically, become adults. This is a responsibility that I take with the utmost seriousness. For the most part, the effort is rewarding to both me and my students.
And then comes the slump. It seems to happen every year, just as warm weather is in sight and the end of the year doesn’t seem like such a faraway possibility. Suddenly, my students’ attention is pulled in myriad directions: prom, spring break, track, baseball, last-minute scholarship opportunities and the like are all competing for that precious reading time. And let’s face it, I’m distracted, too. It starts slowly, but I soon see we aren’t getting through books as quickly, we’re running out of ideas of what to read next, that excitement we had for reading is beginning to wane slightly.
What to do? It’s a real reader problem, and one that I felt I had to do something about. And then, a new distraction started creeping into the room. At the beginning and end of class (and sometimes, covertly during class) March Madness brackets were making their way out of book bags and folders and were being discussed with great urgency. The NCAA basketball tournament was upon us, and it got me thinking. During the month of March, the filling out of brackets and the following of games both captivates and unites millions of people, some of whom are not even basketball fans! Couldn’t I relate this to reading? I thought to myself that this could be exactly what we needed to reignite our excitement for reading and get us out of the spring reading slump.
The next day, I covered the entire back wall of my classroom with butcher paper and passed out an index card to each student. I asked them to think about all the books they had read this school year and to choose one favorite that they would recommend to the rest of the class. I told them to consult their lists (students keep a list of the books they’ve finished either in their notebook or at Shelfari), choose carefully, and write a short synopsis of the book on the front of the card. Once all of the cards were returned, I began creating the bracket on the wall. I needed 64 books to fill the open slots. I teach at a very small, rural school, so I have a total of 59 juniors and seniors. Only three students did not return cards, so I made up the difference by submitting one myself, asking a couple voracious readers to submit a second card, and having two books have a bye for the first round.
Now the bracket was filled and we were ready to start voting. Already, the giant bracket was generating a lot of talk amongst the classes, and students were speculating on how we would proceed with the process. In fact, I was wondering that also. The idea took shape so quickly that I only had a vague idea of how we would begin the process of narrowing down the books to determine an overall winner. For the first round, I created a Power Point presentation so that the students could have a visual of the book covers for each match-up. I then read the synopses which the students wrote, and allowed them to vote after each pairing. Each day I would cut up some strips of paper with my paper cutter to use as voting slips and an old bucket served as the ballot box. From the start, I was surprised at the conversations that erupted during this process. Students who had read a certain book yet hadn’t submitted it would want to advocate for it by adding additional details to the synopsis. Shouts of “That is a good book!” or “I read that one!” would erupt around the room. Occasionally, a student would take issue with another students’ synopsis: “That’s not doing the book justice!” This first round created a lot more discussion than I had expected. We went through eight book pairings a day, and although it took a lot of time, the rich conversations that resulted made it well worth it.
For the next round, I knew I didn’t want to ruin the excitement that was brewing by reading the same synopses again. So, for the next sets of pairings I went to YouTube and found book trailers to show. I was able to find a trailer, ranging from those professionally made by the publishers and libraries to those made by fans and students, for all but one of the books. This generated a lot of interest and even more discussion, as students lobbied the class for their favorite books. In the end, we spent two days of class watching the videos, discussing, and voting on the books.
After this round, I made individual copies of the bracket and had students fill out the remainder in the way they would like to see it turn out. Again, I didn’t want to dampen the excitement by making the process into a chore or prolonging it unnecessarily. We finished this up on the last day before spring break and the students were chomping at the bit to know the winner. We were scheduled to have an assembly at the end of the day and many students asked if I could announce the winner then, as they didn’t want to wait until after break to find out.
That afternoon, as I announced the winner as Unwind by Neal Shusterman, there was an eruption of cheers, and some other disappointed sighs, from the crowd — all over a book battle! This process was just what we needed to pick us up during the spring reading slump. Kids were talking about books with new energy and interested in new titles — a waiting list was even forming for some of them. I had many of the books in my classroom library, so I made a special area at the front of the room to display them, and even a month later, they’re still flying off the shelf.
I feel like I need to address those three students who didn’t turn in a card. These students have been resisting me all year when it came to reading, and the truth is, they didn’t have a book to put down because they hadn’t read one. Throughout the process, students were constantly asking each other which book they submitted, and I heard each of these three on different occasions admit to their peers that they hadn’t read or finished a book. The reactions were usually incredulous: “What?! Why not?” I never want my students to feel publically shamed, but I do hope that this process showed these students how reading connects us all and how much fun the conversation can be. I hope it makes them want to be a part of it.
Click here to view the books my students selected.