Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learning to Talk About Books

I spend considerable time at the beginning of each semester helping students learn to talk and write about their books as readers, not as students. They're always surprised when I tell them I want them to write in first person, to use "I" in their Reading Logs. Some find this exciting, some are hesitant to step out of the comfortable box they're in...

I use a form of Reader Response for our Logs, personal responses, connections, questions and predictions based on what students read. I want to know their opinions. They're used to summarizing and analyzing in their English classes, so I have to show them another way to write about books. In every class I will have students who are taking the class for a second...or third...or fourth time. They are co-teachers in this shift. They've figured out how to write personal responses, to engage in a true dialogue.

The dialogue piece of the writing, I believe, is as vital as the personal responses to books. I promise my students I will read every word they write in their Logs, and I will respond to every entry. Skeptical faces greet that statement; new students are always skeptical. They've had too many teachers who didn't or couldn't take the time to read and respond in a meaningful way. It usually takes a few weeks to convince them, but convince them I do. At the beginning of the semester, I gently redirect summarizers by asking questions, by requesting predictions, opinions. Many students see, through my modeling and responses, how much fun it is to engage in a real dialogue about books...

I ask questions, agree with an assessment of a character, warn students of a surprise awaiting them. I show the kind of interest readers do when talking to other readers about books. Often students in their final reflections of the class point to the interaction on their Logs as one of the strengths of the class...that conversation convinces them that reading is a social endeavor. For all of us, reading is especially enjoyable when there's someone who cares about what we have to say. I provide that audience as I build our community of readers.

Even though most of our class time is taken with reading, conversations begin to pop up as books are recommended. I believe that students are rehearsing these conversations in their Logs, trying out honest opinions, giving reasons, asking questions. Students also are required to share a power point book share during the semester. They must incorporate images, quotes or reviews, and links to book trailers or authors' websites. As I also model these book shares before asking students to do their own, and since my 'repeaters' have already done book shares in a previous semester, these shares also show students how enjoyable it is to share, to listen, to talk about books.

By the end of the semester, my point is made: true reading is a very social activity.

On the final exam last semester, students wrote several questions that encouraged their classmates to talk about books: they asked about books that inspired, characters a reader would want to be, what books should be made into films, what books they will share with their own children. Their questions truly reflected the value we had all put on talking about books and writing about them. As you read, remember some of these students were non-readers 18 weeks before, some had never talked about books with anyone before.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite selections of my students talking about books and characters, and what they mean. I've tried to capture students' voices without editing.

  • This semester I’ve gone through a lot that has been hard to deal with at times. I have attended two funerals that ended courageous battles with cancer and learned of the diagnosis of a friend with ALS. I was stuck with those things I couldn’t change or make go away. These circumstances have provoked many questions about pain and why we feel it…and why we’re even here. Tuesdays with Morrie helped me cope with everything. It also answered a few of my questions, but really, by reading it I ended up asking more. I was Mitch. I was watching helplessly as lives that still held so much potential slipped away. I want to live like Morrie. Time is finite. We don’t choose our hardships. How we spend that time and how we respond, however, is our choice. And it’s when we see that and live that and truly believe that, it’s then that we see maybe we aren't so stuck after all.

  • I would be Arthur Radley from TKAM. He’s a quiet kind of guy. He doesn’t like getting much attention from other people. I don’t’ want a lot of attention around me either. The only think I don’t do that Arthur does is look out the window and watch people like a creeper. I like how the kids thought he was a criminal and evil and whatnot. Then in the end, when Scout and Jem were being attacked, Arthur comes and saves him.

  • If I had to be one character from a book, that would be miserable. Bad things tend to happen to the people in the books I read. Pi gets stranded on a boat with a tiger! Several of my favorite characters live in insane asylums. And at least half of the books I’ve read involve a protagonist having some sort of existential crisis that I’d rather just avoid. If I had to pick one, though, I guess I wouldn’t’ really mind being Ed Kennedy, of I am the Messenger. He definitely has to go through trials by flame, but I feel he came out on top, feeling whole again.

