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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Word of Mouth Gets Kids Reading

How Can Student Created Book Reviews Promote Reading?

This should be the post where I tell you about Troy High, an intriguing and inventive novel which sets the Trojan War in a modern American high school. But I can't. I haven't read it.

In fact, I haven't even seen Troy High since a student purchased it for our classroom at a Scholastic book fair three weeks ago. Claudia borrowed it and then gave it to Emily, who passed it on to the other Claudia, who will then pass it on to Kiersten. But Angelica promised to bring in her copy for her other classmates to borrow, so there's a chance I might get to read it sometime before June. That is, unless, it begins to circulate among the other two sections of my sixth grade classes. Shana Norris, consider your book a big hit with middle schoolers!

And it's not just a girl thing, either. The boys have been swapping graphic novels like crazy, especially with the upcoming visit of Amulet author Kazu Kibuishi to our school.

The point is, word of mouth "sells" books, especially among middle and high school students. If peer recommendations are such powerful motivators, then we as teachers should take advantage of them, especially if they'll encourage our students to read.

Student Book Review Sites

Below I've described some sites where students can read book reviews by kids their age, and submit theirs as well.

Scholastic's Share What You're Reading site not only provides students with opportunities to read and write reviews, but also features How to Write a Book Review with Rodman Philbrick. Book reviews are separated by genre (classics, nonfiction, myths, fantasy and science fiction, etc.) and also grade level (K-12). Please note, however, that Scholastic quite clearly notes on their submission form that due to the large number of submissions they receive, they cannot publish all reviews.

Spaghetti Book Club has been around for years, and continues to boast a huge collection of student written reviews, alphabetized by title. Students can also locate books by author's name, which they can do, of course, just as easily on Amazon or any online library catalog, but this site then offers other students' perspectives on books by that author. If you choose to participate as a class, you can group your students' reviews together (see a random class), which provides easy reference for students and parents. Please note, however, that Spaghetti Book Club, unlike Share What You're Reading, is a for-pay site which works with schools, providing a curriculum which leads to the publishing of student reviews.

And that's it. I'm stopping there. The fact is, I spent hours checking out sites featuring book reviews by students, and all have at least one constraint that will keep all of your students from sharing reviews.

So let me now share the best option: Create Your Own Book Review Site.

Don't let that idea scare you off. You could easily use a blog, wiki, or a student-oriented social media site to publish student reviews. 
Advantages: these sites are free, these sites are as public or as private as you choose, you control the format and content, and all students get their reviews posted. 
Disadvantages: Just a little bit more work for you.

Creating Your Own Review Sites

I'm a big fan of PBWorks, a wiki provider. My sixty-five Reading/LA students store much of their digital work in a single class wiki which we call our WikiWorkspace. This allows students to easily access their own work from one location, and read and comment upon their classmates' work as well. Visitors can read what's posted, but are prevented from commenting or editing. So far we've got over one thousand pages and images stored there (including Prezis and videos), and yet we've used just this much of our allotted free space:

On a separate wiki called Monsters Inked, we posted stories in which we collaborated with second graders. Both of these examples illustrate the simplicity of the site. Classroom accounts are free, student accounts are password protected, and the teacher sees all. The site allows embedding of many digital formats, so book reviews need not be static, text-only affairs. Students could easily choose to create book reviews in Photo Story or video format, both of which can be embedded here. (For Photo Story inspiration, check out Mark Geary's article on that topic).

Wikispaces is another wiki provider which I've used in collaboration with other educators, but never in my own classroom. This sample review page shows how a template might be created for a book review which incorporates multimedia.

The following video shows you the collaborative nature of any wiki, regardless of the provider.

Edmodo is a closed, social media site for students. I've used that as well, and highly recommend it. You can read what I had to say about Edmodo at my Teaching that Sticks site, both before and after implementing. This site could easily accommodate student book reviews, and offer peers the opportunity to comment as well.

My class has recently used Collaborize Classroom. Collaborize allows students more opportunity to create original content than Edmodo. Students can post book reviews which include opportunities for peers to vote, suggest and vote, or simply comment. I've also blogged in the past how Collaborize can help teachers fuel classroom discussions. The video below provides a basic overview of the site's features.

Let it be known, my class hasn't created book reviews. Yet. But like reading Troy High, it's something on my To Do List, and something I think I'll enjoy. (Shana Norris, if you're reading this, my students request that you please write a follow-up soon!).

What are your experiences with creating student book reviews? What application or program would you recommend? How are completed projects shared with peers? And most importantly, what else are you doing in and out of your classroom to take advantage of the power of word of mouth to get students reading?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Value of a Lousy Movie Adaptation

Image Courtesy of
I showed my students a 1960 movie adaptation of Island of the Blue Dolphins. In the style of its time, the film was overacted and melodramatic. It also cut several key scenes of the book which would have required special effects; therefore, we do not see the battle of the sea elephants, the destructive forces of the tsunami, nor Karana's conflict with a deadly octopus.

