As much as I hate to admit it, I was not much of a reader in high school.
It’s not that I didn’t like reading. I did. I just didn’t know what to read. My friend would buy books every now and then and pass them along to me. I would read them and enjoy them, but I never had a plan for what came next. I wanted to keep the momentum going and read more, but I didn’t have an evolving to-read list or knowledge of how to find books I would enjoy. So once I finished a book, I’d pass it back to my friend and casually go on with my life until the next book fell into my lap.
When I became an English teacher and wanted a steady reading diet, I learned about resources that provided me with a never-ending supply of reading material. I quickly saw how easy it was to keep reading voluminously while living a literary lifestyle, and it inspired me to provide my students with a steady flow of book recommendations. I’ve experimented with several ways to do this over the past couple years, but my experiment (yes, I totally winged this) this semester by far was my favorite and most effective. And it all started just how all great things start in a writing workshop classroom— with mentor texts.
Let me just back up for a minute and provide some context. My superintendent loves Twitter, he encourages the staff to tweet highlights of our classes at the school hashtag, #SalemWildcatPride. I decided we needed our own hashtag just for the great books we were reading, a place all students could go to see what others were reading and get ideas for what’s next. Thus, #SalemWildcatReads was born. In the fall, I simply had students tweet pictures of book covers with catchy messages to attract readers. And while I loved this, a feed full of cover pictures admittedly gets a little monotonous after a while.
I decided to amp it up in the spring— and that’s where the mentor texts come in. I follow several publishers of young adult literature on Twitter like @harperteen and @PenguinTeen, and I noticed their strategies for selling books to followers stretch far beyond cover pictures. It’s amazing what these people come up with to attract readers; they use infographics, memes, GIFs, and photo boards, just to name a few. So one Sunday afternoon, I scrolled through several publisher feeds and retweeted a variety of approaches to book advertising. I spent about 15 minutes and collected tons of mentors to show my students.
The next day, I showed my students all the book tweets I had saved, and we talked about the effectiveness of the various examples. For example, some students noted that examining the infographic that shows how large the skyscraper in The Thousandth Floor is in comparison to other buildings sparked interest about the setting of the novel. The book trailer for Children of Blood and Bone helped others understand the energetic yet serious tone of the story that I found difficult to convey in my book talk.
I told students their task was simple: they would have two days in class to create a product that advertises a book they read this year and loved. My only rules were that it had to go beyond the cover pictures we had done last semester, and it had to be 100% original (no ripping off a popular meme and replacing the caption). By the end of the second day, their book advertisements had to be tweeted with the class hashtag.
While students were on their own to figure out what to create and how to create it, I did recommend one resource that turned out to be a lifesaver. The school librarian recently set up a green screen in the media center, and we had the tech guys push out the app “Easy Green Screen” onto all my students’ iPads. They were able to take some really neat photographs and videos using the app and green screen. Shoutout to Mrs. Gibbs (librarian) and Mrs. Kohrig (library aide)— they were awesome about helping my students make their visions come to life. Here’s my favorite green screen photo, advertising the novel Words in Deep Blue:
My conferences with students occurred mostly before they created their products. I had them explain their visions to me, and then I responded as a potential reader. I found myself saying things like, “An infographic would probably help me understand the complicated relationships in Three Dark Crowns” and “I think some pictures taken around the school would really cue me into the setting of Dear Martin.” But what I loved most about the conferences this time around was that students were actually better sources of support than I was. Afterall, they were the intended audience. I heard so many great conversations going in which students shared their insights with one another, and some of their greatest ideas would have never occurred to me. For example, one student knew he wanted to advertise the sports novel Hit Count, but he didn’t know how. His friend had the idea of a short video where the student hit himself in the head with the novel and tweeted it with the caption, “This book is a knockout!” This tweet ended up being a student favorite. Here’s a screenshot of the video:
It never ceases to amaze me what students will come up with a few mentor texts and a lot of freedom. I was blown away with the initiative and creativity students showed during this project. Here are a couple more of my favorites:
I will definitely do this project again, for a lot of different reasons. First, it’s an authentic writing task. Students had a real purpose for creating a product and composing accompanying text, and the product was real once it was tweeted. Second, while this project may seem simple at first glance, it required a great deal of critical thinking. Not every type of advertisement works for every text, so students had to be strategic about choosing the right approach for what they were trying to convey. Furthermore, accompanying the product with a short and clever tweet can be a difficult feat! I had several students who were really challenged by choosing the perfect message to support what they had created. Third, as I mentioned previously, this project was the perfect opportunity for students to mentor students. They provided unique insights from the intended audience that I simply couldn’t. Finally and most importantly— the tweets kept conversations going about books and gave my students tons of ideas for future reads. I’d say that alone makes this project a “knockout”!