Monday, May 19, 2014

How Hollywood Made My Students Read

     Were you one of those kids who wrote "book reports" after watching the movie?  Oldest trick in the book.  Unfortunately for today's kids, a lot of us -- I mean, a lot of those naughty children grew up to be savvy reading teachers who don't fall for such time-worn shenanigans.  Instead, we use Hollywood's glitz to lure unsuspecting students into our scholarly snare.  It all begins quite innocently with a much longer, teacher-made version of the three-column chart you see below:*

    Read the list of movie titles below.  Highlight the entire line from left to right each time you see the title of a movie that you loved!

   Movie                              Genre                                    Author

   The Fault in Our Stars     Realistic Fiction/Romance     John Green

   Divergent                       Science Fiction                     Veronica Roth

   Diary of a Wimpy Kid      Humor                                  Jeff Kinney


Fortunately for us middle-school teachers, it's all the rage to make movies from YA books -- there are plenty of titles to use in creating this engaging starter activity!

     When the highlighting has been completed, ask your class what the movies have in common.  It doesn't take long for someone to point out that each of the movies is also a book.  Every year, though, I'm amazed by students oblivious to the fact that, in most cases, the book came before the movie.  That leads me straight to the conversation I want us all to have:

     "You know that movies cost millions of dollars to make, right?"

     Kids start to nod in agreement.

     "And, obviously, producers wouldn't waste their millions basing movies on horrible books, would they?  No, they want to make more millions!  That's why they deal only with stories that began as ridiculously popular books."

     Light bulbs begin to flicker over a few heads.  Hmm . . . she's got a point.

     "Once you know that, Students, doesn't it make sense to choose books that were made into movies?  Chances are that the stories are very good."  I gesture toward the ledge where my "movie books" are displayed.  "Raise your hand if you've seen any of these movies."

      Typically, there's lots of discussion now, not just about the books on the shelf, but the books on the starter activity as well.

     "Do any of you guys ever read the books after you've seen the movies?"

      Not many do, in fact, but every now and then, one of The Blessedly Bookish steps up to help me make my point:  "I do.  It's like getting to watch the movie all over again inside my head.  Sometimes, the book is even better than the movie."  (For me, that describes pretty much every movie based on a Stephen King novel.  For my students, well, The Lightning Thief movie fills the bill.)

     At this point, discussion becomes a little giddy -- a middle-school sign that it's time to move on -- so I ask the students to pick up their starter papers.

     "Okay, everybody, now you're going to learn something about yourselves. Fold your papers so you can't see the left-hand "Movie" column anymore."  

     The teacher wanders, helping out stragglers and eavesdropping as students unabashedly opine about movies they have seen.  (Never discount the value of eavesdropping as a means of gathering honest input!  Plus, you often discover who's "going out" with whom, information which is every bit as entertaining as it is useless.)

     "Now count the number of times you've highlighted a genre more than once.  That shows the genre to which you are most attracted.  Did anyone highlight the same genre a bunch of times?"

     Malachi:  "Fantasy!"

     "Okay.  So the next time we go to the library, toward which section should you head immediately?"


     "Exactly.  Now, everyone turn to the kid nearest you and see which genre he likes the best."

     Sometimes, this discussion of "movies as stories" will drift toward discussion of TV shows and video games as well.  Let it.  Actually, force it.  In my earliest efforts to promote self-selected text, I'd advise students to choose books that "reflect your interests," only to be assailed by a crowd of boys hunting for books about video games.

     "Guys, guys, you've got it all wrong!  Don't look for books about video games;  think about the games you like to play!  Who plays sports games?  Well, there's the Sports Fiction over there.  Who likes to kill hordes of ravenous zombies?  Look for the Horror shelves two sections over.  Anyone like those games where you get to be a wizard or an elf or something?  You'll be happy to know that all our half-sized shelves contain fantasy stories brimming with the adventures you love to experience virtually." 

     (Can you see why you need to persuade your school librarian to organize the collection by genre?  If you're lucky, she already does!)

     The next time Library Day rolls around, first have your students review their "movie books" activity sheet.  Ask them to remember what they learned about themselves.  Then remind them to head for the genre of stories their past choices suggest they will like.  Why?  Because we're working to ingrain new library behaviors.  Without explicit, on-going reminders, students tend to revert to the same old methods they've always used to choose books, often with disappointing results. 

Read the the story of Leo, the disappointed reader, in

     At this point, you may wonder why any teacher worth her salt would set herself up to receive book reports written over movies.  Thank you for asking!  Remember:  The Sustained Reader is not just any teacher!  Because of the many blocks we have already been around, the Sustained Reader is also a savvy reading teacher.  Next up, we'll reveal secrets for thwarting movies as the age-old reading dodge.  In the meantime, help me eat some of this popcorn -- I always buy too much.

Next Up:  Reeling in Student Readers With Movies

* You can find a ready-made handout suitable for use at!