Activity: Helping students find new books

One of the saddest things about being a language arts teacher is watching struggling readers during media checkout time.

Strange, isn’t it?

You’d think that media checkout time—one of the few times that students have the complete freedom to choose titles of deep personal interest instead of being force-fed content on required reading lists—would be a GREAT time for struggling readers.

But it’s not.

Instead, they end up completely overwhelmed by rows and rows of shelves filled with books and magazines on every topic under the sun.

Paralysis sets in.  “Where should I start?!” they wonder as they wander.  Covers and titles become the primary selection strategy, leading to poor choices made in a hurry.

What lessons do struggling readers learn from this weekly ritual?

  1. The library is full of books that I don’t like.
  2. I never find good books.
  3. Trips to the library make me feel like a failure.

Compare that kind of browsing behavior with the way that you find new titles when surrounded by thousands of choices.

Chances are good that you have a strong sense for the kinds of books that you like the best—and the least.  You probably also have a strong sense for the topics that motivate you—or that you’ve been reading a ton about lately.  You may even have a handful of favorite authors that you like to follow.

All of that information helps you to sort before even stepping into the library.  You’re not poking through every title.  In fact, there are probably entire sections of the library that you wouldn’t even consider spending any time in.

Huge collections become manageable because you have a strategy for lumping and splitting books into categories that might be of interest to you—a strategy that David Weinberger outlines in detail in his book, Everything is Miscellaneous.

What’s interesting is that lumping and splitting, as Weinberger shows, is becoming a shared task in today’s digital age. Have you ever poked through the lists of books being created and maintained by other Amazon users or the playlists being shared by other iTunes users to find new content to explore?

Then you’re collectively lumping!

(I won’t tell anyone.)

What’s the lesson to be learned here?  Our job as teachers should be to help students—especially struggling readers—to perfect their lumping and splitting skills before ever walking into the library!

Perhaps more importantly, our job as teachers is to help our students recognize that relying on the suggestions of their peers may just expose them to new content that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered—and might keep them away from the kinds of rushed choices that are destroying their love of reading.

So one of my goals for this year is to give my students systematic opportunities to generate and publish lists of good reads for other students to explore.

Here’s the handout that I’ll use to introduce this project:

Download Activity_Listmania

Chances are that we’ll start simply by keeping notebook in class for kids to explore when they’re looking for a new title.  We’ll probably sort the notebook by category—survival lists, fantasy lists, nonfiction lists.  Students are likely to begin by exploring the lists of their friends, but I hope that over time they’ll start to explore lists by theme.

Knowing me, we’ll also end up publishing our lists on a classroom blog.  Outside of generating an audience, posting online carries one huge advantage:  Our lists can be sorted—lumped and split—into multiple categories using shared tags.

So if a list has a set of books on survival, it might appear with other lists that include books on the outdoors, lists that include adventure stories, and lists with books on facing challenges.

(Pretty handy, huh?  Have you ever been in three places at once?!)

I’m sure that SOMEONE is already doing this work.  There’s probably collections of lists being developed and maintained by library associations somewhere.  Heck, it’s likely that we could find lists for kids in Amazon if we poked around a bit.

Starting with classroom generated lists, though, carries a significant advantage:  There is already a connection between list makers and list takers.  Students are more likely to read books suggested by their friends than by some random media specialist or Amazon user.  What’s more, classroom generated lists might just lead to shared conversations around books—something that doesn’t happen nearly enough in the lives of today’s tween.

So whaddya’ think?  Does this activity make any sense?  Is lumping and splitting something that you’re formally teaching your students?  Should you be?

Do you have any other strategies for helping struggling readers to sort through the huge collections in your school’s media center?