Is there anything better than bearing witness to the magic of twenty reluctant readers actively and eagerly reading a book? I witnessed a reluctant reader, one who proudly claims that he does not read, stand at his desk, book in hand, reading the final page of a book rather than lining up for recess. “Wait, just one more page. I’ve got to finish this page,” was his comment as his classmates huffed at him to please line up so they could go outside! This was but one scene I observed this week as my students read our first “book talk” book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.
It began the previous week. Well in reality it began last year. In our classroom, like most upper elementary classrooms across the country, we do a variety of readings every day. Very often our readings are followed by a response, a worksheet, a project; something. Last year my students pleaded with me, “Can’t we, just, read a book?” That was a slap on the forehead “duh” moment for me. “Why, yes we can,” was my response. And that was the beginning of our “book talk” book readings when kids read a book and then meet weekly for fifteen minutes or so to discuss their reading. It has been one of the most transformational literacy things that I have done in my classroom. So darn simple. So darn effective. My students last year said this was one thing I must do next year. Now this doesn’t replace structured reading time. It’s in addition to it. We still have our daily and intensive LLI (Leveled Literacy Intervention) time and our daily word study time. They can choose silent reading time to read their “book talk” book or read it for home reading. Instead of five days a week of word study, I have replaced Friday’s word study time with our book talk discussion. Balance.
So here it is, next year, and we have launched the first of our “book talk” readings. It began with a student sharing a book, Songs of Peace. To address fluency and engagement, each week one or two children reads aloud to the class. This particular child had chosen something meaningful to her to read aloud to her classmates. The way this works is that the kids sign up for what they want to read aloud. It could be a picture book, part of a chapter of a book they like, a page from a favorite book, a magazine article, a poem, a song, a recipe…whatever they want. They then have a week to rehearse this read aloud at home with their family members, then share with us. It’s been a big hit.
After our first reader finished her book we discussed some of the peace heroes that were listed on the back pages of the book. Sadako, the little girl from Japan who died after the dropping of the bombs at the end of WWII, was one of them. The kids had never heard of her and were intrigued by her. Perfect. I knew we had an old class set of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in our book closets. It was just the right reading level and length to launch our first book talk. The book could easily be read in a week.
Book talks are pretty much just what they say they are. Kids read a book and then talk about it. They have a journal that they write favorite lines, words, scenes, or questions they have and wonder about. They do not write summaries or make meaning of what they read, unless they want to, which they don’t. Deep, shared meaning making is for book talk time with their peers. This journal is just meant to record what they want clarification from their peers during their talks. These journal entries are to guide their book talk discussions. But something happens when we tell them they don’t need to write summaries and answer questions. They begin to wonder. As they write favorite lines, words they don’t know, questions they have, they begin to wonder about these things. They make predictions in their heads and they begin their journey of meaning making.
To begin the year we all read the same book. This year we read about Sadako since there was interest in her. It was the perfect choice. I must admit that I wondered about the heaviness of the topic of this book. But the children taught me that I needn’t worry. They loved it, devoured it, and then had the most impressive book talk over cheese, bread, apples, crackers, and apple cider. The book talk began with one girl’s question, “Why was Sadako so important? She was just a kid, like any other kid.” The responses from her eager peers were perfect. They explained how she was a symbol to many kids, how she was a symbol of bravery and peace. “Why is she a symbol of peace; her making cranes didn’t bring peace? was the next question. Wow! As I sat nibbling on an apple and slice of cheese, in memory of my dad who loved that combination, I couldn’t believe the depth of the questions I heard and the conversations that followed. I’d say engagement and comprehension were happening!
Next week we will all read another common book, Because of Winn Dixie. Just because it’s such a darn good book and every kid should read it. After that I plan to provide three to four book choices of a variety of genres and difficulties that kids can choose from. By then I am hoping we will have had two whole-class book talk discussions and the kids will be ready and confident in my expectations to lead their group discussions themselves. If they are not, we will continue with a few more whole class book reads and talks. Either way, after each discussion they will write a reflection on how their discussion went. This will continue on and off all year-long. Some weeks we will take a break from this just so kids have opportunities to read books they choose.
This week we began folding paper cranes. Will we make it to a thousand? Who knows. That’s not the important part. The important part has already been accomplished. The kids are asking for books and time to talk about them. A slice of heaven in a literacy room.
In peace and memory of loved ones who have left our world; read to a child every day,