Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

Book Pass: Day One

Student arrive in the classroom the first day of school eager to make a good impression. We teachers want to bring our A-grade, too. Earlier this August, I had my tenth first day of school as a teacher. I had arranged my 31 desks into pods of 3 and 4 and piled books in the center of each pod for a book pass.

Book stacks waiting for my students at each group of desks.

A post shared by Jason Stephenson (@teacherman82) on

On the very first day of school, my students would sample books, finding titles to read in the coming months. This activity would set the tone and environment for the year. In this classroom, we read. We share books with one another. We are a community of readers.photo 1

I wondered how many books my students would be able to check out in a 50-minute class period. I aimed for 10. Each pod had around 6 books in its stack, and there were 8 pods of desks total. After quickly taking roll, I told my students that would be doing a book pass. I’ve heard this activity called speed dating with books. One of my colleagues on Twitter suggested I turn down the lights and play some romantic music, but I couldn’t do that on the first day of school. It would seem too silly to my sophomores. At least most of them, I think. This sampling of books could easily be called a book buffet as well. I had done this activity with librarians in the past, and I used to do it when I taught the reading for fun elective at our high school.

photo 2

In her guide “Tools for Teaching Content Literacy,” Janet Allen calls this activity a Book Pass. She recommends that students use a chart with these three columns: Title, Author, & Comment. For my purposes, I tweaked the columns and used Title, Notes, & Rating. I told students not to worry about taking a lot of notes on the book–just enough to remember something important about it. They would not be graded on how detailed their notes were. These notes were for them, not me. For rating, students used a scale from 1-5, with 1 meaning the students had no interest at all in the book and the 5 meaning they couldn’t wait to read it. Instead of running copies to create these charts, I had students fold notebook paper twice vertically to create three columns. Even on the first day of school, almost all of my students had notebook paper and writing utensils for this activity. I was pleasantly surprised!

photo 3

Students gravitated to their friends when they originally sat in their pods. I gave 2 or 3 minutes with their first book, and then had students grab a second book from the pile. Now that they had sampled 2 books, it was time for my students to get up and move to a new pod. So that they could meet other people in class, I asked them to sit at a new table group with at least one person of the opposite gender. We sampled two more books in the same manner, and then moved to a new pod with people who had similar eye color. Students scanned two more books, and then we established which months fell in each season. Spring birthday students would sit together next at a new table, summer together, and fall and winter. That rotation was a little complicated, but it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. Books 7 & 8, and then students rotated to their final pod where they could sit with anyone from a common elective–a sport, band, choir, drama, media production, foreign language, etc. We finished up books 9 & 10 with only a few minutes to spare. I had my students put a star by the best book they found and smiley faces next to any books they would consider reading.

book pass chart

I had students turn in their charts, so I could see what sort of ratings they gave to the books I selected. I gave them back a day or two later, suggesting that they hold onto their charts, to remind them of good books they could read this school year. I have already had a few students browsing my classroom library while holding their charts. It occurs to me now that I should have had students label which tub their favorite books were from, so they could easily find the books later. I was very pleased wit how this first-day activity went, and I plan on doing it again at the start of next semester, if not before.

book pass chart 2

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Classroom Organizer Breakthrough

When your classroom library has over 500 titles, how are you supposed to keep track of them? For eight long years, I used a handwritten chart. Students wrote their name, book title, book tub number, date checked out, and eventually, the date checked in. It worked well enough, but it wasted paper, and it was hard to determine who had checked out books for an extended period of time.

A few years back, I came across Booksource on Twitter. They were offering a promotion for a free copy of Brian Selznick’s Wonder Struck. I entered the competition, and for about the second time in my life, I won a contest! (I also won $100 during blackout bingo at after-prom my senior year of high school.) I began to follow the Booksource, and soon discovered they had a free program called the Classroom Organizer for teachers to use to check out books to students. In fact, some teachers were letting students check out books to themselves the program was so easy.

In January 2013, I was hesitant to change from my chart to the Classroom Organizer in the middle of the school year, so I waited. I learned how the program works and began importing my classroom titles into my Booksource account by scanning ISBNs. At the time, I didn’t have a smart phone, so I tried using an iPad the school had given me. The camera quality was not nearly as good as an iPhone, I soon discovered. Books that wouldn’t scan for me would easily scan on my students’ iPhones. I enlisted a small army of students to help me scan titles. All they had to do was download the free Classroom Organizer app, and then I entered my account’s information. Eventually, I bought an iPhone, and one of the first apps I downloaded was the Classroom Organizer. (I get such a kick out of adding a book to my library by scanning it. My brain receptors probably fire off the same way for when I get a text message or a Twitter notification! Ha!) I couldn’t wait to start the 2013-2014 school year using a 21st century system.

Looking back on this past school year, I’m very happy with how the app worked. Many of my students were impressed with the capabilities of the Classroom Organizer app. I was happy with its weekly email feature that told me when students had overdue books. That made it so much easier to keep track of who was hoarding books. On the few days that my iPhone was dead or forgotten at home, I just told students to take books, and we would scan them the next day. This didn’t always happen, so I would sometimes revert to writing titles down on paper along with the students who had them. The app probably crashed once or twice a week, but it was fairly reliable, and it’s FREE, so I can’t complain.  Since I do not have a classroom computer, I check out the books on my iPhone. Part of me who wants to control everything wonders if all high schoolers would remember to check out books if they were given that chance. I have an extra iPad the school gave me, so maybe I could try using that this coming school year.

As I prepared for a new round of students earlier today, I needed to load students into my Classroom Organizer account. This feature is not available on the app, so you have to log in to the website, and as I clicked into my account, a sense of dread came over me. I remembered last year having to painstakingly copy each student’s name from my PowerTeacher account into the spreadsheet Booksource requires. An aside: elementary teachers could maybe type each name into the online spreadsheet, but I have 130 students, so I would much rather use the Excel spreadsheet option. The required columns are Last Name and First Name, but my grade book presents students’ names as Last Name, First Name, e.g., Farrand, Sam.

The comma was causing problems. If only there were a way to have Excel automatically separate the names into the two columns and eliminate the comma! My gut told me this was possible. Why hadn’t I googled this last year? Sure enough, Microsoft explained how to do this. What relief! What would have taken over an hour only took a few seconds. And now my students are loaded and ready to go for this coming Wednesday. I wonder how many books I can check out on the first day of school.

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