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Sunday / November 18

The Process of Planning, Part 4: Nine Tips to Choosing Good Books for Your Instruction 

I lean toward Luddite. I use “the Facebook” and “the Netflix” and I have an e-reader so I can read on vacation without having to pack a trillion books. But, I have just a handful of apps on my very outdated phone because that’s all it can support and I still make mix CDs. I’m not being ironic; I just never got the hang of streaming. I am pretty convinced that my insides are made of magnets actually, and my continued experiences with malfunctioning technology has only exacerbated my Ludditeness.  

This wary distance I maintain, though, has served me well as a Language Arts teacher. Reading a book is a multisensory experience. Obviously, it’s visual. But you also hear the voices of a well-developed character. You feel the grains of the paper, yield to the weight of the book in your hands, feel the strain between your fingers as you hold a stubborn paperback open. We “curl up” with a good book, incorporating a posture that quite literally envelops. There is physicality. There is a scent to a book. A new book and an old book smell completely different, and I bet in reading that sentence you were instantly transported to a time you inhaled each. When you bend your neck over a book, you block out the other sounds and sights in the room. You build a relationship as you willingly surrender to that vortex. Of course, digital reading is multisensory as well. You can still get into a flow, and my digitally native students are very experienced with this sensory experience. But the novelty of a novel… bearing witness to the blossoming relationship between a ten year-old and a paperback… the earnestness stirs something inside me that lives at the intersection of joy and melancholy. I have never seen that happen with a child and a digital resource. As a Language Arts teacher, after I’ve planned long-range, planned units,  and developed a daily structure, I then need materials. And the only materials I truly need are books.  

Here are nine tips to remember when choosing books to support your instruction: 

  1. Teach standards, not stories. In those first years I was teaching, I fell prey to this. I was teaching a specific story, and specific vocabulary from that story, rather than teaching strategies for universal reading skills using the text as a resource. By shifting my mindset, I escaped a trap of teaching specific books every year just because they were the stories I taught each year.
  2. Building a high-quality classroom library is a worthy financial investment. We all spend money on our classrooms (which shouldn’t be the expectation, but that is a post for another day.) Rather than spend money on bulletin board materials, materials for stations, or surplus office supplies, spend your money on books.
  3. Quality, not quantity. It’s great to have a large library, and you can go to those book swaps or the library sale rack and get TONS of books on the cheap. But be discerning. Having a boatload of yellowed books with spent spines about characters in the 1970s whose major conflict is whether they’ll ever learn to ride a pony well enough to win the summer camp color wars is futile. The books just become white noise in the room.
  4. Speaking of white noise… be conscious of the White noise in your library. It is only difficult to find books with protagonists of color if you’re not purposefully looking for books with protagonists of color. True, they are not plentiful. You are more likely to find books with animal protagonists than Black or Brown protagonists. You are much more likely to find books with White protagonists and Black or Brown sidekicks. Often, when you do find books with protagonists of color, the book is historical fiction and focuses on oppression. These are important literary experiences. But, it’s also important to find books where the protagonists of color navigate a range of relatable human experience. Sometimes, authors never directly describe the race of their characters and we all have a tendency to default to White. If the book is ambiguous, have that conversation with your students. Ask them what race they think the characters are and challenge them to examine why they have made the assumptions they have made. This will help them to also look more critically at the stories they are receiving. Be purposeful in the books you select for your classroom. Representation matters. And if you don’t believe that representation matters, then it won’t hurt you to go ahead and pursue a diverse library, because if you don’t “see color”, then you might as well use as many colors as you can. (And also… get to an optometrist… something’s going on with your cones.) 
  5. Representation matters racially, culturally, and with gender. Pay attention to how gender-normed your stories are. If all of your books with male protagonists are about sports, and all of your books with female protagonists are about friendships, then there is a wealth of human experience missing from your library. 
  6. All students should have a book they have chosen as well as the text you assign them. I give my students book baggies in the beginning of the year and we establish that there should always be two or three books in the baggies. Teach them how to find books that are just-right for their reading comfort.
  7. For each unit, alternate between books that the entire class reads and separate books for each book club. I like to start the year with a novel that is on grade-level for the whole class. This gives us a common reading bond. Students who are below grade level develop a sense of belonging and since we are all reading the same book, they have enough class discussion and context to support them. They can experience the story even if they aren’t comprehending the book independently. Since they also have a book in their baggie that is their level, I don’t worry about how well they work through the assigned novel. They are getting to practice skills at their own level while also participating in a grade-appropriate dialogue. The sense of belonging counteracts frustration because they know it’s not their only reading experience for the day. After the class has finished a novel all together, then I switch up Book Clubs so they are more homogenously grouped with a novel that is leveled appropriately to the club but thematically related to the other clubs’ books. (For example, all of the Book Clubs might be assigned an historical fiction novel, but each group has a different novel.) Alternate between a common class book and separate related books throughout the school year.  
  8. Size matters. Before you introduce the book, take the time to plot out which chapters you will assign each day/night and if a novel is too long, look for a better fit. Belaboring a book is spirit-crushing. Students should NOT be reading the same novel for months and months unless they have chosen that novel for themselves. Have an end date in mind with books you assign. In general, my students get about 3-4 weeks to read a typical intermediate novel. We read every day and they have each night to catch up as necessary. It’s not laborious, it’s luxurious.  
  9. Choose compelling books. This means you should read the books before you assign them. If you think the book is boring, your kids probably will, too.  
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Cara Jeanne is a veteran teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. She teaches 5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies at the same elementary school she attended as a child. She is pursuing her phD in Instructional Leadership for Changing Populations at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she also received her Masters degree and a certificate in Equity and Cultural Proficiency. Cara completed her undergraduate work at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she studied Psychology and English. Cara was a finalist for Baltimore County Teacher of the Year and is honored to serve on the Equity Team and Faculty Council at her school.

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