Book Chat Evolution
Note: In this post, I’ll be using some terms that are sometimes seen as synonymous. To aid clarity, I’ll use book talk to refer to a teacher or student giving a trailer for a book and book chat or book conference to refer to a conversation about a book held between a teacher and a student.
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My English students know our routine. Each day we begin class with ten minutes of silent reading on any book. No homework, no texting, just reading. They might choose to read our current novel of study, but the majority of them read a title they themselves have selected. I ground my basis for such a silent sustained reading program in the research and real-life practices of Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Nancie Atwell, and other teacher-leaders. In this century of rigorous standards, a daily reading routine remains one of the most effective ways to grow students as readers, writers, and thinkers.
Since students are tested around every corner, the inevitable question from my Pre-AP sophomores at the start of the year is How are we going to be graded on all these books? In the past when I taught middle school, the required answer was through a multiple-choice Accelerated Reader test. At the high school level, I could devise my own assessments.
I tried a number of methods. Two years ago, I had students fill out a handwritten book reflection sheet inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. After the students completed reading their book and filling out their sheet, they scheduled a book chat with me before or after school. (At the time, I was reading with my students during our silent reading time because I wanted to be a model reader for them.) Since I required students to read a book every four weeks, I also built in one day at the end of the month for marathon book chats. Most students waited until the last possible minute to finish their books, and consequently, the book chat marathon days felt rushed, inauthentic, and downright frustrating. As I tried to carry on book conferences with my students, the rest of them were supposed to be reading for the full class period. This quickly devolved into whispers and chatter, and though I reminded students they needed to be reading, some pockets of talkers remained. I ignored them and focused on the students ready to book chat with me. On those marathon days, some students even had to come by my room after school because, as fast as I talked with students, I still couldn’t get to everyone in the 50-minute class period. I was committed to the monthly book chat, so I continued the routine through the year, telling myself I would never do it again.
Last year I abandoned student-teacher book conferences. I was worn out from always coming to school early or staying late for book chats, and I wanted to focus exclusively on being a reading role model for my students. During the ten minutes of silent reading at the start of each class, I would quickly take roll, and then dive into my book. Sometimes I would chuckle or gasp and accidentally grab my students’ attention away from their own books. Of course, I occasionally monitored the room to make sure everyone was reading. In the syllabus, students were told to read 20 books during the school year, but I never even tied a grade to these books. Students kept wondering aloud from time to time what would happen if they didn’t read all 20 books, and I just kept avoiding the question, saying, “You better read them!” I felt like creating a reading culture was more important than any sort of grading. Sometimes at the start or end of the ten-minute reading block, I would give book talks over some new or favorite books, and I even completed a read-aloud of Patrick Ness’s wonderful A Monster Calls with three of my four classes. (Don’t ask about seventh hour.) Looking back on this year, I regret not having held book conferences with my students. I missed getting to know them through their reading choices, and I realized too late that I had spoken with my more introverted students far fewer times than the previous year.
This school year, I tried to strive for a better balance in giving students time to read and carving out time to talk with my students about their reading choices. I kept the 20 book requirement, but I actually gave it weight in the grade book at 10%. This means students would have to get perfect on all other grades in order to obtain an A in my class. This 10% weight gave the reading program some teeth. I divided the 20 books, so students would have to read 10 books per semester, with each book essentially adding a point to their overall average in my class. This fall semester, three books are required by my school’s curriculum: Night by Elie Wiesel (a memoir), Antigone by Sophocles (a play), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (historical fiction). The other seven books are designated by a genre: realistic fiction, fantasy/science fiction, mystery/thriller, novel in verse, graphic novel, nonfiction, and choice. Inspired by Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, I selected the genre requirement to push my students to discover new authors and genres they have never tried or abandoned years ago. (Side note: If a book is especially long, I’ll give students 1.5 or 2 credits. For example, at 656 pages the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson will earn one of my readers credit for both the nonfiction and choice categories.)
This year, I’ve also reinstituted student-teacher book chats. In order to avoid the hassle of before-school, after-school, or marathon chats, I now hold them every day during silent reading time. When a student finishes a book, he or she quietly visits with me at my desk while the rest of the class continues to read. The table of students nearest my desk is sometimes distracted, but the tradeoff is that they get to glean ideas for future books. At the beginning of a book conference, a student might launch into the plot of her book before I can even ask her if she enjoyed reading it. Some of my students are still learning that I trust they’ve completed their book if they’ve come over for a conference. The book chat is a time for conversation, not interrogation. I try to ask questions real-world readers would talk about.
- Did you like the book? Why / Why not?
- Who was your favorite character?
- Have you ever read a book like this before?
- If this book got turned into a movie, what would the director need to get right?
- Who would you recommend this book to?
- What’s the next book you’re going to read?
