AT LAST I SEE THE (Reading) LIGHT – How My Fifth Grade Classroom Changed When I Became an Author by Jake Burt
My second novel, THE RIGHT HOOK OF DEVIN VELMA, is set to release on October 2. I’m certainly excited; we’ll be celebrating with a full-scale launch party at our local indie bookstore (shout-out to RJ Julia!), I’m heading out on book tour to promote it across the country, and I’m hosting a plethora of giveaways on social media.
All my enthusiasm, though, pales in comparison to that of my students. They’ve come to view themselves as an integral part of my authorly journey, a notion I’ll freely admit I’ve nurtured as best I can. For one, being ten-year-olds, my students are constantly on the lookout for reasons to cheer (heck, they’ll break into applause if a kid straw-stabs her Capri Sun pouch successfully on the first try). That can work wonders for any writer’s fragile, copyedits-are-killin’-me ego. I’ve found, though, that it also stokes their passion for reading and writing, due in no small part to how my teaching has changed. And, in retrospect, I do have to kick myself a little bit, since most of the changes were ones I could have made without publishing a single word…
ENGAGING WITH AUTHORS
The biggest epiphany I had came from seeing how eager the writerly community is to embrace classrooms. As a new teacher (lo those many years ago), I tended to view authors at a respectful distance, marveling whenever our librarians managed to reel one in for a school visit. It never occurred to me to reach out to one myself. Now, though, in chatting with other authors, I realize that there’s a massive network of support for teachers out there. Many authors (including me!) offer free Skype sessions for classrooms. Programs like #KidsNeedMentors (http://annbradenbooks.com/2018/05/kidsneedmentors/) establish close connections between authors and teachers. And so many writers are turning to classrooms to take advantage of students’ love of reading to inform their own work. Last year, my class got to help author Jodi Kendall (The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City/Dog Days in the City) choose which of her book trailers to feature for her debut novel. I’ve also received ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of my fellow authors’ work, book talked them for my students, and given those authors feedback directly from their target audience. Allowing the students to participate in that process has revealed to them that they, as readers, are not the terminus of a book’s journey.
They’re the fuel we use to drive the entire thing.
“But where do I get ARCs to share with my students?” you might well ask. I certainly did. It turns out that authors are eager to get their book babies out in the world, and there are a variety of ways we do so. Giveaways on Goodreads.com, via our Twitter or Instagram accounts, and through our websites are good places to start. However, there are also dozens of ARC-sharing groups available, and these are wonderful in their symbiosis. Authors get a built-in panel of reviewers, often comprised of classroom teachers, librarians, and other gatekeepers. The members of the group get access to books to share with their students, preview new titles for their classroom or school libraries, and get to establish close relationships with authors that can pay off through swag for students, classroom communications, and even school visits. #Bookjourney, #Collabookation, #Bookexpedition, and #Bookjaunt are just a few of the Twitter-based groups, and if you can’t (book)worm your way into one, don’t be afraid to get together with other educators in your school or district and start your own!
CREATIVE > CLINICAL
In addition to opening my eyes to available resources, becoming an author also made my teaching of reading less clinical. Books became more than something I simply taught. They became who I am. When that happened, I found my teaching grew far less prescriptive. I doubled the amount of time dedicated to independent reading, diversified how I defined literature, and ramped up our classroom read-aloud. I also kicked reading logs out the door (a pedagogical decision that is backed by ample recent research) and replaced them with one-on-one conversations, book talks, and reccards.
What’s a reccard?
Etymologically, it’s a portmanteau of “Recommendation Card.” In practice, it’s an homage to the book and reader-friendly environments created by independent bookstores. Whenever a student finishes a book she or he absolutely loves, they grab an index card and decorate it with the following specs:
Once finished, the student will hang the reccard above his or her bookbin/cubby/locker (or even off the side of a desk), just like the staff at an indie bookstore might. Students leave the cards up so that their peers can peruse titles their classmates have enjoyed, scan the “cool stuff” for things that might interest them, too, and get a notion of what the book is about. It’s also a not-so-sneaky way for me to gauge what my kids are into, check up on their summarizing skills, and grow my own TBR pile. Nothing makes one of my students beam quite like seeing me read something they loved, especially when I explain that I picked it up based on their recommendation! And, of course, fifth graders being who they are, they inevitably take an idea and run with it:
If you’re an educator, you’ve no doubt long ago internalized the mantra, “If it’ll work for my classroom, I’m going to steal it…” In that spirit, if any of the things I’ve learned and adopted in my classroom since becoming an author appeal to you, by all means: STEAL AWAY!
Jake Burt’s debut middle-grade novel, Greetings from Witness Protection! was named a Fall 2017 Indies Introduce title. A fifth-grade classroom teacher, Jake lives with his family in Hamden, Connecticut. His latest middle-grade contemporary, The Right Hook of Devin Velma, is available now.