My Summer of Abundant Reading: Musings and Reflections

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This is the first summer since 2012 that has not involved long-distance moves, major family illness, and/or other significant life upheaval.  It has been a godsend to have an extended period of time of self-care that has included regular exercise, plentiful sleep, quiet unhurried reflection time, minimal stress, and lots of reading!  I have probably read more texts (and I use a broad definition of texts) this summer than any other year of my adult life since I was last in graduate school at UGA over 10 years ago.  I have focused most of my text reading on books this summer—-it has felt like a luxury to have time and energy to do so.  Though I love reading, I have been a picky reader as an adult and have struggled at times to find self-selected reads that appeal to me.  I have been surprised by the volume of reading I have done this summer though I feel the gift of time, no professional commitments, my Kindle, a new job, and new connections on social media have contributed to my reading revival.

I have read hard copy versions of some books; however, I have read quite a few books on my Kindle Fire that I purchased last fall.   What do I love about reading on my Kindle?  I can:

  • Read while I am working out at the gym on the elliptical–exercise for the body and mind!  In addition, reading while I am on the elliptical makes gym time go MUCH faster.
  • I can sample many kinds of books thanks to the free preview feature of Kindle books—I am confident that I have tried many more kinds of books through the serendipity of Kindle book browsing than I would if I were physically browsing shelves in a library or bookstore.  This aspect of book discovery is one I find quite interesting and is making me think much more deeply about how readers connect with specific books.
  • I can use the “Blue Shade” feature on my Kindle to help ease eye strain (people seem to love or hate this feature, but I like it).
  • I can easily and seamlessly post updates from Kindle reads to my Goodreads account (and I have used Goodreads much more for book ideas this summer than ever).
  • I can easily highlight and take notes, and then export those for easy reference at a later time if I want.
  • I can add Audible narration when available (and in my budget)—I like this feature even though I don’t consider myself an audiobook person.

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With that said, there are times I want the hard copy of the book to read—this desire mainly occurs with professional books though sometimes I wish I could afford both the hard and copy the e-copy as I am trying to figure out the best method of taking notes on my professional reading that fits who I am as a learner these days.  With my professional books, I often want to flip to a specific section of the hard copy of the book not just for ease of reference, but also because sometimes I just need to SEE it right in front of me.  I still like highlighting and writing out notes by hand, but I do love the ease of highlighting on the Kindle, too.

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Other times a book may only be available in hard copy, but sometimes you also need the hard copy to better appreciate the graphics, art, or photography.

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Here are my summer reads; the ones that I have boldfaced are my favorites:

  • Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai
  • Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eagar
  • The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz
  • Shadowshaper, Daniel Jose Older
  • Road to Tara:  The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards
  • Eruption, The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens, Steve Olson
  • Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp
  • The Atomic Weight of Love:  A Novel, Elizabeth Church
  • My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  • Simple Dreams:  A Musical Memoir, Linda Ronstadt
  • Cumberland Island:  Strong Women, Wild Horses, Charles Seabrook
  • Losing Clementine, A Novel, Ashley Ream
  • Awash, Dawn Lee McKenna
  • Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
  • American Ghost:  A Family’s Extraordinary History on the Desert Frontier, Hannah Nordhaus
  • Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley
  • Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
  • The Wright Brothers, David McCullough
  • Sally Ride, America’s First Woman in Space, Lynn Sherr
  • Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
  • The Beekeeper’s Lament, Hannah Nordhaus

As you can see, I read a pretty diverse mix of books including biography, nonfiction, memoir, fiction, and poetry.  I read some things that I normally would have never picked, but I stumbled upon them through my browsing experiences in the Kindle Store and Goodreads; there were also times I discovered books to read (or to add to the wish list) through colleagues on Twitter and Facebook.  Interestingly enough, I have been watching a lot of documentaries this summer, which seems to parallel my growing love for nonfiction.  I am thinking a good bit about the core of powerful stories at these genres of film and texts, but that is another set of reflections for another day.

