Giving Students Voice and Choice through Student-Led Book Talks

As a middle school ELAR teacher, I am passionate about reading and writing. My own husband, children, and probably even the family dog can attest to that. And I am pretty sure Visa and Amazon would agree given my book hoarding tendencies! Most importantly, my students would back up that statement. :) 

Naturally, that passion extends to my commitment to providing students with the skills they need to be effective, powerful, and purposeful readers and writers. Book Talks have long had a place in my teacher tool bag as I encourage students to consume all genres of text, but recently the way I'm facilitating Book Talks has changed. In my efforts to be more student-centered in my lesson designing, I am implementing student-led book talks. On Wednesday, I'll be lucky enough to share some ideas with the TAGT annual conference attendees to help them do the same. If you are attending the Fort Worth event, please stop by and visit my roundtable discussion. I'd love to hear what you are doing with your classroom Book Talks!

Teacher Hack: Classroom Library

My 7th grade English teacher had the very first classroom library that I had ever seen. It consisted of twelve books, and many of them were old and worn, but they were books for us, and I thought that was pretty spectacular. Since I already had my mind set on being a teacher, I vowed that I would also have a classroom library. Fast forward...

Today, I teach 6th-8th grade GT ELAR, and I'm lucky enough to have the classroom of my dreams. It's HUGE, and I have access to every resource I could dream of using. I've also got spectacular space to store all of my classroom library books, and I'm proud that I've built a pretty great one to offer to my students.

Sure, I'm an ELAR teacher, but I believe every single classroom, regardless of content area, should have some sort of library. It's become a heartbeat for my students and me. It's a hotspot for conversations, a meeting spot for kiddos to share book recommendations, and a place for me to have important chats with my kiddos as they come browsing for their next great find. I find a lot out my students at our library shelves!

When I first started gathering books for my library, I collected softcover editions. I found myself frustrated and disheartened by the condition of the books when they returned. Torn covers, rumpled pages, and bent corners. Ugh! The kids' backpacks, lockers, and general wear and tear were greatly shortening the shelf life of the books.

Hoping to find a solution, I decided to start adding only hardcovers in the future. It was a little more costly, but I figured the longer circulation life would make the cost increase worth it. However, while those books were lasting longer, the dust covers were completely destroyed. Books had to be reshelved with missing covers, and, you guessed it, they weren't getting checked out at all! We all know the covers really matter! 📚

It was then I decided to check classroom books out without their dust covers. If the covers sold the books, then they didn't need to go with the students. The "sale" had already been made! From that need, this #teacherhack was born.

Today, students select a book from the shelves to borrow and bring it to me. They write their names on sticky notes and place them on the inside of the cover. They leave the covers in our classroom where they are stored in a filing cabinet drawer, and the books go out into the world to be read and loved. When students are ready to return the books, they retrieve the covers, remove the sticky notes, and reshelve the books. The covers always stay beautiful, crisp and fresh! If students are searching for a specific book to check out, they can look at the covers in the filing cabinets to see who currently has it. When I notice a cover has been hanging in the cabinet for some time, I check in with that student to see if they need more time with it or simply forgot to return it. As the end of the year nears and we close the library for checkout, I use magnetic clips to hang the covers on the board until they are returned. So simple. And it's been a classroom game changer for me!

Old School Can Still be Best School!

On my first day as a teacher, I carefully and nervously wheeled my overhead projector cart to the center of my classroom. Anxious to display my perfectly prepared overhead transparency, I clicked the projector's power on, only to realize I hadn't yet pulled my viewing screen down. Two steps into that task, my foot became tangled in the power cord. In what felt like a movie moment courtesy of John Hughes, the projector hurled itself off of the cart and crashed to the ground, shattering its inner glass and bulbs along with my hopes for a stellar first day. While the kids stared wide-eyed with open mouths, I felt my credibility score plummet to below zero. On a positive note, I learned to punt and implement Plans B-Z in the classroom pretty quickly! (Interestingly, I can't recall what the heck was even on the transparency, but I can remember the painstaking "use all 4-color" care with which I had created it at my kitchen table the night before!)

My how times have changed! Today, I enjoy a gigantor (Yes, it's a word!) touchscreen Smart television cloned to a brand new desktop complete with wireless mouse and keyboard, document camera, infinite online tools, digital assessments, student data portals, and more software than I could ever learn to use, at least before the newest must-haves come out! My students have access to school desktops, laptops, iPads, mini iPads with keyboards, and wireless internet. Still, most of them bring their own device to school with them. And those are just my tech resources. I'll be honest. There are some days I am overwhelmed with all of the instructional and assessment possibilities!

How did I ever teach without these resources? How did my students ever learn in those dark ages? As I rummage through the back of my brain for the best practices of my first years in that classroom, is there anything stored with that busted overhead projector still worth salvaging in the heap? You betcha.

