Speed Dating with Nonfiction Books

It’s a never-ending dilemma: how to get overworked high school students to read for pleasure. Too often, teens associate reading with mandatory curriculum books. The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, Things Fall Apart. . . though some teens grow to love these titles, most are unlikely to pick up another Dickens novel the next time they have a free hour.

When the eleventh-grade English teachers approached me last September about collaborating on a nonfiction independent reading project, I jumped at the opportunity. I saw this as the perfect way to introduce students to the wide range of reading material available to them. I immediately thought of speed dating with books–an idea I came across in library school while researching teen reading motivation.

One of the book speed dating stations

After brainstorming book ideas, we edited the list down to 10 titles, making sure to include topics that spanned issues, genders, and complexity. Once the list was set, and I had read all of the books, I created a Google Slide presentation of the book covers and one quote from each book; a graphic organizer chart for the students to use while I talked about the books; and book display summaries to be placed on tables throughout the library. I ordered some of the books for our school library collection; others I checked out of the local public library.

On the scheduled day in November, each class came into the library and sat at tables in groups of three or four. As an opening activity, they wrote brief answers to the question, “What can you learn from reading a book about a topic you’ve never explored?” and we discussed their reflections. Then they listened to my Google Slides/book talks presentation, using the graphic organizer to notate if their initial impressions of each book were positive or negative. In a genre column they wrote words that would remind them of the categories each book fell into. After explaining the procedure, I displayed a digital, two-minute timer on the smart board, and the students began their speed-dating experience.

A number was displayed on each table, along with the physical book on a plastic book stand, and a summary of the book in a clear display case. The students had to read the summary, look through the book, write a one-sentence central idea of the book, and discuss their thoughts with the other group members. When the timer went off, they moved on to the next table, until they had become acquainted with all 10 books.

Not only did the students enjoy the change of pace that being active afforded them, they also seemed intrigued by the multitude of subjects and styles of the books. It was as if, in their fast-paced, high-school life, they hadn’t realized that there were books out there about topics that appealed to them. As I walked around the room, I heard meaningful conversations related to immigration, transgender teens, drug addiction, hoarding, and fitting in–all topics addressed in the book choices.

As closure, students answered the following two questions:

  • What attracted you to the titles that you selected?

  • What do you hope to learn from your top-choice book?

They submitted their first three book choices on Google Forms, which their teachers used to match students with books. Throughout the rest of the quarter, students spent time reading their books, answering individual literary questions, and working within literature circles made up of classmates who were reading the same book.

After the resounding success of last year’s project, we had our second Independent Reading Project Speed Dating event in early November. Reflecting upon the materials and procedures from last year, the English teachers and I edited the lesson slightly and swapped out two of the book choices for ones that seemed more appropriate. It was another inspiring day of teens interacting with books, being immersed in authors’ diverse ideas and opinions, and learning what excites them as readers.

While a one-period activity is only a small step toward getting teens to pick up a book and read, it’s a positive move in the right direction. Having students connect with books in a way that sparks their interest is a promising way to plant literary seeds that will expand and grow, ultimately showing students that reading has the power to open up entire worlds.

Book Selections for our Nonfiction Speed-Dating Activity:

  1. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

  2. The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants And the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

  3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D.Vance

  4. This is Really Happening by Erin Chack

  5. I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet

  6. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

  7. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff

  8. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle

  9. Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

  10. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown

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.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration

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2 replies

  1. I definitely understand about the struggles of trying to get high school students to read! I love the speed dating with nonfiction books to expose them to the “side” of the library they hardly ever check out from. I think you could adapt this idea to all genres! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I’ll definitely share this with my colleagues in hopes of using it at our school.

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