From the Classroom: The Power of the Booktalk
By Tricia Ebarvia
Although I’d been doing some form of independent reading for several years, with each year better than the one before, I came into last school year determined to commit in a way I hadn’t before. I wanted to find a way to make students’ independent reading a core component of their learning rather than something they did “on the side” or “in addition to” what we were doing in class.
Was I successful? I think so. Certainly there’s always room for improvement, but when I look back at last year, my 9th grade students together read more than 1000 books. That’s 1000 books in addition to the whole class novels they were assigned. That’s 1000 books I’m sure that would have gone unread had I not made the time in class for students to develop independent reading habits.
THE POWER OF BOOKTALKS
I cannot overstate the value of booktalks in my classroom. Looking back, I believe that consistent and persistant talk about books during class not only exposed students to interesting stories but generated anticipation and even excitement about them. As Penny Kittle writes in Book Love, “teenagers want to read―if we let them.” Many of my students admitted that they did not know enough about contemporary titles to know whether or not they should give them a try, much less read them. Asking students to walk into a library full of books and choose a title―no matter how interesting they may all be―is a daunting and intimidating task if students don’t know what they’re looking for. They end up walking around aimlessly, picking up books without purpose, growing frustrated. If they find books that interest them, it’s often by sheer luck rather than through purposeful consideration.
I am the one responsible for building a reading culture in my classroom.
Thankfully, we are lucky to have wonderful librarians who not only help students navigate the library, but also take the time to booktalk titles that students might be interested in reading. I invite the librarians into my classroom 2-3 times a year to speak to students. But our librarians―as wonderful as they are―are also busy. They have to meet the needs of more than 2000 students in the school. The 2-3 visits they make to my classroom are simply not enough to establish a reading culture in my classroom. Instead, I am the one responsible for that. I am responsible for exposing my students to high interest titles, to get my students excited about books that will speak to the young people they are today and who they hope to be tomorrow.
My goal, then, was to make sure that I talked about so many titles during class before we went to the library that it would be virtually impossible for students to not have at least 2-3 titles they were interested in. I gave daily booktalks in the weeks leading up our library visit, often discussing 2-3 titles at a time. I asked students to keep an “on deck” list in the back of their notebooks. This list was integral. During the year, I saw students finish books during class, then wander back to my classroom library only to double-back to their desks to grab their notebooks and consult their “on deck” lists. I am relentless when it comes to making sure students have another book “ready to go” whenever they are finished reading.
How did I know what titles to booktalk? I consulted lists of popular and award-winning YA titles, I read blogs devoted to YA literature, and finally, I just had to read them. This last part was the hardest for me to do. Until I began reading YA literature regularly about two years ago, I didn’t read or even know much about the genre (aside from Harry Potter, of course). I was busy enough reading the novels I had to teach, and I certainly didn’t have enough time in my day to read for myself, for my own pleasure―so how was I supposed to have time to read YA lit, too?
Finding and reading books to recommend to my students became part of my teaching life.
In the end, the only way to find time to read for my students was simply to make the time. I made the time the same way I make the time to lesson plan or grade papers. We all know that teachers are wizards when it comes to squeezing the most out of every minute of class, out of every minute of our prep periods. We know exactly how much we can accomplish in the last three and half minutes of class before the bell rings. There was no other way to know what titles I could recommend to my students without simply reading them myself. Finding and reading books to recommend to my students became part of my teaching life.
And so I read―and continue to read―as many young adult titles as I possibly can. I switch back and forth in my reading from YA-related titles for my high school students and other titles for myself. And although I didn’t necessarily like all of the YA titles I read, I have found several that have surprised me and others that I have even loved. When I hear teachers say that they don’t have time or that they don’t like YA, I would answer in the same way that teachers answer students who voice the same complaints. When students complain about titles we read in class, I often tell them that they don’t have to like everything we read, but they can at least read to learn something or to appreciate why that book may be important. This is how I approach all my YA reading. I may not like all the YA titles I read, but I can read to learn what could be of potential interest to my students. If I happen to like the book, too, all the better.
BOOK TALK ESSENTIALS
Much of my reading workshop has been modeled after the work done by Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle. When it came time for me to give my first set of booktalks last year, I borrowed the format Kittle describes in Book Love. I held the book in my hands, walked around and showed the cover to students. I gave a short summary of the book, revealing just enough plot to get them excited. I “gave away” the exposition of the book, revealed the conflict, and then stopped at the moment it started to get really interesting. Students often asked, “Wait, so then what happened?” My response, “I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out…”
Like Kittle, I also read aloud a section from the book. I often read from somewhere in the beginning, but tried to find a place that showcased the narrative voice. I told students to listen carefully to the language and to the character―is this a voice, a style, that they’d like to live with for the next 200-300 pages?
I also mentioned―sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end―other titles similar to this book. For example, when I booktalked Jennifer Nevin’s All the Bright Places last year, I told students that her book reminded me a lot of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park. I also told them that despite being compared to those two titles, that Nevin’s book really stands on its own. When I booktalked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I mentioned that students who liked quirky characters like those in Matthew Quick’s books (I knew many had already read Silver Lining Playbook) might also like narrator in Mark Haddon’s novel.
