I have inherited a legacy of book reports.
Every quarter for eons, students in my school have written book reports. And, for whatever reason, parents in my community are rumored to be enamored with book reports — they are somehow a mark of a rigorous writing curriculum. So, while I work on a grand re-education project, I’ve been looking for ways to check this box for parents while doing what’s best for student by providing opportunities for authentic writing experiences.
Why the Book Report Anyway?
Book reports fill an important hole in students’ K-12 writing experiences; it fills a gap between simple comprehension-driven plot summary in the primary grades and literary analysis in high school. They sit in the gap, offering students a chance to recap the plot (thereby verifying their comprehension) with some add-on reader response, getting them closer to the how and why of analysis.
So, what’s wrong with it?
It’s not authentic. You can’t open The Atlantic and find a book report. And if a type of writing doesn’t exist out in the world, it shouldn’t exist in our classrooms.
If writing is going to matter to our students, authenticity has to be our cornerstone.
6 Authentic Alternatives
There are authentic alternatives — texts created by professional writers and thinkers that do more than a mere book report but stop shorts of serious literary analysis. Some require very little actual writing but require the same thinking and rehearsal as a more formal piece of written text. Others require multiple pages of written text. You know what your students are ready for. And you know how to scaffold for them.
Maybe you move from non-written to written responses to literature over the course of the school year? Maybe you create smaller writing groups and assign each one a different product based on their needs. Perhaps you present all of these as a menu of options they choose from a few times over the course of the year.
Sketchnoting might seem like a far cry from the paragraphs-long book reports you are used to, but consider the cognitive weighing and sorting that makes a successful sketchnote work. The reader must consider what is most important in a book, how to visually represent significant content, and how different ideas are connected to one another in categories and hierarchies.
If you’re working with advanced readers and writers, a sketchnote might be a useful during-reading activity that serves as a precursor to some kind of writing. But for emerging reader and writers (or younger ones), perhaps the sketchnote can be an end in itself — a product worth celebrating on its own.
If your students are like mine, YouTubers are celebrites on par with movie stars — they religiously subscribe to their videos and even read their books. Vlogging (video blogging) is a genre they are familiar with.
And thankfully there are oodles of YouTubers who garner a following giving book talks! (There’s a chance your students know them already but never thought this was something they could do themselves.)
Creating a video book review or book talk is a great first step for many students who might be able to engagingly talk about books but aren’t strong writers. Filming these book vlogs is rehearsal for future writing.
Students could create vlogs individually or in small groups. Maybe even a class channel full of contributions from class members? You could watch them during class, run them on a loop in your school library, “publish” them on televised morning announcements in your school, or even put them on YouTube! (Remember, you can always set a YouTube channel or video to private, sharing only with students, families, etc.)
You can find many wonderful “BookTubers” on your own, but here are a couple of Best Of lists to get you started:
- 10 More BookTubers I Love (And You Will, Too) from Book Riot
- Six YouTube Channels for Readers from Bustle
- Top 5 YouTube Book Vloggers
Oh, how I love podcasts. They are like friends in the kitchen and the car with me, chatting about the things I love most. I listen to a ridiculous number of book-centered podcasts. So, like a vlog, only auditory, a bookish podcast might be just the right way to engage your students in responding to books.
When we at Moving Writers have tried podcasting in the past (see Stefanie’s excellent series!), we have always opted to have students podcasts in small groups. Gather a group of 3 – 4 students around a single text, a theme (and the ways different texts express it), or a group of texts. Have them outline a conversation, and then use that outline to guide their recording. Here are some mentors:
- Slate’s Audio Book Club
- Book Club for Kids
- Curious City
- What Should I Read Next (I’ve been dreaming of doing this with kids for the last year …)
There’s nothing boundary-breaking about a good old-fashioned book review, but I think it’s often overlooked. Or, worse, we call the assignment “book review” as a fancy name for — you guessed it — a book report.
A well-crafted review is a thing of beauty, and it is probably the most authentic kind of response our students can craft. After all, when we read a book we love or a book we hate, we are evaluating it so that we can spread the good word, predict the next Printz award, or warn our friends off. (Amazon even has a ranking of its top reviewers, including a Hall of Fame!)
A student’s review can be published on a blog, shared on index cards on library shelves like the Literari Bookstore, posted on Amazon and GoodReads, printed in the school newspaper. The list goes on. Reviews are also amazingly versatile, easily scaffolded up or down based on the needs of your students. Here are some mentors:
- Michiko Kakutani – the goddess of all book reviews
- NPR Book’s Book Reviews — smaller, shorter, less intense than the New York Times and with an audio component!
- Kirkus Reviews – the bite-sized book review
Book of the Month Essay
This is what my students are writing this quarter!
Every month, the Book of the Month Club judges write an essay about their selection. There’s a bit of synopsis, a brief exploration of characters, a small discussion of favorite parts and transcendent themes. Essentially, it’s a book report with the intent to persuade readers to choose that selection!
This month, I printed three essays as mentor texts (you can get these by creating an account — no need to actually subscribe to BOTM), annotated them as students, instructed students to use my annotations to create a Have To/ Might chart , and write their own.
Letters About Literature
Finally, in lieu of Ye Olde Book Report, have your students participate in the Library of Congress’s Letters About Literature contest. This program invites students to write a letter to the author of the book that made an impact on them. The best letters are emotion-heavy, tying together events of the book with personal stories (proving that it is valid to make personal connections to a text in a piece of writing.)
Fantastically, the program provides the letters of past winners for you to use a mentor texts as well as a teaching guide! Most states have an early December or early January deadline, so there is still time for your students to participate in the 2017 contest. Still, even if you don’t send them to the Library of Contest for the competition, you can still have students publish their letters by mailing them to the author! (Then you can all sit by your mailboxes and wait for a reply!)
With endless authentic writing available at our fingertips and in our earbuds, no one ever needs to assign book reports as a way to give students important practice responding to literature.
How do your students respond to literature using authentic mentor texts? What are other ways we can encourage students to begin a dialogue about the books they read without resorting to the book report? Leave us a comment here, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahODell1.