Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This post from guest writer Amy Menzel struck a chord with readers in 2019. Amy writes here about ‘aha’ moments that strengthened her convictions about choice reading.

I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a MockingbirdFahrenheit 451The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

amy 1

I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

amy 2my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)

*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.

Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.


6 thoughts on “Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus: A Return

  1. […] than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them […]


  2. […] than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them […]


  3. aliranguesl July 8, 2019 at 1:23 pm Reply

    Yes, Amy. The longer works are so important to building stamina and learning to work through an extended idea or narrative. Yes! Read all things. LOL. Now I just got to get myself motivated to read my young adult books to enter into a their conversations and universe of reading. There are just so many darn good adult books to read that something always pulls me away from their reading world. Maybe I haven’t found the right middle school books? LOL. All best. Hope you are finding the time to re-create in body, mind, and spirit.


  4. Amy Menzel July 8, 2019 at 12:29 pm Reply

    I agree about the importance of all genres! I use short stories, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs/posts, poems, song lyrics (the list goes on) as anchor texts now. I find these shorter texts more appropriate to use as anchor texts than books. The length isn’t as daunting for readers and, even if they’re not inherently interested in the subject, they actually read the texts, which allows for much more meaningful guided practice and discussion. The shorter lengths also allow me to introduce them to more of a variety of texts and sources. My students are also encouraged/expected to seek out self-selected texts in various genres. I will always expect them to read books, however. I think it’s important for everyone to spend some sustained time with an idea or story. It’s especially in our current day and age of sound bites and news clips in order to get beyond the augmented understanding that, now, too often passes for knowledge. In short: read all the things!


  5. aliranguesl July 3, 2019 at 9:11 am Reply

    Thanks for sharing your insight. I travelled the trajectory to independent reading and choice many years ago. The conversation over the years seem to always focus on novels, then an evolution to memoirs (since almost everyone teaches personal narrative writing), and the slower evolution towards nonfiction/informational books. Books (fiction or nonfiction) are great and certainly we should encourage reading them. Many novels have helped to shape and re-shape my lens on the world. But what I still don’t understand is the singular focus on books (mostly the novel) as the core of an independent reading program. I grew up from the time I can remember reading the newspaper (RIP ink and paper) and magazines. It started with reading about sports but moved on to feature and opinion pieces. Also, what about the long neglected beauty of the short story? And now I love poetry–too many to name. Yhen: National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Harpers, The Sun, The New Yorker, The Atlantic….all great material that kept me reading.And now we have an endless universe of blogs. I would let students choose to read from the array of genres. So, school and classroom libraries need to have robust access to a variety of materials. No offense to the novel, but there are lots of folks to talk to in the reading party. I have babbled about this before. Anyway, welcome to the universe of self-selected/independent reading. I also like having some core books, as touchstone texts we can all refer to and connect to our broader reading. But always puzzled about how to manage that with choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Menzel July 8, 2019 at 12:31 pm Reply

      Thanks for continuing the conversation! My other comment should have been posted as a reply to yours. 🙂


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