Afterward, I challenged my students to write a persuasive letter to a movie production company, suggesting a remake of the movie. They attacked the assignment with gusto since they had loved the book, but disliked the movie. They even took the assignment a bit further, recommending directors, actors, and even locales.

If you can juxtapose two such elements, you'll give students ample fuel for writing passionately. Pair your original book with a movie, poem, television, graphic novel, or abridged novel version.

Here's a note-taking guide you might find useful for viewing a movie. I typically have students create two columns on the back of that sheet which read What They Added In and What They Took Out. Students can also use this Google Drawing doc Persuasive Essay Map for prewriting their letter.

If you've ever had your students compare and contrast two versions of a novel in this way, we'd love to hear your ideas.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Not Schoolhouse Rock; But Even Cooler

I feel like once again I'm the last one to arrive at the party, but if you haven't seen videos by the History Teachers on YouTube, then you're in for a real treat. The History Teachers are two actual, live teachers from Hawaii who create parody videos about history and literature using popular music.

But Keith, my school blocks YouTube!

While I'm not advocating anything illegal, I do know that Zamzar allows you to save videos in several media formats. If that doesn't work for you, try Google for some alternatives, since I know methods do exist. But again, if it's illegal or against your school's policy, then I am not advocating it!

So have a look at just three of the dozens of clever videos they've created. While the History Teachers don't have a website (that I know of), you can friend them on Facebook to keep up to date with their latest creations.

The French Revolution ("Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga)

The Canterbury Tales ("California Dreamin" by the Mamas and the Papas)

The Odyssey ("Across the Universe" by the Beatles)

Sung from the point of view of Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus. Clips from the 1997 TV version with Armand Assante as Odysseus, Greta Scacchi as Penelope, and Alan Stenson as Telemachus. Vanessa Williams is Calypso and Bernadette Peters as Circe and Isabella Rossellini as Athena.

These videos would be a great introduction for many of the novels we teach, and might even inspire students to create their own songs. Extra credit, anyone?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

SMART Reading Assessment Activities

For Hunger Game readers still seeking more
dystopian sci-fi, check out the recommendations
at the end of this post.
In addition to the comments I receive here at How to Teach a Novel, I also receive many emails seeking practical, how-to advice on how to authentically assess student learning, while effectively managing student assignments.

One terrific resource I've found is this list of  SMART Free Reading Activities compiled by Jeremy Glazer. Jeremy has devised not only a list of activities, but also a scoring plan that motivates students to attempt more challenging assignments. I've uploaded the activities in both Word doc and pdf format (scroll to bottom of the page at this link) to my Teaching Reading and Language Arts wiki so that you can easily modify the plan Jeremy created. If you're anything like me, you need to personally tweak even the best ideas to make them your own.

In speaking about the plan, Jeremy says:

This assignment becomes as much about learning to pace yourself as anything else. Students often struggle the first few marking periods because they put things off, but ultimately they learn to plan ahead, particularly if you are consistent. I was very, very strict about only accepting one assignment per week. Students often begged for mercy because of one disaster or another, but I would gently explain to them that this assignment was about an accumulation and no one week mattered that much.  If they waited until the end and then had computer problems, etc., then there was a lesson to be learned about waiting until the end.

I would, however, make copies of a chart for them to keep in their folders when I passed the work back each week (that's the other part of it - you have to stay on top of the grading if you expect them to stay on top of their progress) so they could record their status. Grading was pretty minimal, though. I would make copies of the rubric on 1/4 sheet of paper strips, circle one of the numbers, write a one sentence comment and then staple that on to their assignment and hand it back. It "only" took a few hours per week.  

Jeremy Glazer presently works in The Good Government Initiative, a program to train elected officials, and intermittently teaches as an adjunct at a community college. If you dig these activities, or have additional questions, drop Jeremy a line.

About The Maze Runner: A couple of teachers have emailed me and asked what I recommend for students who have plowed through The Hunger Games Trilogy and are still hot for more science fiction. I recommend The Maze Runner trilogy (The Scorch Trials is book two in the trilogy), Incarceron(Sapphique picks up where this book leaves off), and Leviathan (followed up with Behemoth).

Until Hunger Games I'll admit I wasn't a fan of series, but I love how these dystopian books get kids hooked on reading. I'm totally open for other reading suggestions as well!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Most Misunderstood Advice for Young Writers

"Write what you know."

Young writers hear this adage often from well-meaning teachers.

