Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Book Whispering with Undergrads

The first time I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. The ways that she writes about matching books and readers to increase engagement and interest aligns with my thinking when I was a classroom teacher. It also made me think about how I teach children’s literature to future teachers.

Last semester I incorporated choice into our book discussions (the students also write a paper before each discussion). We all started out reading the same picture books: Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner.  Then I began scaffolding choice by asking them to select between Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel by Eoin Colfer. Next they could select between four different Biographies (Knucklehead by Jon Scieszcka, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, The Voice that Challenged a Nation by Russell Freedman, Charles & Emma by Deborah Heiligman). For our last of five discussions, they could select any realistic fiction book that they wanted to read – the only parameters were that it needed to be children’s or young adult literature and needed to be a “chapter book.” This idea of scaffolding selection to increase interest is thanks to my friend and colleague Laura Jimenez, who was determined to figure out a way to help her students because more engaged readers.

This semester I’m trying something a little different. I adapted the Reading interest-a-lyzer from The Book Whisperer. I wanted to really get a sense of who these 25 readers are sitting in class with me each week. As we begin to learn about different genres, I’m trying to incorporate interest and choice. For instance, this coming week we are going to be talking about biography and historical fiction. Students are reading about the genres from their textbook as well as from Family of Readers (Sutton and Paravano). In addition, I brought two boxes of biographies and historical fiction books to class and asked students to select one to take home with them and read. One goal for asking them to read a piece of literature at the same time as the textbook is that their understandings of the genre will be more tangible. Another goal is that by giving them choice, that maybe they will remember or experience for the first time what it feels like to be really engaged as a reader. While I was gathering books together, I realized that I won’t be able to match up each individual with a book unique to their interest each week (I’m dealing with my limited personal library, and not everyone likes every genre). But I shared with the students that I will match up a book for them personally at least once during the semester, hopefully twice.

This week I was able to give Drawing From Memory to a student who is a graphic design major, and Those Rebels, John and Tom to a student who is a social studies major and read about a review of this title in a blog.

As my pre-service teachers experience engagement and interest with literature, my hope is that in the future, they will remember the feelings of being engaged (or not engaged) readers, and will make a commitment to creating similar connections between their own students and books. In this time of standardized testing and implementing basal reading series, I feel even more strongly about preparing professionally-minded teachers who will work to help their own students become engaged readers. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going!