Finally, I tried to pass around the book. Honestly, I sometimes forgot to do this and simply placed the book back on the front shelf, but I often found that when I passed the book around, students became more interested in reading it. This is something I will make a point to do more often this coming year.
Finding Favorites. When I looked back at the titles my students listed as their favorites from last year, 85% of them were books I had directly recommended through the booktalks I gave during class. Would students have found these titles without my booktalks? Maybe, but I also know that many of them would not.
Generating Excitement. Once I began giving booktalks regularly, it didn’t take long before students began asking for them, especially when I started to scale back the frequency of booktalks once independent reading was established (I booktalk 5-8 titles per week at first, then scale back to 3-5 titles per week). Students would see new titles I had placed on the front shelves and ask me to talk about them. “What’s that book about?” “Can you give another booktalk?” “What about that book?”―I heard students ask, and ask often. Once students realized how interesting some of the stories were, they wanted to know more. And since students knew that I expected them to pick up another book as soon as they were finished the one they were reading, they were always on the lookout for another title to add to their “on deck” lists.
Expanding Genres. One student wrote in a reading reflection, “Because of Mrs. Ebarvia’s booktalks, I learned about a lot of books I never heard of before. I also learned about books I never thought I would like, too. When I was in middle school, all I really read were fantasy or dystopian books like Divergent. But now I realize that there is some realistic fiction that is really interesting, too.” This particular student’s feelings were echoed in many of her peers’ reflections as well. Through booktalks, students learn about books that they might otherwise never give a chance.
Modeling. Another benefit of giving booktalks was that I was modeling the type of talk about books that I wanted my own students to be able to do. By the time I asked students to give their own books during class―and better yet, to write their own in the form of letter-essays (a la Nancie Atwell)―they had already become familiar with the form. And by form, I don’t mean “booktalk” as much as I mean book review. After listening to my booktalks, it was much easier for students to not only give their own, but to also write book reviews about their favorite titles.
VARIATIONS ON A BOOKTALK
As much as I love to talk books all day, even I would get tired of listening to myself go on and on. The point of booktalks isn’t really booktalks, after all. It’s the exposure and excitement for reading that they can generate. Here are a few alternatives to teacher booktalks:
- BOOK TRAILERS – Many publishers produce engaging, high quality book trailers for YA titles. Similar to movie trailers, book trailers can generate a lot of excitement and interest (I dare you to watch the book trailer for The Fifth Wave, for example, and not be interested). This is particularly useful if there is a book that I haven’t yet read but know some students would find interesting. I google and search YouTube for book trailers and then curate them into my own YouTube list. This way, I have a ready-made list of book trailers for whenever I have a few minutes at the end of class.
- NOTABLE QUOTES – Speaking of videos, I love Epic Read’s YouTube channel. They have a great collection of short videos called “Now Quoting.” Each video includes interesting quotes from popular YA titles, each organized around theme. For example, there are videos like “7 Quotes about Growing Up,” “7 Quotes about Secrets,” and my personal favorites, “Words of Wisdom from YA Books” and “6 Ominous Opening Lines from YA Books.” These videos are great to show students because they expose them to several titles at once, and many titles I may not have had the chance to read yet. I was so inspired by some of the Epic Reads’ videos that I even created my own with books I had recently read and shared it with students:
- BOOK SPEED DATING – I first came across book speed dating after watching our librarian run it with students a few years ago. At the time, she divided students into several groups. Each group received a pile of books in the middle of the table (at least 1-2 books per student seated). When she rang a bell, students were to grab any book on the table and learn as much about it as they could in 1 minute. When the bell rang again, students then had to grab another book and had another minute to learn about that one. And so on. I like book speed dating because it gets many books immediately into students’ hands. I have done variations on this method. In class, I have given each student one book. They have one minute to learn about their book before they have to pass it off to the person on their right. In half a class period, students can get their hands on 25 different books. For the second half of class, they then walk around and revisit the titles they were most interested in to add them to their “on deck” reading lists.
- PREVIEW PROJECTS – Using a manila folder, students capture key information about one of their independent reading books. Typically, they include the title and visuals on the front, and then inside, they include a summary, list of characters, and other pertinent information (more details here). When students turn in their projects, we then have a “show and tell” day in which students get to browse each others’ projects to learn more. I also showcase the projects around the room throughout the year so students can continue to browse and get recommendations from their peers.
- QR CODE POSTERS – Students select a “notable quotable” from their independent reading book to showcase on a poster. They include a visual that relates to the passage as well as a QR code that links to the book’s Goodreads page. We then post the posters around the room and in the hallways so that students can learn about more titles. If they see a passage they find particularly interesting, they scan the QR code and can mark the book as “want to read” on their Goodreads account. See example below.
- STUDENT BOOKTALKS – Rather than listen to me, students recommend books directly to each other. In the past, I have done this both formally and informally. For formal booktalks, students stand (or sit) in front of the room with their book and talk about it in much the same way I would. For a more informal option, students can share in small groups, or rotate through in concentric circles, taking turns sharing their books in a more 1:1 fashion.
Whether it’s through book speed dating or book talks, my goal is to overwhelm students with titles. The more possibilities I can show students, the more likely they are to find that book―the right book at the right time to turn a dormant reader into an active, engaged one.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.