My colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working with some of our ninth grade teachers this week as part of a unit they are doing with students to give students an opportunity to select a book and engage in self-facilitated reading. As many of you may know, I used a strategy, “book tasting“, during my time at Creekview High to support inquiry and literature circles. Jennifer and I decided to adapt it for this unit, but our challenge was tweaking it for eight sections of classes, a variety of readers, and completely open choices rather than giving students a pre-selected “menu” of choices to choose from as part of an inquiry unit. We felt this would be an effective approach since we’ve noticed ninth graders sometimes are overwhelmed by all the choices available. Because students here often ask for specific kinds of books (romance, mystery, a book like Hunger Games), we decided to create “sampler trays” of books by the most requested categories of books. After some collaborative brainstorming, we decided upon these categories:
- Sports Fiction
- Gritty/Realistic Fiction
- Hot/Popular Reads
I created signage and we affixed those signs to individual book carts. We utilized some previously created booklists and crafted some new ones to choose the books that would be the “appetizers” for each book cart/category.
Because neither of us had done “book tasting” with this many classes at once or in a context in which students could choose any book, we then thought about how to tweak the activity to accommodate these needs and complete it within a single 50 minute class period without rushing the students or shortchanging the selection experience. After much thought, we decided this would be our game plan:
- Introduce the activity and briefly outline the details of the book tasting with students.
- Give students 10 minutes to “sample” our “trays” of tasty books. Because we knew some students might also have definite ideas about specific books, we decided we would also offer browsing the stacks in the same area as an additional option.
- Work in three segments of “tasting” that would include roughly four minutes to read the first few pages of the book and then about two minutes to write a quick response and rating of the book using the book menu below:
- Ask students to help with a few housekeeping activities upon the completion of the tasting: A. return books back to the appropriate cart with the book cover facing outward. B. Books from the stacks would be pushed to the center and we would clean up the “leftovers” afterwards; these books were then recycled either to the appropriate cart for its particular category or housed on the “Hot and Popular” cart. Overall, most students did a great job helping us with these tasks.
- Students then check out their books, grab a bookmark, and then check in with their teacher to share their choice. We collected the completed book tasting “menus” as the ticket out the door.
We honestly were not sure how the activity would go—we had concerns our adjustments to the structure of the activity might be off, that we might run out of books and/or not have time between classes to replenish carts, or that our estimated timing/pacing would be way off, especially since we were working with multiple classes and diverse kinds of learners with a wide range of previous experiences as readers.
As it turned out, all of our fears were quickly allayed as the process flowed beautifully for each class on the first day. Nearly every class section responded with enthusiasm and intense engagement with the activity. Even the two sections that were not quite as stoked as the others (one was an early morning class; the other was at the end of the day) still participated in a positive way. With the exception of the early morning class, all of the classes seemed very intentional in their book selections and interacting with the choices on the book carts. Jennifer and I both felt the book carts as “sampler trays” gave the students a flexible structure to be more deliberate with their choices. I like Jennifer’s take on the book tasting approach: “The purpose of book tasting is to scaffold students’ making independent choices.” We also observed students selecting books from both the carts and the stacks; we also overheard conversations in which students shared opinions, questions, and recommendations to each other about books. We also had students in each class inquire about specific titles, authors, topics, and series as well, so we used our laptops to do quick lookups in the OPAC.
What struck us the most was how intently and deeply focused students were during the four minute “tasting” phases of each book in nearly every section; in many sections, some students would be so engaged that they would continue reading with a specific choice even after it was time to move on to another. We used the book menu and the six minute cycles as a guide and tried to respect the needs of the students as readers if they lingered or finished slightly early. One particular class shocked their teacher with their engagement with the books, whispering to us “They hate reading!”, but in retrospect, we think that we perceive as disinterest or disdain for reading is really more about the lack of choices that is so pervasive in high school Language Arts choices. Overall, this variation of book tasting was tremendous fun for us as the teachers as well as the students, and we hope to do it again with other classes.
A few brief reflections we think are share-worthy:
- Giving students that quiet time to read and sample their books is crucial. It is essential that teachers resist the urge to offer commentary to students or attempt to “coach” them into selecting a particular author or book—those behaviors defeat the purpose of book tasting as a scaffold to helping students have opportunities to select their own choices. Respect students as readers and be a respectful observer, not participant. Sharing ownership of the learning experience is at the heart of book tasting.
- We paused to wonder how much quiet time our students have in their lives here at school as well as at home. For a student body that is usually plugged into their earbuds and devices, the experience of reading without the buzz of music or a text may be new for some of our students.
- The book carts are an accessible entry point for all readers but are especially helpful for those who might not have clear choices in mind but know there are certain kinds of books (like a mystery) that they might prefer.
- Choice is such an essential element for learning. The book tasting activity provides enough structure to support participation yet is flexible enough to not stifle students’ interests.
- We plan to look at the roster of book selections from each class section and get a sense of what kinds of books students selected for their independent reading unit.
Many colleagues expressed interest via Twitter in learning about this activity. We encourage you to take it and adapt it for your students! We hope this post will be helpful for anyone interested in using the book tasting strategies. Some additional resources of interest:
- My Storify with my live Tweeting of Tuesday and Wednesday’s book tastings
- Flickr photoset from Day 1
- Flickr photoset from Day 2
- Vine Videos from the Book Tasting
- Check out my 2012 article in School Library Monthly for more ideas on book tasting, including links to those who have done variations on this activity with elementary AND college students. Publication information: Hamilton, Buffy J. “Cultivating Reading Interest with Book Tasting.” School Library Monthly 29.3 (2012): 17-19.