Being able to sample books on the Kindle or to read a free excerpt online before ordering a hard copy of a book was critical to the choices I made.  Most of the books I read this summer I liked though there were a couple I thought I would enjoy more (they fell flat for me); there were also a couple I found incredibly disappointing and didn’t enjoy at all.  I still have quite a few in progress, and I have a “want to read” list that is a mile wide!

As I mentioned earlier, my summer reading experiences have me thinking a lot more about how people find and connect with specific books as well as the experience of contemporary “browsing” and book discovery.  What is that like in a digital environment compared to physical browsing?  What do those experiences have in common?  How are they different?  What does this mean for our students or our library patrons?  Ourselves?  How and why might it differ for children/teens from adults?  Interestingly enough, I did not go to my local library for any print or digital books, nor did I consult with anyone from my local library for a suggestion or help.  Instead, I relied heavily on Amazon browsing and Goodreads suggestions. However, my reads and “to read” lists not only came from these sources, but as I mentioned earlier, Twitter colleagues.  I also belong to two Facebook groups on teaching reading and writing that have provided lots of great professional “want to reads”; I have also gotten many ideas for children’s books to read from the Coastal Savannah Writing Project Facebook group.  All of these musings have me wondering how might I draw upon my experiences as a reader to help my students during the upcoming school year.

Most importantly, my summer of reading has helped me reconnect with myself in many ways.  To feel the joy of reading I felt as a child has been energizing and has helped me remember why as a child I declared I wanted to be an “author” or writer of some sort (more on that in a future blog post).

Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read
Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read

This summer of abundant reading has also helped me explore genres of writing and topics I like as well as discover new favorites.  On a more personal level, my reading has been therapeutic and helped me in many ways process and cope with the profound grief I still feel over the passing of my mother who has been gone two years but whose absence is still felt acutely in my heart and day to day life.  The act of reading and the actual books I have read (even the ones that seemingly have nothing to do with losing my mother) have all in some way been healing for me.  Many of my reads also have me thinking about new dreams for myself, seeing life in a different and positive way, or contemplating how a particular book might inspire/nurture a friend or future student.  I have re-discovered just how nourishing and sustaining reading genuinely is for me.

What have you been reading this summer?  How do you discover books to read?  What have been your favorites?  Where do you like to read, and what formats of texts do you enjoy?  What are you looking forward to reading next?  How are you helping your students or library patrons connect with books?  I would love to hear your experiences and reflections!

Musical Chairs + Book Tasting Rocks!

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Upon returning from our holiday break, Jennifer Lund and I had a request from one of our Language Arts teachers to schedule her classes for the popular book tasting activity.  We faced two challenges:  the teacher wanted to do the activity in two days (a time challenge), and we had a significant number of books checked out that would make it hard to do the activity with the category oriented version we’ve done for the last year.    We decided to mix it up and put a new twist on it by incorporating elements of the “musical chairs peer review” activity that Sarah Rust and I adapted last semester from our colleagues in New Jersey.

The basic organization included having 35 seats and assigning a book to each “seat.”  We used the same open square seating arrangement that we used for the activity with Sarah and made “placemats” of different colors with numbers to help the students clearly see where to sit when the music stopped.  We placed the books on the placemats ahead of time being sure to vary the types of books so that consecutive seats didn’t have the same kind of text.   We kept a healthy supply of “replenishment” books on a cart nearby so that we could replace any books that were checked out (we observed that at least ten books were picked by students for checkout with each class; others might have noted a book from the session for future reading if they were already engaged with another book for Independent Reading (held in most Language Arts classes each Wednesday) time.

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While this version of book tasting does not have the degree of choice as the other interpretations of the activity, we felt this version would hopefully expose students to different authors and types of books they might not normally choose.  Once students had placed their bookbags out of the way, we gathered at the “square” and reviewed the procedures for the activity; we also explained the modified book tasting “ticket out the door” we designed to help them make notes and assess the books they would explore.  The review form, as you can see below, gave us the flexibility to do up to four rounds of the activity within a period depending on the time learners needed to interact with each book; we made our copies on bright yellow paper.  Please feel free to download and modify this document:

These are the “placeholders” we printed on different colors; please feel free to download and use.