In just a couple minutes’ time, I can gauge a student’s understanding and appreciation of the book they’ve read. Most days, I hold anywhere from one to four book talks during silent reading time. A few students have visited with me out in the hallway before the bell even rings, so I’ve created even more time to talk books with my students. I sometimes get my lunch in the cafeteria, and last week I happened to be in line by one of my students who had heard me talk about A. S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz. She had downloaded it from the local library and devoured it. We shared our reading experiences while we waited for meatloaf. Later, I marked on my chart that she had completed a mystery book for the semester.
In addition to the daily routine of ten minutes of silent reading, we have a special routine at the end of the week: the Friday Checkup. Students enter the following information on a chart they keep in their class binder or folder:
- Book currently reading
- Current page number out of total pages
- Total number of books read so far this year
I give students an extra minute to record this information, and then they proceed as normal. I can squeeze in maybe one book chat, but then I grab my calculator and start to make my way around the classroom to check on my students’ progress.
How many pages have they read since last week? I see that Taylor has only read 30 pages, and that includes the 50 minutes of class time we’ve had since the last Friday Checkup. I urge her to carve out more time for reading, and she smiles and agrees, saying, “I know I haven’t been reading much.” (The next week, Taylor’s friend Kennedy brags on her to me, saying, “Guess what, Mr. Stephenson? Taylor read last night!”)
I continue my room roaming and see that Anastasia finished a book last week, but she still hasn’t come over to have a book chat with me during SSR. I make a mental note to figure out why she hasn’t done so yet, and I tell her she can come over and talk any day.
“Look! I finished a book!” cries Aiden, pointing to his final column that no longer says 0. He has recently finished Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, and is even willing to read the historical fiction book by Ruta Sepetys I recommended to him. I intentionally neglected to tell him the book had a female narrator, but I earned his trust with my Twisted book talk that sent him on a quest to find out what would happen to Tyler.
Ashley has already completed seven books, but she’s only had one book talk with me so far this semester. I see that we still have a little time left to read, and since she is at the last table, I squat down and ask her which of the books she’s recently completed has stuck with her. She tells me about a thriller called Frozen that I’ve never heard of. We finish up our chat, and I ask my students to begin finding a stopping point for the day.
All this time, I’m tallying totals on my calculator to see how many books this class has completed since the start of the school year. After three weeks of school, they’ve read an impressive 61 books.
On the back wall of the classroom, I devote a portion of the bulletin board to the number of books my students have read. I post the hour, the number of students in the class, and on a sticky note, I post the total number of books they’ve read so far. Each Friday, I swap out the sticky note totals after they’ve updated their Friday Checkup chart. The running class totals serve as a reminder and a motivator for my sophomores. Seventh hour leads the pack, mainly because they have a not-so-secret weapon, a voracious reader named Holly who is the envy of the other hours. “She should have to compete all by herself,” one second hour student suggests one Friday.
When I first posted the class totals, Ryan wanted to know if the winning class would get a party.
“No,” I told him. “The reward is reading in itself. I want you to read for the fun of it. And research shows that people who are readers go on to contribute to society in ways that nonreaders don’t.”
“Ah,” the class sighed.
“I know it sounds corny, but you guys know it’s true. Reading should be its own reward,” I continued. “You don’t want me assigning AR points to these books, do you?” I teased.
“No!” they said, horrified, the bad taste of AR still on their tongues.
Next to the class charts, I also post a week-by-week chart, so I can look for patterns and see the grand total. Just this week, four weeks into the school year, one of my various readers (whose parents told me that they ground him by taking away his Nook) finally realized that he needed to record his overall total in the final column of the Friday Checkup chart. He had been blazing through 5 or 6 books each week, but he had recorded the total on his chart as 5, 6, 7 instead of 5, 11, 18. Now that this misunderstanding has been cleared up, sixth hour’s totals have increased dramatically. On the above chart, it looks like sixth hour only added one book in a week’s time between August 31 and September 7, but I know that six of my students were absent on that Friday to a cross country meet. By asking my students to keep track of the books they’ve read, I hope to set them on a course to be reflective, lifelong readers.
In the end, the goal is not numbers. I want my students to become better readers. I’ve tried to create a classroom culture where reading is celebrated and talking about books is commonplace. Even though I’ve abandoned my participation in silent reading in exchange for book chats with my students during the first ten minutes of class, they know my love for reading. Many times I’ve already read their book, and I still squeeze in book talks at the end of silent reading time once or twice a week. On my classroom door, I post the books I’ve recently read, and on the front classroom wall, I hang the painting of my favorite books that my friend created for me. Over in the classroom library, one of the tubs has the title of “Mr. Stephenson’s Favorites.” One day at the start of the school year, it was almost empty. The books were in my students’ hands, and in a week or two, we could chat about them.
Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can do about it. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2009.
Miller, Donalyn. The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.