Conversation Starter: What’s a book talk and why do you do them?
Shana: Booktalks are a structured way to fangirl about my favorite things in the world: books. I do two booktalks per class, right after independent reading wraps up. They’re a great way to transition from the relaxed reading mood of the classroom and move into the fast-paced work of critical reading and writing, but they’re also the number one change I’ve made to my teaching that has influenced how much I can get my kids reading. Three years ago, I only did booktalks whenever the mood struck or whenever I got new books into my library, but now I do two a day, every day, no matter what–and it’s made an incredible difference.
Amy: You are an inspiration in consistency, Shana. I’ve done better at doing book talks this year than I have in the past. I try to do two a day as well — one non-fiction book and one fiction. I always seem to fall off the wagon at some point though. The demon, impending testing, pulls me to the dark side every year. I’m putting up a good fight this time around, and I have a plan to reinvigorate, not just my book talks, but the reading that’s happening in my room. Curiosity and intrigue: my goal for better book talks.
Is there a set protocol for a book talk — like length, reading a passage, etc?
Shana: Just talking books is the biggest nonnegotiable for me. While most days I do follow a protocol–one fiction, one nonfiction; 2-3 minutes per book; always share a passage, a brief plot teaser, and my own reading experience; try to mention a student who’s read the book–some days I just have to gush over a book that’s been recently returned, or a book I am reminded of during conference time, or some new items I’ve purchased. Either way, I talk books every day, no matter what, which helps students become accustomed to exposure to new titles, adding books to their what-to-read lists, and hearing about trends in authors, genres, or topics.
Amy: Remember at Penny Kittle’s Book Love class at UNH two years ago how she had everyone model a book talk? She set no guidelines other than modeling a few for us. After just a few turns, it became clear: The best book talks are short, energetic, and introduce the book in some insightful or clever way. I try to do that.
When I read the books in my library, I look for passages for craft studies or beautiful sentences we can use as mentors. Sometimes I share those in book talks without doing the study — we just enjoy the language or listen to the voice of the narrator. I’ve started asking questions and trying to get my students to think about the topics the writers might address in the books. Just another way to get my readers to make a connection with writing.
The hardest books to book talk are the ones I haven’t read yet, but even those are doable when we show genuine excitement about the book. Why would I have a book in my library if I am not excited about students reading it? That’s a pretty easy sell in and of itself. It’s fun to get students to ask questions about the cover and to read the comments.
How do you decide which books to talk about within each unit?
Shana: This is pretty easy for me since most of my units of instruction are themed. For reading units themed around a topic, I find lots of books about that topic, or that contribute an alternate perspective to whatever central text we might be reading. (Example: While reading Siddhartha and thinking about coming of age and going on journeys, Outliers, Marcelo in the Real World, The Other Wes Moore, Paper Towns, and Their Eyes Were Watching God fit right into our unit.) While in the midst of a writing unit, I think about books that might serve as mentor texts in terms of topic or structure, or that are written by authors who serve as good mentors in general. Other times, I have no rhyme or reason to my booktalks, because I simply MUST talk about a new book (like Dumplin’, which I just read and LOVED and had to booktalk randomly.)
Amy: I structure my units more around genre than theme, so my book talks are more random than yours. Hey, maybe that’s the problem with my consistency!
My students and I talk a lot about aesthetic and efferent reading. I want them to understand the importance of making connections with the books they choose to read, and lately, I’ve seen that there is a real disconnect. Just because students choose books does not mean they are making personal connections to them. This is in part why so many of my students this year are having a hard time sticking with the books they choose. Because I know many are abandoning books so quickly, I’ve been working on getting students to talk a lot more about topics and how writers approach these topics. My hope is that my non-readers will find interest in learning about things, even if they are not interested in reading for the pleasure of it.
I’ve done several book talks this year around a topic; for example, depression, which is one of my 11th graders’ favorite topics to write about this year. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Every Last Word, My Heart and Other Black Holes all flew out of my hands, and I had to get more copies.
Do you ever have students conduct book talks?
Shana: Very occasionally, I do, when it’s really authentic. When a student finishes a book and just raves about it during a conference, I ask them to share that enthusiasm with the class. Last quarter, I asked all students to read a challenge book and then complete their choice of follow-up activities with the book–one choice was a booktalk, and the students who shared about the titles they loved did spark some interest in their peers. However, those booktalks didn’t go over as well as the ones that arose from sheer exhilaration, so I think my future goal will be to limit student booktalks to spontaneous ones only.
Amy: Like you, I rarely have students conduct book talks — at least the way I do. I’ve tried, but you are right, without the spontaneous excitement about the book, the other students just do not respond the same as they do when I conduct the book talks.
However, I do have students talk about books with one another. Most of the time it’s pretty informal: Talk to your table mates about what you are reading. Sometimes it’s a little more formal: Speed dating with a book, which is one of our favorite ways to share books.
What are some other ways you talk about books with your students?
Shana: Basically, I bombard them with talk about books all the time. When I see current or former students in the halls, I ask them what they’re reading. When they come to visit me, I urge them to leave the room with a new book. I make lots of segues in conversations from all topics to all books (mostly because this is just what I do in real life…ask anyone who knows me). I also share with students all the time what I’m reading, and why they might like a given book.
Amy: We are so much alike! I love to have former students borrow books, and I talk about books with every person who will listen — and some who don’t. I also try to get students to engage with me on Twitter, using the hashtag #FridayReads to share what they are reading each week. A few students set up accounts and we follow each other on Goodreads. I love those kids! I’ve also started a favorite quotes wall, and I’ve asked students to pull significant lines that lead to theme and/or beautiful sentences that show author’s craft. Getting students to pay attention as they read, noticing how writers use language to create meaning, leads to significant improvements in their own writing. Without fail, it’s my best readers who are also my best writers. If only more students would get that.
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