INDEPENDENT NOVEL STUDIES
One of the most effective ways to engage teen readers in the classroom is to let them choose their own reading materials. For the past four years I have worked with staff and students at my high school to build a rich, varied and engaging collection of both fiction and non-fiction. These books provide the resource for a number of themed units used by both Social Studies and English teachers. Themed units offer many possibilities for reflection and discussion that relates to the world outside the classroom.
Themes cover a wide scope of topics and are as varied as your imagination. In Socials class the students read historical fiction titles set in the time period they are studying. English classes work on themes that range from social issues to bestsellers or award winners. Some examples are survival, persecution, Shakespeare, fantasy, the power of belief, the future, personal growth and war. Any one book can often be used in a range of themes and across multiple grades. Titles vary in length and difficulty. Compiling a list becomes easier when one considers the excellent online resources such as EbscoHost’s NoveList, accessible through many public libraries, or the numerous book lists provided by libraries around the world such as Nancy Keene’s ATN Book Lists. When doing an online search, including terms such as YA, book list, or theme can be useful.
When the unit is introduced teachers bring their classes to the library for a book talk. Sometimes I present the books and sometimes the teacher and I take turns talking about the titles in rapid-fire tag team style. Our objective is to generate enthusiasm. Showing the same book with different versions of the cover helps students avoid “judging a book by its cover” syndrome.
The focus is to engage the students in reading so the activities that follow the reading reflect this. These are some examples:
Interviews – staff and students meet one on one for a ten-minute discussion about the book. Students are not given the questions beforehand unless they have been asked to come prepared with a favourite quote. Sample questions include:
• What made you angry/sad/excited/laugh out loud?
• Did you like the ending?
• What did you want to learn more about when you finished reading the book?
• Why do you think the author wrote this story?
• What were the enduring themes?
• Which character was the most convincing?
• What is your favourite quote?
• How did the author make good use of literary devices?
Book club style sharing – have students meet in groups and provide a guide to get discussion started. Make the groups small enough that all have a chance to share in the time allotted. Groups can meet with the teacher alone or in front of the class.
Posters - Have students design posters or create digital presentations that include the following four elements:
• A graphic – This can be hand-drawn, selected from an old periodical or computer generated.
• A short synopsis of the story. This is a valuable skill as it teaches students to summarize the novel encapsulating the essence of the story.
• Background information. This might include a snapshot of the times for historical fiction, a FAQ list about an event or a condition one of the characters has ( trip to Japan, grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease). It could be a “What I wanted to learn about after I had finished reading the story” spot.
• Reaction – Have students express their personal reactions.
One-page Newspaper – This is a great activity for an historical novel. Students should include one article that gives factual information about the main event in the story. They might also include a letter to the editor, classified ads for items common to the time period, graphics and other things that lend authenticity.
The poster and one-page newspaper projects make great library displays. I have the students use an 8.5 x 11 sheet. Teachers who wish students to engage in more in depth activities may want to consider the following online resources.
GREAT ONLINE RESOURCES
Web English Teacher: Book report Ideas
which includes a link to the fabulous 91 Ways to Respond to Literature.
The Adaptive Dimension: Gr. 6-9 co-operative study novel unit
TIPS FOR STUDENTS
One of your most powerful tools for making this a success is to acknowledge those students for whom reading is drudgery. One student I know amazed himself by reading his book in a single night when he tried the Two Bookmark Trick. Here are some simple tricks I use:
• The Two Bookmark Trick - If you have a deadline to finish reading a book follow this simple rule. Divide the number of pages in the book by the number of days you have to read. Use one bookmark to mark your target for the day. Use the second bookmark to mark your place. Most people find that they can easily reach their goal and often read beyond their daily limit. Setting the goal gets kids into the first 15 pages of their book and hooks them.
• The Flood Book - Someone in a course I took many years ago suggested that everyone needs a book with them in case they are trapped by a flood. Take the book everywhere you go. All those 5 minutes you spend in the car waiting while your mum picks up a quart of milk or drops off your sister could be spent reading.
• The 5 Finger Test - many students learned this in elementary school but need to be reminded of it. Open the book at any full page of text and begin reading. For each word you don’t know hold up a finger (They can do this in their heads if they don’t want to be too obvious). If you have 5 fingers up before you reach the end of the page then the book is probably not at your recreational reading level.
• The Fast Return - If you are not into your book within a day or two return it immediately and find something that grabs you. Remember the point of this is to hook kids into reading not turn them off.
• Your brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it the faster it will learn to process information.
The excitement that students feel about reading becomes palpable. They make connections to their own lives, the world beyond and across the curriculum. When you see a student who has never used the library voluntarily leave with a big grin on their face and the perfect book in their hand it just doesn’t get any better. When the kids see that you really care that they have great books to read they open up. They begin to share their reading experiences with you and suggest titles to add to the collection. Teachers are amazed at their students’ enthusiasm for reading and the insights those students have when they truly enjoy what they have read.
What fabulous ideas do you have for engaging students with books? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment. Thanks!
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