As secondary teachers, we recognize the struggle that students often have when writing about books. Despite this struggle, we frequently hand out “old school” assignments like the five-paragraph essay, poster presentation, and book report. The most common of these assignments is the book report even though there is an unspoken understanding that students have to only read the bare minimum to give a book report, and regurgitate what we want to hear. The really hard work for teachers comes with finding authentic, real-life assignments that teach students skills and build critical literacy. Nancie Atwell asks the readers of In the Middle to examine the reasons why the book report is “the only writing about literature that shows up in most elementary and middle school classrooms” (470). Like Atwell, I have to ask, how are book reports improving literacy when they are merely regurgitations of plot summary, and how are they relevant to “real-life”?
In place of book reports it would be productive to assign the most common form of literary commentary found in modern society: the book review. Hundreds of thousands of people read book reviews in publications ranging from The New York Times, U.S. Today, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, to Amazon.com on a regular basis. I would explain this to my students when discussing the social need that book reviews fulfill. Through book reports, people learn about books, talk about books, and most importantly, read and write about books. Teenagers can also take part in the book review process. Publications such as Voices in the Middle and Teen Ink have separate sections devoted to Young Adult Literature, reviewed by young adults. The popularity of online sites dedicated to teen book reviews has also increased the availability of publishing forums for classroom projects.
Book reviews require more critical thinking than book reports. Our students will need to actually read the book in its entirety because they are going to be asked to interpret it, rather than regurgitate the plot. The content of the book review relies heavily on reader understanding, and an opinion of the book based on comprehension is necessary. Students will be unable to “fake” the book review as they often do with the book report. Also, students will need to form an opinion about the book and share it in their book reviews. Because an audience will be reading these reviews, students will understand how their opinion may or may not influence a person’s decision to purchase or read the book. Tom Romano states in his article “Teaching Writing from the Inside” that most of the genres that are typically taught in classrooms are narrative and literary responses because they are the specialties of teachers, not because they have the most to offer students (174). Book reviews can offer our students an authentic, engaging, and highly academic experience.
The best way teach the writing of the book review is to conduct a whole-class genre study. Genre is generally defined as the categories in which we classify texts. Charles Cooper in "What We Know About Genres” also defines genres as “types of writing produced every day in our culture, types of writing that make possible certain kinds of learning and social interaction” (25). Cooper recommends using the genre assignment, something I will refer to as the genre study, as a means to teach writing. Cooper’s version of the genre study involves eight basic steps: reading models, listing basic features, choosing topics, inventing and researching, planning, revising, reflecting, and assembling a portfolio” (46-49).
In order to fully understand how to write a book review, it is necessary to delve deep into the genre to examine the basic components. Genre studies are useful in teaching writing because they open up new worlds of writing that students may not have realized they were capable of interacting with. Romano wants his students to understand that “the world of writing is a mural, not a snapshot. I want students’ notions of genre to be expansive, not narrow (174).” With this thought in mind, I will guide you through the process of teaching the book review through Cooper’s eight steps. First we will look at the importance of touchtone texts to provide a model for quality book reviews. Next I will explain the importance of using group work to list the basic attributes of the genre. Choosing a book to review, inventing, and planning will also be addressed. I will also touch on writing as a process with stages of drafting, revising, and editing. In my study, students will hand in a portfolio of work, documenting their writing journey. Finally, students will reflect on what they have learned from the genre study, and what they feel they have gained from writing a book review.
Before I begin the genre study, I would first explain the book review’s social purpose. I would use my own personal experience, explaining that I frequently read the reviews on amazon.com before I decide to purchase or read a book. Then I would let students know that I intend to give them most of the control in the project- they are allowed to choose their own book, they will work collaboratively throughout the revision process, and they will ultimately choose where they would like their review to be published.
The first step you will want to take when introducing the genre of book review is to provide some really good quality examples for students to read. Students should have these examples to use as models for their own writing, and these examples will also aid them in determining the characteristics of the book review. To find good models of book reviews I went to the New York Times website (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/books/bestseller/bestchildren.html).
I would being the study by reading “Off the Rez,” a review from the New York Times Book Review on Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (See Appendix A). Because students will need to read a book thoroughly before writing a review on it, I suggest finding a quality book review that is based around something your class has read. Having background knowledge about the text being reviewed will give them greater perspective. I chose this book review because my students have read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a class, and they found it to be an exciting YA book.
