I am fortunate to be on friendly-emailing terms with the great Tom Romano, from whom I’ve learned much about good writing instruction, multigenre, and student voice.
So when I received an email from him the other day, asking for book recommendations, I laughed aloud. My most excellent writing mentor, asking me what to read next?
I admit, I balked a little at first. This was like having Tiger Woods ask you what golf club to try next. But then, I fell back on my tried-and-true reading conference strategies, which I’ve used countless times over the years with reluctant and prolific readers alike.
As with any student, I had much of what I needed in order to give a good recommendation between the request itself and my background knowledge of Romano. When students need help finding something to read, we’ll often meet at the bookshelf. As they stare blankly at the wall of books, one of the first questions I ask is:
“What are you in the mood to read?”
Often, students can give me a feeling–something fun, lighthearted, serious, or challenging–or a genre–romance, nonfiction, adventure. It’s even better when they can give me specific titles that relate to their preferences. I usually glean these titles by asking:
“What’s the last book you read that you loved?”
In his request, Romano gave me all the information I needed–he wanted something literary, something like The Nightingale (which I’d read after Lisa recommended it to me), Atonement, or All the Light We Cannot See. He’d also answered another question I usually ask readers:
“What’s your reading plan?”
Knowing where a student will be reading this book–at work in short spurts, at home in long stretches, or on a crowded bus on the way to an athletic event–impacts my recommendation as well. Here, Romano told me he’d be reading for long, uninterrupted stretches of time in airports, so I knew I could suggest something all-consuming.
So, I stuck with my usual formula:
I recommended three titles.
Exit West is a title I’ve heard a great deal about and would love to read, but haven’t gotten to yet; The Secret History is an amazing hidden gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt that I read about 15 years ago; and A Man Called Ove is a new viral title that made me sob hard over Girl Scout cookies and coffee as I finished reading it. My three recommendations usually consist of something old, something new, and something I haven’t read yet.
I wrapped up my pitch as I always do, with a clincher:
A promise of what the book will do for the reader.
A week went by, and last night at 11 pm, I received another email from Romano:
A successful end to a successful reading conference, if you ask me…but of course, like any other conversation about books, I couldn’t let it end there. I just had to throw in one more recommendation, which I always do for my students when they return a book:
“If you liked that book, you should try ______________.”
This quick exchange of emails, like so many off-the-cuff conversations we have with students, was packed full of powerful data about a reader’s interests and abilities; a teacher’s knowledge of texts and titles, and most importantly, the transaction between the two parties–a shared endeavor to find a just-right book at just the right time.
All our words are imbued with purpose and power when we are discussing literacy. Reading conferences don’t need to be formal, sit-down conversations all the time. They have just as much weight when they’re held standing at the bookshelf, passing in the hallway, or from afar via email. This reading conference with Tom Romano reminds me: never take any of our talk about books for granted.
Do you have a what-to-read conference “formula?” What other titles might you recommend to Tom and me? Please share in the comments!
Shana Karnes is eagerly awaiting the end of flu season so she can go back to work without worrying about her two tiny daughters getting sick…again. When her family is actually healthy, she teaches preservice educators at West Virginia University, goes for long runs while listening to even longer audiobooks, and tweets about reading, writing, and school at @litreader.