  • They say that when you close a book, you lose a very dear friend. I have never experienced this until I met the young wizard, Harry Potter. I had spent so much time with him that he became a part of me. For I was there when he discovered he was a wizard, and a famous one at that. I was there when Harry faced Voldemort for the first time while he searched for the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was there in the Chamber of Secrets when he risked his life for Ginny. I was there when he found out that he had a godfather who truly loved him. I was there when his wand connected to Voldemort’s, then clung to Cedric’s dead body. I was there when Sirius died. I was there when Dumbledore fell of f the tower because of the killing curse. I was there to realize that Snape loved Lily Potter. I was there when Harry got rid of Voldemort for good. When the book closed I thought, “I WAS there.” It hit me that there would be no more adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. His story is over, and his time spent in my heart is gone. I departed with a good friend, but I know that as long as his story continues on, other people will be filled with the warmth that is Harry Potter.

  • A lot can be determined about the books people tend to share. Sharing a book means that one is passionate about the book they’ve experienced and they want others to know about it. By sharing, it is interesting to see who loves chick books, thrillers or inspiring books

  • Ok, strictly speaking, my favorite character is Lupin from Harry Potter. He deeply appeals to me. Scariest antagonist is Bellatrix, but I think only because we don’t know her background. Voldemort was almost a sympathetic character at some points, but she never was. Character I most identify with is probably Ginny. I grew up with all brothers and always had a crush on Harry.

  • Tuesdays with Morrie has made me realize that I should not let time, or not-so-very important things get in the way of the things that matter most. Perks of Being a Wallflower has made me realize that I should try and talk to anyone, because I may not know that I could be able to help change someone’s life. We Were Here has taught me to love the ones I love and to night fight for stupid things, which I have done.
  • After reading Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice I feel very accomplished and I feel like a more scholarly reader.

  • At first I only wanted to read ‘good books’ but now I’ve realized that’s for me to decipher what good books are and to discover them through actually reading them.
  • Books cause us to reevaluate our own difficult situations and learn a way to cope or change them. Books will never fate or go out of style because they are tangible, lasting ideas that will be passed on from generation to generation

  • Ender’s Game—besides being a really good book to stimulate the imagination, it’s a good manual for how to be a human being.

  • Every book I read by Vonnegut changes my views on particular things so slightly that readers of Vonnegut will acquire a ‘method of thinking.’

  • Fight Club encapsulated the frustrations of a generation that was told they could be whatever they wanted to be…the ideal would become corrupted by personal greed if attempted in the real world.

  • Grendel impacted my though process more but One Hundred Years of Solitude impacted my perception of books more

  • I didn’t particularly like 13 Reasons Why, but it helped to show me that a friendly smile or a sweet compliment could really save some one

  • I love how a book like Clockwork Orange can help me spiritually. That’s so cool to me.
  • I love scary movies, but scary books freak me out. Books to me are way more intimate and I get way more involved than I probably should

  • I don’t think I would want to be a character in any of the books I read, because I tend to read about characters who face extraordinary challenges and I’ve already got my hands full with regular life.

  • I would be Phineas in A Separate Peace. My great friend in 8th grade told me I was like him, and looking back, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten. Fin is one of the most beautiful and pure characters ever.
  • If I could be inside a book, I would be in Eragon. I would be Murtaugh, Eragon’s half-brother. I could relate to why he is angry, because I often feel the same way.

  • If I could make one book into a movie, it would be…Fault in Our Stars. Of course, I would play Hazel
  • Jane Eyre—I followed Jane through all the trials and tribulations that she underwent. That was tiring but also inspiring.

  • Never would have guessed a book would do that for me [Outsiders]

  • Runner inspired me the most because it was the first book I finished on my own

  • The Alchemist is great spiritually, emotionally, ambitiously, courageously, and it’s a great spark of inspiration
  • The Catcher in the Rye changed my life

  • The Great Gatsby is one of the truest stories I have ever read

  • The Road has a big lesson about commitment and fatherly love

  • You just can’t let go of some books

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