We all remember the assignment. The dreaded book report.
Depending on the grade level, the report was to be either a simple one pager or up to ten pages of in-depth analysis. And the book? In my experience, teachers gave us the chance to pick our own books to read without any sense of content focus.
And I was never really sure why we had to read books and write reports on them. All I can remember is
Read a book and write a report describing it.
I enjoyed reading books and would willingly spend hours at the local library. I knew exactly where the best books were in the school library. But reading a book just so that I could write a report took all of the fun out of it. There was a point, I’m sure. I just never figured out what it was.
Find a book with a really good dust jacket that contained a detailed description of the book’s contents. Boom. A simple task of 5th grade copy and pasting. Done. Of course, I never actually read the book. That wasn’t the point. The point was creating a book report.
So should kids still do book reports?
I’m thinking yes.
Do they have to look like the assignments we all grew up with?
Nothing wrong with asking kids to write – Common Core literacy standards encourage and support reading and writing skills – but the 21st century book report can look very different than the traditional text version and still support Common Core literacy stuff.
A couple of things to think about:
1. It doesn’t have to just be fiction, non-fiction, or even text for that matter. Select content that supports your instructional goals. Maybe a video clip of an historical event? A speech? Propaganda poster? Magazine or web article? A blog post? Can a kid write a book report on an image or photograph?
And my thinking right now is to not let them pick any book or text or whatever that they want. It’s just too easy for your content focus to get lost. But remember – there are tons of book reports and essays online for “traditional” sorts of stuff. Don’t assign kids something like the The Red Badge of Courage without being very specific about what you want them to do with it. Kids will copy and paste.
2. Be clear about why you’re having kids read stuff. Is it to gather foundational knowledge? Training them to source documents? Evaluate claims and interpret arguments? Compare multiple perspectives?
Know why kids are reading. And be sure to tell the kids that. Provide a series of guiding questions that support your task. If it’s foundational knowledge gathering, perhaps a simple five W’s and H chart or graphic organizer like a History Frame is enough to get them started. Sourcing a document? Then have them focus on author, audience, media format, and intent. You get the idea.
3. Go beyond the traditional text format we grew up with and start thinking about using alternative options that kids can use to present their learning.
Here are ten to get you started:
- Have kids create a resume of the main character or characters. They can use information from the assigned material – you should also think about asking them to gather more data to include on their resume. (Added bonus? You make the College and Career Ready people very happy with this sort of assignment.)
- Ask kids to create a storyboard for a movie trailer and the actual trailer. iMovie on the Mac and iPad is great for this. Movie Maker for Windows also works.
- Students can create a movie poster. Require them first create a written explanation and storyboard outlining why their poster looks the way it does. Is there a theme or topic or character that should be the focus of the poster? Why?
- Stick with the movie theme and have kids write a review as if the text or document were a movie. Go to IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes to get a sense of what this might look like.
- Develop a pitch for a reality TV show. Several weeks ago we asked a group of middle school teachers to read a collection of primary sources documents. We wanted them to get a sense of what 19th century western communities were like. Both the written and oral pitch required them to demonstrate that. Feel free to use this pitch template.
- Ask kids think about the text as a mobile app. They can either write an app review or the app description.
- I’m still wrapping my head around the idea of using Instagram as a way for kids to share information. Maybe some sort of Five Photo Story Telling exercise? Maybe blow off the Instagram app but still require kids to use mobile devices to tell a story.
- I once had a middle school student who struggled with text and noticed he doodled a lot in my class. Over time, he began sharing some of his artwork with me and it slowly started to sink into my very thick skull that this was my way in. From then on, his assignments consisted almost entirely of visual kinds of stuff. His graphic novel style work was pretty amazing. I learned. Have kids use any of the many graphic novel and comic creation tools like Comic Life, LifeCards, or Comic Book! to tell their stories.
- You might have kids try a strategy call Thought Bubbles to tell a story and to summarize text or documents. This works great if you are having kids analyze images or photos.
- A high school teacher just recently shared a collaborative strategy he uses called Literacy Collage. This example is from a ELA classroom but you can adapt it to focus more on historical content and thinking skills. I think you could assign the same thing as an individual activity and then have kids work together to create a larger story. This could be done using a paper version or online using something like Glogster.
- I love the idea of fan fiction. You know. Fans of a certain film, book, comic, or TV series create their own alternate endings, fill in gaps between events, create back stories, broaden minor characters, and create other settings to expand that specific “world.” So perhaps you show a video clip or have kids read a particular text or document. Ask them to expand the story, explain what might have been going on in a different place at the same time, or develop back stories for historical characters.
4. Be sure to have a clear rubric that you share with kids before they start and that you use after they complete their work.
You don’t have to abandon the idea of book reports. You do need to be willing to go beyond the traditional and begin using current tools and ideas. What works for you?