For each round prior to starting the music and movement, we asked students to push in their chairs and to make sure the book was on the placemat.  Once the music began, students walked around the square; we also told students they were welcome to dance to the music as they walked about the table.  A few helpful logistical hints on this aspect of the activity:

  • Be sure to mentally identify at least 2-3 students as your points of reference; doing so for each round will help you make sure that students don’t stop at a chair/book they’ve previously visited.
  • Encourage students to move at a moderate pace and to not allow large gaps between students or groups of students to develop as they move around the table; otherwise, it can be slightly chaotic when the music stops and students are trying to find the closest seat/book.  This potential challenge seemed to happen more with smaller classes than larger groups.
  • Vary the length of the music although we tried to have students go around the square at least 1.5 to 2 times per “musical round.”
  • Use a variety of music although we primarily used contemporary songs and/or retro songs with an upbeat or dance-oriented rhythm.  As you would with any activity, make sure you choose songs with lyrics that are appropriate for your audience.  We got positive feedback from several students on the songs we played.

Our overarching goal was to give the students a fun and meaningful point of access to sample at least three to four books and give them an opportunity to preview different kinds of books.  The first effort at this version of book tasting involved five sections of college-prep classes that varied in size from roughly 25-35 students per period.  The first three classes in the morning seemed generally receptive to the activity though the playful nature of what we were doing seemed a little unfamiliar to some; however, most students seemed to enjoy it and several showed excitement about the books they had discovered.  The afternoon classes seemed a little less into the activity although many of students put forth a positive effort.  In this first effort, we noticed that students needed verbal scaffolding for each round to help them know what to do as part of the review process even though they had their evaluation ticket form to guide them through it; some classes needed reminding from the teacher to be a little more specific in the open ended response section.   Depending on the students’ prior experiences as learners, you may need to provide gentle prompting like we did to help students in the activity.  Throughout the day, we received enthusiastic and positive feedback from the teacher as well as an assistant principal who was present and observing several sections.

Word quickly spread that day throughout the Language Arts Department about this version of the book tasting, and we received a flurry of requests from other teachers to schedule time to do this version of book tasting.  We were already scheduled with classes coming in for research, so we were not able to accommodate everyone right away; however, we were able to schedule five sections of Honors 9th Language Arts that we worked with yesterday.  The students in each class seemed to genuinely enjoy the activity and seemed a little more engaged and energized.  We noticed that they were very observant of the book covers as they walked around the table and some did their best to pace themselves so that they might be lucky enough to land at a book of their choice, behaviors that were charming but that we also did not see with the first group on a large scale.  They also needed no verbal scaffolding and were more detailed in their responses.   One modification their teacher incorporated that we loved was that she walked around and responded to their comments either in writing on their tickets or through a quick quiet verbal conversation during the activity.  We definitely would encourage others to adopt this effective strategy that she used with her students.

One thing that stood out to us was that the Honors classes seemed to have  more of a “book/literacy/reading” kind of cultural capital as students in “advanced” classes that are not as prevalent in the “college-prep” classes.  While we want to be very careful to avoid broad generalizations based on class categories, these observations are consistent with other literacy behaviors Jennifer and I have observed over the last eighteen months.  We’re currently  thinking and reflecting on what we’ve seen in the context of scholarly literature/research to better contextualize what we’re seeing and to think about how that might impact our instructional design and work with teachers.  We hope to share more on this later in the year once we’ve had time to dwell more deeply in our questions.

We hope that this variation on book tasting will be helpful for you as we feel it is scalable for any age group.  Please let us know if you try it out and how your students respond to it!

Update 3:25 PM 1/15/15:  If you can’t see the embedded documents on SlideShare, the PDFs are below:

Revisiting Book Tasting to Support Readers

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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:

  • Romance
  • Action/Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Sports Fiction
  • Dystopian
  • Comedy/Humor
  • Gritty/Realistic Fiction
  • Hot/Popular Reads
  • Nonfiction

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.

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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.

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  • 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.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

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.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

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.

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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:

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