I’ve been feeling restless lately about my reading assessment in my classroom—particularly in the realm of reader reflection—and I wanted to try something new. In recent years I’ve asked my students to complete reading inventories, document their reading histories, and take reading surveys. What I like about these methods is that they are quick ways to learn something about my students as readers. Although I always find student responses to these inquiries informative, they can sometimes be quite . . . dull. This means there is something not quite right with my method of assessment, because my high school students are definitely not dull. I put a lot of time and energy into crafting my survey questions and inventories, but I’m not sure my students put that much energy into answering them. It was time to find something else—something more authentic and reflective and that didn’t feel so much like a survey.
In my own journaling life, sometimes it helps me think more clearly if I move my pen across the page to craft images, not words. I wanted to offer my students another entry point into their thinking about their reading lives, and perhaps incorporating art into the mix would be the ticket. Seeking inspiration, I headed out to one of my favorite local bookstores for an afternoon of browsing. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I managed to wander into the art section. This is not even close to the stacks I usually haunt, but there I was, nestled between shelves of poetry and books on mixed media and collage. A slim, rectangular book caught my eye: My Ideal Bookshelf, with art by Jane Mount, edited by Thessaly La Force. Something about its deceptively simple cover of illustrated book spines struck me as being honest.
The premise of the book is simple: Editor Thessaly La Force asked famous people to select a group of book titles that they had read, would like to read, or would like others to think they had read, and to write up a short essay explaining their choices. Artist Jane Mount then created an illustration of the book spines for each essay. I cracked open the book and started reading, and I couldn’t put it down. Eureka! I’d found my answer for authentic, fun student reflection: creating an illustrated, ideal bookshelf.
Step 1: Choose 5–10 books that have educated you.
This seems easy, until you actually do it. Don’t believe me? Stop reading this right now and do it yourself. Go ahead and curate a collection of books that have educated you—books that when looked at as a group reveal something about who you are as a reader. Choose 5–10 titles. What my ninth-grade students and I discovered is that the books we chose provided only a snapshot of who we were in that moment. As my student Lena wrote, “Looking at my bookshelf illustration now, one week later, I can’t believe some of the books I chose to include . . . more importantly, some of the books I left out!”
An important part of step one is that I don’t define what I mean by “educated” for my students—that is part of their work. How my students define the way they have been educated by their books is revealed implicitly in their book choices and sometimes explicitly in their written reflections. If you decide to try this in your own classroom, fair warning: I find this the most challenging piece of this assignment for my students, particularly those who thrive on the concrete. It requires me to spend a little extra time reassuring them that learning to tolerate ambiguity is not only critical for this assignment but a healthy, normal part of being a learner.
Step 2: Illustrate your bookshelf.
It is fascinating to see how students choose to approach this step. Some students stack their books like a pyramid, arranging them by width. Many students line their books up like soldiers with no variance in their heights or widths. Other students choose to artfully arrange their bookshelves—one book leaning casually at an angle to the others. A few students choose to include items other than books on their shelves. Keri included a sketch of a small troll doll on her shelf—a prize won in her elementary years for reading the most books during a summer reading program; Natalie penciled in a very realistic drawing of her iPhone, apps and all, on which she does the majority of her reading of blogs and books.
The materials used to create the illustrations varied. Most students used colored pencils, pens, and markers to illustrate their bookshelves. One student took a carefully and creatively staged photograph of her bookshelf; another student created a beautiful watercolor rendition of hers. The only requirement I give my students for the illustration is that it must be their original creation, made using their own hands. The medium doesn’t really matter, but it is telling.
Step 3: Write about it.
I altered the parameters laid out in the original book to suit my classroom needs, but the spirit of the exercise remained the same. My directions for the reflective essay were as follows:
Focus on how you have been educated or changed by the books you have chosen; discuss your relationship with them. Select one or two of the books in particular and explain how they have educated you. You do not have to intricately describe every book that you chose. Next, consider the grouping as a whole. Does a pattern emerge? What does this collection of books say about you—as a reader and as a person? How do these books connect to something in your life that you love?
Here’s where things got interesting. Grace wrote the following:
As a whole, the group of books I have chosen share many of the same themes and values. I notice overarching ideas of independence and responsibility as well as the common theme of supporting others and overcoming obstacles that may come your way. I find that these themes are reflected in many of the morals I strive to uphold today.
Grace’s reflection reveals not only something about who she is but also that she makes text-to-self connections. Grace understands theme and can talk about it with confidence and ease.
Another student, Camille, wrote this:
Reviewing the books I have chosen for my ideal bookshelf, I have gathered that I primarily read and appreciate realistic, relatable books as opposed to science fiction or fantasy. I also gravitate towards books incorporating hospitals or court cases which pertain to my interests of medicine and law. Nevertheless, as a reader at heart, my ideal bookshelf is open to all types and genres of books.
In her reflection, Camille shares her hopes for her future (a career in law or medicine) and also demonstrates her clear understanding of genre. Camille knows who she is as a reader and can articulate her tastes and preferences.
The beauty of this exercise is that it provides information about the kinds of books my students like to read, and gives them a chance to articulate their reading process and talk about their reading choices. It can be done by anyone, at any age, at any time. I used it as part of my end-of-year assessment in the spring, but I plan to use it this fall in my classroom as a beginning-of-the-year community-building activity. This exercise could easily be part of staff development—just provide blank paper and colored pencils, and give folks 30 minutes to complete it. I even did this with my 6-year-old daughter over summer break and we have decided to make it an ongoing tradition—creating one for each school year.