Let's not forget. Even though kids learn differently today, they still learn through our use of some Old School best practices and strategies. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that in many cases it wouldn't hurt to spiral in more of those basics. Let's first look at our ever-increasing use of tech tools as an example. Evidenced by an increasing number of studies and articles reporting their findings (Here's one!), students are not comprehending digital text as well as printed text. I'm not surprised by this, but what does it mean for our increasing use of digital tools and the emergence of online schools? That's a much needed entirely different post and conversation! For now, I dust off three Old School practices and strategies for your consideration. Keep them in your pocket in case of a power outage!

1. Reading aloud with students. Notice the word with? There are miles of difference in reading to vs. reading with. This one may seem simple, but the truth is kids are being read with "live" less and less in every content area with each passing year. Instead, plug and play (sorry, downloadable!) audiobooks are reading to our students! Don't get me wrong. I love a great audiobook. The one for Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is particularly enchanting (Click to hear a sample!) due to its use of music to support the story's themes and motifs. I used it just last week in class! While the academic benefits of reading aloud with our kiddos are well known, nothing can replace the exchange occurring between teacher and students as they laugh, wonder, learn, startle, and anticipate reading together. There's something magical that happens in those moments, something bonding between those pages and lines. I don't care what you are teaching. Read with your students. Read often. I know time is short, but experience that magic with your students. They need it, and so do you. 

2. Show and Tell. Don't laugh. Okay, maybe just a little. If you are old enough, you might remember Show and Tell. It's been a bit since I've worked with elementary students, but I don't hear about it as often as I used to, and I rarely, if ever, hear about it at the secondary level. Again, it's a connection activity, but when we have relationships with our kiddos, the academics always follow! High school students might bring Homecoming themed items from home, or middle school students could share their most memorable object from elementary school. Students don't have to be limited to personal items; you can also connect Show and Tell to all content areas to support your learning. Studying angles in math? Challenge students to find items with the different angle types to bring in and share. What about the Holocaust? (Yep. I've even got a Show and Tell for that one!) Have students search the USHMM photo archives (Here!) to find photos of teen life before the Holocaust. There are thousands online depicting a life similar to the ones your students are currently living. Kids need to see that those students weren't much different, even though that terrible time in history seems like a "lifetime" ago. They will find photos of holidays, family vacations, sports, days at the beach, school, and more! Then have your kiddos find a photo at home to bring in that closely matches one in the archives. Share them side-by-side, and have your students tell the stories of both photos. I guarantee you shock and awe with what they will dig up, and you will learn so much about your students (and their knowledge) in the process. Any way you slice it, Show and Tell is valuable Old School!

3. Index cards. I swear at one time these little jewels were the WD-40 of education. They were everywhere for everything! Need a bookmark? Index card. Starting a research paper? Grab an entire stack! Need to block the door latch on the staff bathroom door in case you leave your key back in your classroom again? Well, you get the picture. And don't even get me started on how I lost my mind in the school supply section when I first learned neon colored beauties were available! While they are still used here and there, index cards have been relegated to the back of the supply cabinets in many classrooms. I challenge you to dust them off and use them for formative assessments. Try this:

  • Each student gets three cards. One has a triangle, the other a circle, and the last a square. When you need a check for understanding during instruction, modeling, or practice, have students place the index card indicating their current level on the corner of their desks. A quick scan and you have a read of the room!
  • A triangle says, "I'm still trying to the point.
  • A circle explains, "I'm ready to circle back around for more information and practice!"
  • A square challenges, "I'm ready to extend outside of the box."
You can also use them for an exit ticket. Have students write their names in the center of the shape best representing their confidence levels in that day's concepts. Collect that card on the way out of the room, and you have visual easy to sort cards for grouping, reteaching, and future lesson designing!

Could we go on? Yep. Because even though times and kiddos have changed, some Old School strategies never go out of style. I'd love to hear about what is still working for you and your students.

Oh, and a bonus! If your school still has any of those overheard transparencies in a book closet somewhere, be sure to grab them up. Have students place them over a piece of text. Using the handy vis-a-vis markers (now in more than 4 colors!), students can annotate, thought jot, or create questions on the transparencies as they read the text. Have students trade those transparencies with other students to place back over the text. It's a silent sharing of their thinking. What did they notice and note? What did they see the same? What was different? You get the idea. Save your favorites for future student models, and have a volunteer clean the rest. That second student can even respond or add to the first kiddo's markings! Old School Cool!

And lastly, but certainly not least, if you are attending next week's TAGT conference in Fort Worth, be sure to check out one of my favorite people! Karen Green is an amazing mentor, coach, and coordinator, and she'll be presenting a session focused on best practices for differentiation titled Oldies But Goldies: Differentiation Strategies that Still Works. Even though this is a GT conference, educators know that best practices apply to all students! (Love you, Karen!)