But while their intentions are good, adults fail to mention to students that often countless hours of research may be needed to inform good writing, whether that writing be nonfiction, historical fiction, or science fiction.

Author Chris Barton recently tweeted about a Hornbook essay by Laurie Halse Anderson wherein Anderson describes the research undertaken to write her Revolutionary War-era novel Forge. In Tasting the Past, Anderson shares how she literally placed herself into primitive conditions in order to experience first-hand the physical hardships of the troops at Valley Forge. She concludes that essay with:

Is it possible to write historical fiction based only on the reading of primary sources? Of course it is. But for me, walking in the footsteps of people from the past adds vibrancy to their words. It’s one thing to read about a fire, quite another to smell the smoke and hear the wood pop and sizzle.

Doesn't sound like writing what you know.

Or does it?

Is it possible that "write what you know" is actually legitimate, yet entirely misunderstood, advice? Maybe those who first shared that adage meant to say, "Know it, by first finding it and experiencing it, and then write it."

I enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime honor of hearing Jane Yolen speak about her classic The Devil's Arithmetic. She described how she became so immersed in research on the Holocaust that she suffered nightmares; she truly experienced the time travel effect portrayed in the novel. (Yolen added that while many deride the use of time travel in fiction, it's a device that effectively serves to place children into the shoes of those who lived in the past. I agree whole-heartedly).

Yet I'm still not comfortable saying, "Write what you know," as I feel I'm limiting students to rather pedestrian topics. But I might start saying, "If you don't know it, don't write it. Not yet. Not until you've researched it, digested it, perhaps even lived it."

That probably won't fit on a bumper sticker quite as nicely, but it seems to make sense.

So what does this mean to us as teachers of reading and writing?

1) We should encourage reading in a wide variety of genres. This will allow students to "write what they know," with some confidence that they actually know something!

Recently, for example, I assigned students a persuasive writing prompt. Not the usual "students should wear uniforms" bit, but a topic that instead required some research. Each student was assigned a predator, and told it was their job to convince the directors of the Hunters of the Wild Lands (HOWL) Museum that this particular animal deserved recognition in one of the museum's exhibits.

The project involved a good deal of fact finding, since students didn't readily know the characteristics or habits of the sixty-three separate hunters assigned. They soon discovered that sorting interesting facts from relevant facts was a challenge, as was dealing with conflicting information from various websites.

In the end, every student agreed that this was some of their best writing, since it was supported by facts rather than opinions.

2) We should engage students in author studies. Many authors led fascinating lives that informed and inspired their writing. Could Gary Paulsen had written Dogsong or Hatchet as convincingly had he not experienced dog sledding and outdoor survival for himself?

Other authors provide models for students through their research habits. Lois Lowry, for example, spent untold hours researching the Holocaust to write Number the Stars. According the Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide for Number the Stars, Lowry's editor mentioned that the author made too many references to the Nazi's shining black boots in her narrative. Lowry considered removing some of the references until, just soon after, she met a Dutch woman who had lost her mother to the Nazis. "The woman, just a toddler at the time of the Holocaust, remembered only one detail about the soldiers who took her mother away—their boots."

Lowry insisted on keeping the passages, stating:

If any reviewer should call attention to the overuse of that image—none ever has—I would simply tell them that those high shiny boots had trampled on several million childhoods and I was sorry I hadn’t had several million more pages on which to mention that.

3) We should do our own homework when it comes to research. When teaching the Holocaust, I'm often asked by students, "But why didn't the Jews resist? Why didn't they fight back?" The books themselves provide many explanations. Many Jews didn't resist because at first they believed they were simply being relocated. Others felt that if they cooperated, they would be treated fairly and humanely. Some dared not resist for the harm it would bring their loved ones. They felt that if they could withstand each horrific step along the way, they could survive. Still others simply feared the Nazi uniforms and guns.

Just when students seem satisfied with these explanations, they're surprised to hear me say, "But some did resist." I then share some stories from Ann Byers Courageous Teen Resisters: Primary Sources from the Holocaust. This title, one of four from Enslow Publisher's True Stories of Teens in the Holocaust series, describes how individuals and groups fought back, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently, but always at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. Students are amazed to learn that children their age took action in the face of certain death.

4) We should supplement our content area instruction with nonfiction reading selections. I vividly recall a fourth grade social studies text which encouraged students to "Write a journal entry of a soldier at Valley Forge. Describe the hardships you've endured." Unfortunately, the textbook itself had provided just one paragraph on this topic! How often do we similarly ask students to harvest ideas from their minds, when we haven't given them opportunity to sow the seeds?

Do you know of an author who has truly "lived" their writing? How do you push your students to write beyond what they know? What opportunities do you allow for students to write about their own feelings and experiences, about those things that make them unique? I'd love to hear your thoughts!