After reading “Off The Rez,” I will read aloud the review “Knocked Up” about the popular YA novel Slam (see Appendix B). This is a novel that I have in my classroom library, so some of my students have read it and they have all seen it on display. After students have had the opportunity to listen to these reviews, and have been given copies of the reviews to study on their own, I break them up into small groups. In these groups, students will be asked to reflect on the genre of book review. I will ask them specific questions such as: “What is the social purpose of this book review?,” “What similar characteristics do these reviews share?,” and “What do you think the features of a book review are?.” This process of inquiry will help students discern the qualities of the book review on their own and further strengthen their critical thinking skills.
After the groups have had sufficient time to meet and discuss the touchtone texts, each group will then be asked to share one of their determined characteristics with the rest of the class, while I write them on the board. This will model the brainstorming process for them, and I will tell them how I use brainstorming on my own as a learning strategy. If they need some help determining certain important characteristics, then I will try and help them with leads like "Does the writer tell us who should be reading this book?" Then I will ask students to decide whether this is a good or bad example of a book review and argue their points with examples from the reviews. This will help them to understand that their opinions always need to be backed up with sufficient evidence from the text. At this point I would hand out a list of the common attributes of a book review (Appendix C).
Although the students are identifying the characteristics of a book review through their own inquiry process, I would still have a list of common attributes that I want them to focus on. Hopefully through group-work and class discussion, the students would have discovered that a book review is made up of the following elements:
TAG! Title, author, and genre must be present. Some book reviews also have publishing information and/or date of publication as well. These elements are crucial to include in the book review because practice using this information will prove beneficial in other forms of literary writing (including essays on the state mandated examinations). Book reviews should integrate this information into the text smoothly. Example: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Alexie’s first foray into the young adult genre, and it took him only one book to master the form” (Barcott).
A catchy lead. Something that will not only make the readers read the book review- but also make them want to read the book itself. There are several different types of leads including: traditional, question, quotation, reflective, and action leads. Example: “Arnold Spirit Jr. is the geekiest Indian on the Spokane Reservation” (Barcott).
A voice- this is not a strictly academic literary analysis, but an opinion based review. The voice in a book review should be first-person and “semiformal”(Atwell, 470) Although voice is one of the most difficult elements of writer’s craft to teach, book review are an easy way for students to establish their voice- mostly because it is largely opinion based writing. Example: “What ensues is an agreeably casual and occasionally effervescent comedy of manners, one that has plenty to say about class and sex and family and — this being a Nick Hornby novel — how pop music relates to it all and ties it all together” (Garner).
Important literary elements of the story, such as setting, characters, theme, and/or conflict are present in book reviews. Usually special attention is given to the main character in book reviews, but by additionally identifying and using literary elements in their writing, students will be more prepared for the Regent’s exam. In Garner’s review, he describes characterization in the novel: “Sam isn’t optimistic about what awaits him in life”; theme: “what adult love really is”; and conflict: “They want their daughter to jettison both him and the fetus”.
A brief plot summary without spoilers- no one will want to read the book if you give away the whole ending! Also, knowing how much plot summary is too much could greatly improve student writing in all areas- not just in genre studies. This is probably the most common opportunity of improvement in the student book reviews you will assess. The Slam review offers little more than a one-sentence plot summary: “What happens in Slam is, quite simply, this: Sam gets his new girlfriend, Alicia, pregnant” (Garner).
Reader opinions/reactions about how they felt after reading the book. Book reviews are just that, a review of the book based on the opinion of an individual. People reading the book review want to know if the book is really worth it- this is the writer's opportunity to see that his or her opinion really means something. Barcott does this by writing: “so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home.”
Revealing quotes from the book that will pique potential reader interest is another common element of the book review. Book reviews gracefully insert quotations into the text seamlessly, a good skill for all writers to practice. Barcott uses the quote from Alexie’s book: “I was afraid those monsters were going to kill me,” he says. “And I don’t mean ‘kill’ as in ‘metaphor.’ I mean ‘kill’ as in ‘beat me to death.’”
“A suggestion of who would like the book and why” is another example of being able to use your opinion as the author of a book review (Atwell, 470). Learning how to identify audience and writing with a recommendation gives students a specific purpose. Both sample reviews have a text box that recommends that the novels are for readers ages twelve and up.
Most book reviews have background information about the author. Whether you have read previous work by the author, or have conducted a mini-author study, adding context to the book review through author research can be done seamlessly (as seen in both Barcott’s and Garner’s reviews).
