Friday, May 23, 2014

Starting the Student Book Buzz!

        This is the beautiful background music in The Sustained Reader's classroom:
  • glorious silence as students engage in reading their well-chosen* books, 
  • a steady scritch-scratch of pencils on paper as readers react to their text, and 
  • the formal and informal buzz of students evaluating, analyzing, and promoting good books they have found.

     But that doesn't happen on its own.  The initial classroom buzz is carefully orchestrated by you, the teacher.  For the first few weeks, SSR is immediately followed by fluency writing in student journals.  During this instructional phase, students are directly taught that it's time to move beyond simple summaries.  How, exactly, does one talk about books beyond explaining what happened?  That's where the teacher steps in.  With extensive whole-class practice, most middle-school students can eventually take charge of the topics they wish to discuss.  For starters, six timed minutes of writing is generally sufficient to break down writing blocks and build up a little fluency.


     Composition books close at the sound of the timer's bell, and "Book Buzz" begins like this:

     "Okay, everyone who likes his book hold it high so we all can see it.  No, don't show me -- show each other!  Yes!  If you're showing off your book right now, congratulations!  You made a great selection."  

     Wandering up and down the aisles, comment on books that you've read.  Ask questions to draw a number of children into the class discussion.

     "What genre is that one, Urbin?  Don't know?  Hey, who can give Urbin some help?  Does anyone see a clue on the book jacket?"

    "Bad Girls Don't Die?  Lauren, that's horror!  Has it gotten scary yet?  Did you know that it's part of a trilogy?"

     Make it clear that everyone's participation is valued in both listening and speaking during "Book Buzz."  Periodically remind the class:  If you see a book that grabs your interest, write that title on your "Books I Want to Read" page in the back of your composition book.  (At the end of the school year, any unread books on that page become their summer reading list!)

     Possibly because they've never before been asked just to talk about books they read, students really enjoy this seemingly casual conversation.  They don't realize that each of your questions has been crafted to contain an abundance of academic vocabulary.  It's also easy to design questions and comments to include any Language Arts concepts addressed in class that week:  setting, conflict, figurative language . . .  Just don't drag out any one topic too long.  The kids will lose interest, and besides -- you've got all year to revisit the concept as many times as you like!

     As so often happens, one of my best ideas was born of desperation on a day no one wanted to talk. Grabbing a marker from the whiteboard tray, I strolled among the students doing on-the-spot "Oprah" interviews, hamming it up and using the marker as a microphone.  It was hilarious to watch my snoozy crew morph into a lively "studio audience" filled with kids vying for a chance to talk into "the mike"!

      After a semester of classroom practice, you'll start to hear spontaneous book talk initiated by the students themselves.  It flares up frequently at the end of class and especially on Library Day, when students sometimes engage in dialogue far better than any you ever started!  If you genuinely love to read and to contribute interesting comments, the students will still let you chime in, but at this point, you no longer have to lead them. Those are the days you're hoping for, the days you step back just to savor the classroom buzz.

* Teaching students how to select their own reading material is crucial to the success of The Sustained Reader's classroom.  So Many Books, So Little Time provides a list of twelve techniques for students to apply toward making a satisfying selection.

Next up:  Can You See Me Now???