The Case for "Real" Books

Testing season is in full swing, and as the pressures mount, I can’t help but worry. I worry that I haven’t sufficiently prepared my students. I worry that individual students won’t perform as well or better than they did last year. I worry that all my students won’t score the requisite 3 that indicates proficiency. I worry about my reputation as a teacher.

Do I feel like my students have learned a lot this year? Yes, I do. I have seen wonderful progress, and I hope I have instilled in my students a love of learning. Do these observations mean anything in an official capacity? Not really. Test scores still reign supreme.

This year I decided that I was not going to let the weeks leading up to testing get the best of me. It is so easy to give in to the pressures and get extremely stressed out and overwhelmed. Basically if I lose my mind, the whole ship goes down. Here’s what I decided to do instead.

Book clubs!

As joyful and authentic as it is to read paragraph long passages about obscure topics (the musk deer anyone?), I decided to temper this type of tedious test prep with real books. As I write this post I think of a student last year who when I announced we would be reading the novel Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher, said (and I quote), “You mean we’re going to be reading a REAL book?” I happily announced that yes, we were, and the students began to cheer. I was amazed by this response, but it’s hardly surprising with the popularity of basal readers in schools today.

So, back to book clubs. I have done a lot of soul searching this year about what gets me excited about reading. I like reading books that friends have read so that I can have someone to discuss with, but the idea of being forced to read a book that everyone else is reading turns me off. I have also joined a book club this year myself, and I have to say that the discussions that come from the shared experience of reading the book are just as enjoyable as reading the book itself.

I decided that if I was going to hand my students real books, I was going to let them decide what book they wanted to read. I wasn’t going to worry over whether or not a certain group was going to be loud and off task since I let friends work together. Wouldn’t you want to be in a book club with your friends? Of course you would!

Also, I decided to call them book clubs, because doesn’t that just sound more enticing than the ever popular “literature circles”? I did not want to assign tedious jobs that students would have to complete outside of class. (Thank you Mrs. Kilgo (@KilgosClass) for helping me realize this vision!) Instead, students have jobs they complete after they read with their groups in class. These jobs are done inside their special book club notebooks, which they were able to decorate any way they wanted. Just the little freedom of getting to decorate a notebook is pretty thrilling once you reach fifth grade and are used to the strict standardization of pretty much everything at school. 

The magic of these book clubs is that students get to read a book of their choice with people of their choice. The conversations I have heard these past few weeks has blown my socks off. Students who usually have trouble comprehending the one-paragraph passages can be heard making pretty sophisticated comments and connections between other things they’ve heard and read. One group chose the book Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret. On the Friday morning after the devastation in Japan, they used their new found knowledge to teach the class about what causes earthquakes and tsunamis. I wish I could record these conversations and have them count instead of test scores. While I continue to worry, and will until the test scores are released in the fall, I am encouraged by the power that comes from student choice and from "real" books.