This post was written by NCTE member Kerry L. Thomas-Mess.
I realized recently that I wanted to get better at teaching genre to students. I had a list of fiction genres from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, but I knew that wasn’t enough to help students determine the genre of the books they read. Lori Huebner Avila, a colleague of mine, told me about book “speed dating,” and together (using several sources downloaded from the web—see endnote*) we worked to create reader’s notebook handouts. These were handouts describing 12 different genres (nine fiction genres plus autobiography, biography, and memoir), with information arranged on two facing pages.
Here’s a description of the steps we followed. At the beginning of the school year, I went into the library and pulled about 10 books of each genre (I combined the three narrative nonfiction genres as we have 10 tables in the main part of our library) and put each genre group of books on a table with a laminated card with the genre title and a description of features that matched the handout.
My colleagues and I brought first-year students into the library and divided them in 10 small groups, one at each table. In addition to the genre handouts, students each had a handout “Want to Read List” with a chart for making a list of books of interest to them (title, author, genre, read yet?).
Then we engaged in “genre speed dating.” Groups got one to two minutes at each table to get their hands on books and see what they might like.
I was clear: “”Be open-minded. Even if you don’t think this is your genre, get your hands on as many books as possible at the table. Check out the covers, the inside flaps, open up to random pages. You do not have to write a title from each table down. If something interests you, write it down. If nothing interests you, wait for the next table.”
This created a major buzz as students scurried to write down as many titles as they could from a table before moving to the next. The problem with this system: Multiple groups of students went through this process, so the books they’d seen and were hungry to check out weren’t accessible for check out for several days.
The following year, our librarian Veronica Thompson—a superhero, as all librarians are!—pulled a box of books for each genre, culling from the most popular/most checked out in each genre. With so many books on the table, it was hard to get through them in a short time, and students still needed to wait to check books out.
This coming year, I’d like to have our new librarian do the same sort of pulling, but I’d like us to put out 5-8 books for each genre per class that visits the library, so that at the end of the class period, scholars can check out a book right away and keep the buzz going. If we have a box of each genre, we will have more books for each table for the next class that comes in to repeat the process.
Just this week, I had a slightly different version of speed dating or book tasting. I had acquired 40 new books for the classroom library from Donors Choose. I separated them by genre (I use 1-inch color dot stickers for each of the genres and have them separated on classroom library shelves that way) and set them at an angle across the chalkboard with labels on the board for the different genres.
As students came in and clustered in groups at the front board, ogling the books on display, I had to keep shouting, “DON’T TOUCH!” Having the books lined up was enough to generate a buzz.
After our daily opening activity, I acknowledged students’ curiosity and went from left to right across the chalkboard, describing books. The post-its on each book give a brief sense of the topic of each book but I didn’t expect students to remember descriptions of each of the 40 books.
As I talked I heard lots of oohs and aahs and “I want that one!” Many students wanted to know, “Have you read all those books?” (No, I hadn’t.) I told students books would be available the following morning when they were allowed in the building (15 minutes before classes started) as all of my classes needed to be introduced to the books.
The following morning, there were about 10 students who ran through my door to claim their desired book before anyone else got to it. As others walked into class, they did the same, with some whining that the books they wanted were gone. By the end of the day, I had only 15 of 40 books left.
I’ve realized I could do this on regular basis, even daily, at the start of the school year, using fewer books from my classroom library on the chalk tray each day. This would shorten the amount of time I spend describing while also allowing me space to write titles and authors on the board above each book. The repetition over a week or several weeks would introduce students to the genres and what’s in the classroom library to get them thinking about what they do or might like to read.
I’ve used a number of different sites to classify genre for different titles, but often genres overlap; and because I haven’t read every book on my shelf, it’s possible my students would argue for a different genre classification. This tasting procedure would also allow me to suggest that they should be on the lookout as they read for overlaps with other genres. I’m willing to either change the sticker color or add another dot to represent two genres blending. That’s a conversation we could have as a class, agreeing to how my young readers want to classify books to help them find what they want to read.
This process of daily mini-introductions to books would also encourage students to engage in book talks (see Atwell’s In the Middle or The Reading Zone) to share more intimately about books they’ve read.
*Sources for reader’s notebook chart:
“Genre Characteristics” (chart from Routman, Regie. Writing Essentials. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005)
“Genre Characteristics” (list from Read Write Think, NCTE/IRA, 2006)
“Genre Characteristics Chart” (from Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies: Modeling What Good Readers Do. New York: Scholastic, 2001, 142–145, Web.)
Kerry L. Thomas-Mess. teaches at Rufus King International High School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has been an NCTE member for 24 years.