Buzz Books

(A version of this post appears at HBWReads under a different title.  Feel free to check it out here)
In April, I wrote about a project we began in Verona regarding summer reading, and described it as an attempt to make reading viral within our middle school.  The post, titled “Making Reading Viral,” detailed what was then an idea about how to create buzz around the titles we were recommending for the summer.The project began in earnest on June 27th, and we are now a month in.  Some brief stats on the site so far:Our middle school has a population of less than 700 students, and our town roughly 14,000 people.  Students and teachers write on their assigned days, with some mixing and matching going on.  It’s been a pleasure to administer the site and organize their work.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, I have the privilege of speaking at #140edu: Exploring the State of Education NOW Conference at the 92nd Street Y, NY, NY.  My topic: The Buzz Books.

A while back, I was asked by the conference founder, Jeff Pulver, to participate in this conference, and if so, what did I have in mind to talk about.  Immediately, I thought of the Buzz Books and the HBWReads blog.  Reading, to me, has been a difference-maker in my life, taking me from a place of shadows and ignorance, to one of luminosity and understanding.

Scholars have recently been examining the state of reading today among the general population of children in grades 5-12, and thestatistics coming out of their work paint an awful picture.  There are extreme ramifications upon our society if we raise a generation of non-readers.  So, we as a district, looked at what we thought of reading in general, and more specifically of summer reading.  We looked at reading phenomena like the Harry Potter books, the Twilight Series, and more recently, the Hunger Games trilogy.

We saw something there that caught our eye.

Reading is a social endeavor, and it’s done best when we can talk about books with people we have an interest in.  When we read a book that is outstanding, the first thing we want to do is to run and tell someone who matters to us all about it and recommend it to them.  We wanted to capture that somehow.

When I get on stage on Monday, I’m going to talk about that idea, but I am also going to talk about the work that has been done by all of the students and teachers at HBWReads so far this summer.  Looking back at the statistics I shared the other day, we have had wild success in terms of readers and traffic through our site.  We have had conversations around books that would not have otherwise occurred.  We are making reading viral, and helping to spread it through not only our community here in Verona, but also in other parts of the county and world.  Don’t underestimate the power of that.

The conference will be live on the web, and as soon as the information is posted as to how to tune in, I’ll pass it along here. (Here is the Ustream address if you are interested in catching the conference.  I go on roughly at 11:45am)


Making Reading Viral

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.

Opening the Floodgates

We are reading Readicide as a department this year, which is something I’ve wanted to do now for two years, ever since Bill Ferriter announced that he was profiling the book on his site and interviewing the author, Kelly Gallagher via Voicethread.

Today was the first meeting of one of the groups within the department, a group of middle school language arts teachers.  We met to discuss the first two chapters of the book, which, if you haven’t read it, delve into the definition of Readicide and the statistics he examined to coin the term.

Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Gallagher also talked about something I’ve noticed since I have been in elementary buildings and secondary buildings: a gradual decline in curiosity.  Gallagher called it enthusiasm for reading, but today one of the group really summed it up by saying that by the time these students reach the upper grades in a middle school, much of their natural curiosity has been mined from them.  They don’t necessarily hate reading, but they don’t see any purpose behind it if it doesn’t either serve to get them a grade, or is required for something within their class.

My question in response to everything said today was a variation on the protocol What-SoWhat-NowWhat in that I wondered aloud that if we take what we say about our students and their inherent lack of curiosity, or their lack of attention span, or their penchant for reaching for SparkNotes when confronted with an outside reading novel, than what now?  Do we look the parents of these students in the eyes and say, “Well, what we’ve done in the past just isn’t working well here, so, I’ll just keep doing it.”

No.  And that is why I think Gallagher’s book really has legs.  We are only in chapter 2 and we are already seeing glimpses of what he prescribes as the cures to readicide, and what he is offering so far sound less like individual classroom fixes, and more like a school-wide committment to textual immersion.

Which I dig.

More to come as we get deeper into the discussions.

Image Credit: “Overwhelmed,” from Kozumel’s Photostream.

Re-Thinking a Few Things

It’s the end of the year, and with that, we are running into the usual pressures associated with a year of impending change.  For some reason, June gives educators an amazing amount of stress.  I was reviewing some posts from this time last year, and was amazed to find that there were odd similarities between what I was noticing then and what is happening now.

This summer is going to be an incredibly busy one, and an incredibly short one.  It has the feeling already of one that will be fleeting. If that is the case, I’d like to begin by setting a few goals for my own growth this summer:

  1. Read.  Here is the short list that I’ve put together for the summer:
    1. Readicide, by Kelly Gallagher
    2. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
    3. Rethinking Homework, Cathy Vatterott
    4. Write Beside Them, by Penny Kittle
  2. Re-Organize.  A year in which I either ran or helped plan over 10 meetings a month can lead to a lot of paperwork and notes that need both organization and reflection.  Pulling all of that back together will take a good few days.
  3. Re-Focus.  As I indicated in the paragraphs above, the month of June has been crazy, but wit that crazy has come some good dialogue.  I’d like to take part of the summer to craft goals that I have for each of the departments I work with and the elementary schools I am involved in.  I’ve had many meetings this month where it was apparent that I am getting very little buy-in from the departments I work with.  As with everything in education, the factors that go into producing that are only partially controllable by me, but that which is under my control, I’d like to sharpen and hone.  I need to have goals regarding what I’d like to move towards with each of the departments, and then combine those goals with those of the members of the departments I work with.  A shared vision; yes, I think that might work.

There is probably more, but it’s getting light out, and the kids are waking, which brings me to another goal for the summer.  Leave work at work, and make the most of the daylight hours with my family.