The next step in putting the pieces together

When I returned from The Netherlands entering high school as a junior, I was still a very non-confident reader.  However, I had realized that there were literary possibilities.  Luckily, my high school offered quarter classes in English, and I was assigned to the short stories class.  The teacher introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and again, I found with a lot of work, I could get lost in a story!  It was by no means easy, and many times I wanted to give up.  But somehow, my brain kept remembering the great stories, and that was the encouragement I needed to give myself. 

I still read the end of the book before the rising action, so I had a direction.  In fact, I only stopped this strategy 40 years later.  Knowing the end didn’t feel like I was missing anything; it helped!  I knew what to look for, and my entertainment was in figuring out how the characters would reach the finale!  This is not a strategy I teach nor do I encourage it, but I have met other non-readers who have found some success by reading the end of the book first.  They too are putting the pieces together.

Little by little, I was gaining some confidence with my reading.  But think about it:  I was 16 years old and only then did reading make sense.  I think my sister probably went broke buying me romance novels, but it was worth every penny.  Escaping into a story away from my own life was a wonderful adventure — the exact adventure I want my students to have. 

You see, I was such a literal learner and reader, I needed a map, and I created it on my own.  My house was full of books, but no one had ever helped me find a book that would engage me.  Maybe that is why I was meant to be an exchange student — to exchange my attitude toward reading.

Now, finding books that will engage every one of my 100-130 students is my goal from the first  day of school in August.  We spend a lot of class time putting the pieces together to figure out which books fit just right for each one of my 7th or 8th graders.  Many of my students experience the same trials and frustration I did, but we work at it together.  My students discuss what concepts help them choose a book, and sadly, many kids say “nothing” helps.  But we slowly start putting the pieces together and discuss concepts that many kids have never considered.

  • Look at the cover – Is it appealing?
  • Choose a genre that has been enjoyed before
  • Choose an author that was previously entertaining
  • Read another book in a series that was great the first time
  • Think about:  Is this book too easy or too hard??
  • Consider the book length – Is it too long or too short????
  • Read the book’s summary – Does it sound interesting?
  • Read a few pages in the book — Intriguing??
  • Get a recommendation from another reader
  • Read the back of the book – Appealing???
  • Check book reviews – Helpful?
  • Any awards earned? These are signs people thought it was a good
  • Check the font & number of pages – Does it fit??

No teacher ever took this time with me to help me understand these factors for choosing a book.  I thought reading was too hard, I was different from everyone else, and reading just didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t even consider there was a science to finding books! 

So I have to be sure that is not what my middle schoolers experience.  For some kids, it will take months for them to find the right book, but we keep talking about fiction and nonfiction as a class, in pairs, and every size group imaginable. Buy-in can be slow with my pre-teens, but peer interaction helps.  My reading conferences with each student are great for helping suggest novels, but I’m still  — even as an experienced teacher —  putting the pieces together to improve those conversations too. 

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