These are some of the main characteristics of a book review, but there are several others you can bring to students’ attention. Atwell lists a few more of these attributes: “how the book fits into a larger context-political, historical, social,” “comparisons with other books and genres,” “what’s different about this book, contrasting it with others of the same genre,” ”comparisons with works by other authors”[and] “the reviewer’s reading process: how he or she read the book” (471). For example, Barcott describes some of the cultural context that exists on the reservation: “the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds.” Additionally, Garner discusses the author’s previous work in comparison to Slam: “Hornby’s novels tend to be about men who are essentially boys.”
For homework, you can ask your students to find examples of a good quality book review either in print or electronic form. They will be asked to share their example text with the class, explaining how the specified genre elements are used with direct support from the writing. I would give them the following list of resources to look for book reviews since finding an anthology of book reviews in the library is unlikely.
Resources for Book Reviews:
Teen Ink Magazine (www.teenink.com) A magazine for teens, written by teens. It has been used in classrooms for decades, and is not only a good source of student book reviews but it is also a place to explore possible publishing options.
Voices from the Middle. I would keep back issues of this academic journal for students to look through.
Teen Reads (www.teenreads.com) is an online resource for book reviews written by teens.
Amazon (www.amazon.com) also offers a place for reader reviews, but it is not specific to
students- anyone can post a review.
Online YA book reviews (http://www.teenlit.com/bookreviews/reviews.htm) This site is also not
student specific- but there is a deep index of examples of book reviews as well as several books that need book reviews to be submitted!
What is NOT a book review? When discussing the characteristics of a book review it is important to examine what a book review is not. Book reviews can often be confused or muddled with other genres. Studying what a book review is not will help solidify the definition of what it is. A book review is NOT:
A plot summary- As teachers, we may feel this is obvious, but students love to give plot summary instead of detail and opinion. On the NYS Regents and ELA exams they will be graded based on their ability to analyze literature without the overuse of plot summary. Teaching a book review is a good opportunity for teachers to show students the correct amount of plot summary needed for the book review- and the exams.
A book report- Book reports are monotonous and unauthentic. There are no instances of the book report genre being used anywhere in the world except in the ELA classroom. They are tedious to complete and even more tedious to grade. Book reports are mainly comprehensive checks to ensure that students are reading the texts- but in book reviews it will be more than obvious if a student has not read the text being reviewed.
CHOOSING A TEXT TO REVIEW
The next step for students, now that they understand what book reviews look like and act like- is for them to pick a book they would like to review. Since I value the publication of all student work, it is important to recognize that several publications will not print repeat submissions for books that have already been reviewed- so it pays to have back issues of such publications such as Voices from the Middle. Also, recommending that the students choose newer titles will help prevent this overlap as well. It is crucial that students are allowed to pick a book that they are interested in, and a teacher should only offer support and suggestions in this process. Book reviews are also a useful genre to examine when giving students the power of choice. Allowing students to choose a book to review will increase their engagement and might even increase the chances of them completing both the book and the review. If a student complains that the chosen text is too difficult or not enjoyable, then the teacher could help to find the student a new book to review.
Allowing the student book choice will not only increase possible success, but will also promote a real reading life. In their adult life, students will not be force-fed books, but they will have the leisure to read books that interest and excite them. Democracy in book reviews is also vital to the engagement of the student. Often students' complaint about literary analysis writing is that they did not enjoy the book to begin with- let alone enjoy having to write about it. It is almost like beating a dead horse. Giving students the opportunity to read books that engage them will encourage them to work harder on their writing.
Resources for Young Adult Literature
There are a plethora of titles currently available in the YA genre, and the market for books targeted at teens is continually growing. These books provide a wealth of possibilities for students choosing a title to review. Of course book reviews can be written about books that are not targeted towards adolescents, but most teens would prefer to read a YA title over an adult title. Young Adult literature is accessible, relevant, and often times necessary in the reading lives of teens. In order to help students choose a book and also to keep them reading later in life, the teacher should be knowledgeable about YA literature. Here is a list of resources for locating new titles in YA literature:
ALAN, (http://www.alan-ya.org/) or the Assembly of Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE, is an organization developed strictly for the purpose of promoting YA lit in the classroom. ALAN has its own awards system as well as an extensive list of great titles available.
YALSA (http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/yalsa.cfm) is the Young Adult Library Services Association. This organization tracks awards in the field of YA literature, but my favorite section is the annual teen vote. Every year, thousands of teenagers are polled to see what they are reading and the results are posted on the YALSA website.
Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/28/103-6565692-4644611) is a site where a lot of new YA texts can be easily found. Amazon has recently expanded its "teen" section to include a ton of titles, and clicking on a book will also give you access to reviews and recommended readings.
Reader's Robot (http://www.tnrdlib.bc.ca/rr.html) is a site that will help students choose a book based on "appeal" factors. It is an interactive site so it may please some of the more resistant readers, or readers who need of a suggestion. After taking a quiz, there are specified recommended readings generated from the results.
Some students may have limited resources, so you would have to ensure that you had access to these sites from your classroom or school library. If this is a problem, consider working with your school librarian to allocate some of the library budget for new YA titles. I have an extensive classroom library that I work hard to update frequently. It only consists of approximately fifty books, but these are some of the more engaging texts that have come out within the past five years. I have collected several of these books through the Scholastic book program, and I always promote the discounted Scholastic program to my students as well. Students and parents should both understand that there is no required purchase necessary for the book review project.
INVENTING While students are reading the book, they will be filling in the information on the organizational handout (see Appendix D). Filling out this handout will get students accustomed to taking notes during reading, a strategy useful during the ELA and Regents Exams. This handout will give them an idea of how to organize the book review and remind them constantly of the elements of the review. I will remind them that they should also be taking notes in their writer’s notebooks to plan for the writing process. A writer’s notebook is simply a notebook that is maintained by the student (and by the teacher as well) to record interesting tidbits of information, thoughts, emotions, quotes, etc. that could possibly be used in future writing. The information on the outline is a good reference for writer’s notebook entries, as well as any interesting quotes from the book, action packed scenes they may want to discuss, and literary elements that the author uses.
The outline specifies the bare minimum of book review characteristics, and students should understand that the outline is in sequential order. At this point I would put the outline on the overhead so that the students could see it, and I would have them help me fill it in using information from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. As I fill it in, I would refer back to the review to show how Barcott uses these elements in his review. This modeling will set them up for success in their own independent writing.
Students are then given a specific writing assignment handout that explains all expectations for the assignment (Appendix E), and they are also provided a copy of the rubric, so they know precisely how their book reviews are being assessed (Appendix F).
Before they begin their drafts, I will offer a craft mini-lesson on "perfect" plot review. Too much plot summary is a common mistake students make when writing essays for the Regents exam, so I want to make sure that they "get it" by using proper plot summary in their book reviews. First I will have students return to their copies of the touchtone texts and I will give them each two highlighters, one yellow and one pink. I will ask students to highlight the plot summary in each review with the pink marker, and to highlight the author commentary with the yellow marker. When done properly, the yellow markings on the page should vastly overwhelm the small amount of pink markings. This will illustrate that the amount of plot summary is small in comparison to the amount of commentary from the author.
Next I will hand out the “perfect” plot summary worksheet (Appendix G) and I will help students fill it out for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie by posting it on the projector. This will model how the students can fill in the graphic organizer to help them write their own drafts. Students will then be allowed to start their drafts with the understanding that the plot summary should be limited, and that their reviews should be mainly interpretation or reaction to the text.
REVISING Once the rough drafts are complete, peer reviews take place during class time. Peer reviews are when students collaborate "in pairs or small groups, students read each other's drafts and give advice on revising" (Cooper, 49). The students will use the provided peer review handout (Appendix H) that reminds students of the class-defined set of book review attributes. I will sit in on a few of these conferences where I will briefly read some papers. After evaluating where the class seems to be having common opportunities for improvement, I would develop a mini-lesson to address the issue.
Some examples of craft mini-lessons include:
Developing a “catchy lead”
How to smoothly introduce TAG
Trimming down the fat-how to keep your book review concise
How to use action-packed verbs
Define your audience-create a recommendation
How to refocus your purpose
Get and keep audience interest
Adding those literary elements
One of the most common characteristics of an undeveloped book review is a boring lead sentence. In most cases I would form a craft mini-lesson on "catchy leads" in book reviews (Appendix I), where students will learn some of the various types of lead sentences, including: traditional, questioning, quotation, action, and reflection. Also, I will take one of the traditional leads from the handout and put it on the overhead. As a class we will formulate the same lead in the each of the several variations we are studying, so students see hands-on how the process works. Students will then be given class-time to examine the lead from their first drafts and re-write it using each of the categories of leads.
