The book report bounces back

Getting middle school kids to read for fun is no small task, and traditional methods are being rethought.

Book reports have historically been the kind of assignment to get through as quickly as possible.

Especially at the middle school level, the book review's cut-and-dried content tended to include plot summary, character outline, and number of pages. Writing a book review was almost a punishment for reading.

But the grim status of the book report is fading fast.

"When I read a book as an adult, I don't write a book report," says Maida Finch, a sixth-grade teacher at Hill Middle School in Denver. "I might talk to a friend about the details, or recommend it to a colleague."

So Ms. Finch's students, who cross the economic and ethnic spectrum, might write "reading letters" to her each week. They still must summarize what they've read, but to engage them further, Finch asks them to describe the reading strategies they've used (i.e. asking questions or making predictions about the story), and the author's writing style. Finch then writes back to the students.

It's all part of the Studio Course in reading, adopted this year by the Denver Public Schools and being phased in systemwide.

"This [approach] is much more realistic," Finch says.

The students still use the skills required in the past - writing complete sentences, distilling plot - but they go further, reflecting on a book. What does it make them think or feel? What predictions about the character did they make while reading it, and were they right? How meaningful are details, like the color of a dress, bring to a story? Does dialogue tell a story better than the descriptive writing?

"That's much better for a student than just regurgitating the plot," Finch says.

Denver's approach is one of many ways teachers are encouraging middle school students to simultaneously read and reflect - instead of read and regurgitate.

Reading groups have blossomed throughout society at large, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey and the continuing phenomenon of Oprah's Book Club.

In Minneapolis, Barton Open School uses literature circles, where students join in groups of four or five to read a book.

Other middle schools encourage students to do reports using video and/or computer PowerPoint presentations.

"Students need to make connections to the story and the author's words," says Ann Teberg, an associate professor of education at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and the editor of "Middle School Matters" for the International Reading Association.

"Encouraging a variety of responses [to a book] pushes students to write for a variety of purposes and even for a variety of audiences," she says. "Teachers can stretch the students to really put some effort into it. And the 'new' responses to books are much more fun to listen to."

In Amber Place's classroom at Barton Open School, students have a "voice and choice" in literature circles that began earlier this year.

Seventh- and eighth-graders (classes are mixed) pick from a list of about five to eight books, and are assigned to reading circles based on their selections.

The students rotate "jobs" during four discussion days - that of vocabulary enricher, passage picker, discussion director, summarizer, and illustrator. The person in each role brings important elements to the discussions.

"If they're reading a book about the Holocaust, there might be German words, or in 'Monster' by Walter Dean Meyers there is a lot of slang, for example," Ms. Place says. "The vocabulary enricher writes down the words and discusses them with the circle."

"We want good, fat questions," she says. "Not 'What color was Jim's hair?' but, for example, what did the students think about the writing style?"

The students keep journals based on their readings and discussions.

Student response has been very enthusiastic, Place says. She has even overheard students in the hallways enthusiastically asking one another what they are reading. "It's so cool," she says.

"Reading class is like a book club," says eighth-grader Mira-Lippold Johnson.

"We get together every day to read or discuss our book. We don't have the pressure of tests or grades, so we can focus on whatever we are reading. The rotating jobs don't let it become boring. The teachers don't teach us about the book, so we come to our own conclusions."

Dr. Teberg is quick to concur. "How will we know what students are getting from a book if they are simply rehashing the plot?" she asks.

"I'm definitely optimistic about where we're going with reading at the middle school level," she says.

"Middle school students need to see the purpose of learning a skill. If they get to choose what they are doing, they'll have a purpose - and it will help them in the real world."

What children like to read

A casual survey of several middle school classes, together with a handful of educators, gives a good indication of what books middle school students most often reach for.

And the winner is: "Holes" by Louis Sachar. Even before this Newbery Award novel was made into movie, "Holes" was a favorite of middle school students everywhere. This hilarious tale of hard luck and redemption was the top pick of almost all respondents.

After "Holes," Maida Finch's sixth-grade reading and writing class listed the following:

2. J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. Everyone is waiting anxiously for book No. 5, due out in June.

3. "Teen Angst?" By Ned Vizzini.

4. The "Time Warp Trio" series by John Scieszka. Although this is a fairly easy read, its spoofy satire and pastiche of real history make it a fun choice for this level.

The Denver students couldn't agree on a fifth book, but some of the nominees included "Redwall" by Brian Jacques, "The Diary of Anne Frank" by Anne Frank, and any book by Judy Blume.

Any of the Newbery Award winners, given each year to the most distinguished book in children's literature, get high marks from both educators and students.

Other fiction favorites receiving notice were "The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants" by Ann Brashares, books by Walter Dean Myers - such as "Monster" - and classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings."

Favorite authors include Sharon Creech, who won a Newbery Award for "Walk Two Moons"; Philip Pullman with his "Dark Materials" series ("Golden Compass," "Amber Spyglass," and "Subtle Knife"); Chris Crutcher with his stories of athletes and misfits; and Robert Cormier's dark thrillers, including "I Am the Cheese."

And, finally, some books that aren't yet on the awards or bestseller lists but receive special notice from educators.

Many students (as well as their parents) have been charmed by "Because of Winn-Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo, a poignant story of a lonely girl finding friendship and learning about tolerance.

Graham Salisbury wrote "Under the Blood Red Sun" and other stories set in Hawaii - which appeal to a male audience.

And "Esperanza Rising" by Pam Munoz Ryan is a wonderful historical novel, set in the 1930s, about a privileged Mexican girl whose life changes drastically when she and her newly widowed mother go to California to begin a new life as migrant workers.

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