Every year I collaborate with the 11th-grade English teachers on a nonfiction independent reading project. The goal is to increase student agency and create excitement about literature. While many juniors initially express an aversion to reading, they often show an interest in at least one title by the end of the activity. Educational leaders have not come far enough in incorporating independent reading into academic frameworks, but I am hopeful that more teachers will continue focusing on this crucial foundation of literacy.
The Power of Student Book Choice
Back in 1960, literature professor and researcher Louise Rosenblatt was calling for English curriculums to consider the needs of individual students. When a teenager reads a book, she asserted, “it should be primarily because at this point in his life this particular work offers a significant and enjoyable experience for him, an experience that involves him personally and that he can assimilate into his ongoing intellectual and emotional development” (Rosenblatt 307). This remains true today. When teens read a book of their choosing, they are more likely to engage with the text and internalize the concepts of the work. Even if they disagree with an author’s or character’s perspective, they can gain important insight into their own ideas by recognizing and reflecting upon thoughts that contrast with theirs.
Speed Dating Details
In past speed dating activities, I’ve limited the options to 10 books. Because of the current contentious atmosphere surrounding academic content, our administrators recommended we add several titles to our lineup, in addition to including a parent permission slip. Though I pay close attention to creating a list that includes a wide range of cultures, races, religions, and sensibilities, I increased the number of books to 30 to avoid any problems.
With our list expanded, we decided to make this a true speed dating format. I used the entire library space and placed books on tables or desktops with printed summaries displayed next to them. After introducing the project, I then presented the first 10 books through a Google Slide Show, giving a brief book talk for each one. Then I explained the procedure:
- Sit at a numbered table with a book (one person per book).
- Read the summary, pick up the book and read a few paragraphs, look at the front and back flaps, and take a photo with your phone if you’re interested in reading it.
- When the one-minute timer goes off, move to the next table/book and follow the same procedure.
- By the end of the 40-minute period, you should have speed dated each book.
Adding books to the list will certainly make more work for the English teachers, who did not have time to read every book and will have to analyze student reflection assignments with less background knowledge. On the positive side, it did create a more flowing speed dating experience. In the past the students moved from table to table in groups, which led to side conversations and distractions. This time, students were alone with each book and had nothing else to do but focus their attention on that book. When I walked around the room observing them, they were fully engaged in their tasks.
Once the speed dating was over and every student had completed a “date” with each book, the teacher and I asked the students to share their thoughts. Some said they knew right away which book they wanted, and others were still unsure. Having read all of the books, I was able to advise the students based on what they told me they liked in a book. For those who were not strong readers, I recommended listening to a book on audio and they were happy to hear of that option. I encouraged them to come back to the school library to discuss their choices further.
In the weeks after the lesson, students have been checking out their books, spending lunch or free periods reading in the school library, and asking for my help with their writing reflections. It’s always rewarding to see students engage with literature, but it’s even more exciting when I watch former proclaimed nonreaders become absorbed in stories that have the power to change their lives.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Literature: The Reader’s Role.” The English Journal 49, no. 5 (1960): 304–16. https://doi.org/10.2307/810700.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.