Selecting Engaging Texts

“Wait, you have read Peak by Roland Smith?” a student asks me incredulously.  It turns out that Smith’s book was the only title this student claims to have read all the way through and enjoyed … ever.  However, (partially because he enjoyed it so much) he shared that he was surprised to see a copy in our classroom library because it didn’t seem very “teacher-y.”  This conversation of ours about my own reading habits took place at the beginning of this school year as I tried to explained that I try to read a wide range of books so that I can make suggestions to students.  And, now I’ve spent all year trying to prove it.  We do not read things because they are teacher-y.  Or because they are one of my favorites.

Today’s post is partially inspired by the following library-themed comic strip from the geniuses over at “Unshelved”:

The above comic is found at Unshelved by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes. via Unshelved by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes.

In choosing books to read with my students, I try to be ever-cognizant of why I am choosing the books that I am and make sure it is not simply because, “I like it; they should like it, too,”  or the ever dangerous: “Every eighth grade student I’ve ever met (including myself) had read book X; my students mus also read it.”

Growing up, I Loved Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I saw myself being best friends with Jo March:  Spunky, but overall very good; a writer just dying to see her words in print; makes mistakes, but with the best of intentions; future school teacher of lots of rowdy little boys.  We would have gotten along splendidly.  However, I am well aware of the fact that if I brought this title into my eighth grade Language Arts class on Monday morning, I would effectively lose the male half of my class.  Despite the fact that it is a title I love with a good theme and at an appropriate reading level, I do not teach Little Women.  Instead, I recommend it personally to those I think may enjoy it.

So how do we choose books for our classroom purposefully and with good taste but without trying to force our own preferred reading histories onto our students?  Donalyn Miller’s book, The Book Whisperer, has been very helpful in my quest to do a little whispering on my own.  Also, you have to read … a lot … in a wide variety of genres.  I’ve learned that I don’t have to like something personally to know whether or not it would be both appropriate and engaging for one of my students.  Working on knowing books and knowing my students has led to some great matches between the two materialize practically before my eyes.

Choosing a novel for a whole-class read is a little more difficult.  The process seems to be the same, though.  Know books.  Know your students.  I doubt that there is a universal title out there that will appear to any particular class.

If it’s helpful though, The Westing Game, Crispin, and Al Capone Does my Shirts are three titles that are frequently met with enthusiasm as whole-class novels with my middle school students.  Remember, though, that you teach your students, not mine.  What do you think draws them into reading?


One response to “Selecting Engaging Texts

  1. Ruth Kollman February 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Hi! Saw your story on Writer’s Digest “Promptly” blog and wanted to drop by and wish you luck in the contest! When you have a minute (yeah, right), please check out our brand new writers’ hangout at . Several Inkers posted stories to the prompt, too. Lots of great info and positive mutual support. Hope to see you there! rkollman


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