They will do this brainstorming in their writer’s notebooks, where we complete the majority of their pre-writing and drafting activities. This also contributes to the idea that I want to instill in my students that they are, indeed, true writers. Lucy Calkins says: “We, as teachers, try to create conditions that encourage our students to live like poets or journalists or short story writers. […] The nature of what we gather in our notebooks will change with the genre, but this does not mean that our entries will be drafts. […] We’ll have lead sentences, too” (365). Once students have brainstormed sufficiently and are satisfied with their “catchy” lead, they will revise their draft accordingly, keeping their peer review in mind.
Once students have draft two completed, I would collect the papers and read each draft. I would comment on major reoccurring problems within the texts and help with conventions. By examining each paper individually I would see any common patterns that continually reappeared within the class, and I could address these issues with a revision mini-lesson.
Here are some examples of common revision mini-lessons for book reviews:
How to properly introduce quotations
Proofreading for sentence fragments
Dividing the run-on
If I noticed through individual assessment that my students were commonly misusing quotations from the books, I would conduct a mini-lesson on how to properly introduce quotations into the review (see Appendix J). In this mini-lesson I would read the handout on how to properly use quotations to the class. Following this review of quotations, I would have them fill out the worksheet, inserting the quotation marks and punctuation as needed. I made the worksheet by removing the punctuation from the direct quotes used in the touchtone texts. Students can practice these conventions and then use them to correct their own book reviews. Next students will revise their paper a third time- this time also using the self-assessment handout (Appendix K) included in the packet to reflect on the writing process. The changes that were made in the final revision should reflect some aspect of the revision mini-lesson and the self-assessments.
This book review writing assignment incorporates practice in skills necessary to navigate the state mandated exams. For instance, both the ELA exam and the Regents require skills in literary interpretation, and points are deducted for student essays that are merely plot review. For a Regent prep writing assignment I would perhaps prepare a comparison/contrast essay using the Barcott review and some of Sherman Alexie’s poetry. Also, students could easily turn their book reviews into a persuasive essay to convince their audience to read a specific book. Additionally, we could adapt the Reading Models portion of our genre study to reflect a listening portion on the regents, with questions related to literary elements and content of the reviews.
ASSEMBLING A PORTFOLIO
The student will turn in the final copy of the paper, along with all drafts, the “catchy leads” worksheet, the plot graphic organizer, the self-checklist, and peer review forms. This will form a portfolio for the book review project. The idea is that once we are done with our group of genre studies, students will have portfolios for several pieces of completed writing- emphasizing their status as writers as well as vividly illustrating that writing is a tangible process. This will also help us, as teachers, to evaluate the student’s progress as a writer.
Although Cooper does not mention this ninth step in the genre study, it is important to consider the implications of publishing student work. Nancie Atwell states: "A sense of audience- the knowledge that someone will read what they have written- is crucial to young writers. Kids write with purpose and passion when they know that people they care about reaching will read what they have to say. More importantly, through using writing to reach out to the world, students learn what writing is good for” (489). We have already established in our genre study that the social purpose of book reviews is functional. They fulfill a specific need to inform others about literature, but how can we inform if the book review never leaves the classroom?
There are numerous methods for publication of student book reviews including: Voices From The Middle, Amazon.com, Teen Ink Magazine (www.teenink.com), Teen Reads (www.teenreads.com), and Teen Lit (http://www.teenlit.com/bookreviews/reviews.htm). Also, if you do have a classroom library, you may want to consider having students review the books in your library and keeping a mini catalog of all reviews. Anyone wishing to borrow a book from the classroom will have immediate access to student reviews- this is way more empowering than reading a dust jacket! Additionally, students will pay better attention to detail knowing that their work is extending beyond the classroom and someone besides their teacher will be reading it.
After several revisions of their book reviews, students will be given an opportunity to reflect upon the process and what they have learned. Guidelines for these reflections from Cooper suggest that students "can be asked how they solved certain problems in their drafts, what influence the same-genre readings had on their revisions, what they are most pleased with, what they would continue to work on if they had more time, and so on" (49). This reflection asks students to critically think about the writing process as a whole-rather than focus on the end product.
Reflecting as a teacher on the genre study will help you to tweak the process and make it more suitable to your classroom. You will be able to document what worked and what didn’t work in teaching the book review to continually make improvements. In the end, I am confident that you will find the genre study a necessary tool in your teaching writing toolbox.