Writing as Readers–The Nonfiction Book Review

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The Traditional Book Report Vs. Book Review


After a very successful day with students introducing them to nonfiction titles the stage was set.

Students were on their way to making their nonfiction book selections following the book speed-dating activity that I facilitated in the library.

The next question was, how can students demonstrate their experience and reactions to the book for their teacher and their classmates in a way that is both authentic and academic? The teacher who was collaborating with me on this adventure had been using a reading log as the primary tool for students to track and report their reading goals.

She was dissatisfied with the reading log as an assessment for a number of reasons:

1)  It was easy to fake.

2)  Not all books were created equal–in length.  One 200 page book might be much more complex than a 400 page book.  How were tracking page numbers an accurate reflection of the student’s reading experience?

3)  The log did little to capture those magical moments that happen between a reader and the text.  In fact, it did nothing.

4) The reading log didn’t feel “on-grade level” for the English I pre-AP teacher who strives to ensure that her assessments contained an appropriate amount of rigor.

To these I added a few of my own qualms after having used the reading log religiously for six years with my own classes:

1)  The log imposed an artificial reading goal on students–a number of pages to be read.

2)  It did nothing to foster and inspire a reading community.

3)  I hated assigning grades to quantitative reading goals that I had imposed upon students.

It was decided; the reading log would be set aside for the purpose of our nonfiction experiment (*190 English I students collectively cheer, “hoorah!”).

When I brought up the idea of writing reviews, I could tell that the teacher had some hesitation.  I sensed that, in her experience,  reviews and reports brought back a certain amount of reading sentimentality. Sure, it was nice to hear how students felt about a book–if they liked it and so on– but like many of us my colleague was not interested in reading her students’ summaries of the books they had read.  How could a simple book review adequately demonstrate their experience as readers?

How do we balance reader response and analytic writing?

We went to the standards to see if we could find a student expectation that captured the level of thinking as readers and writers we wanted to see in students.  Sure enough, there it was:

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills

15 (C)  write an interpretative response to an expository or a literary text (e.g., essay or review) that:

(i)  extends beyond a summary and literal analysis;

(ii)  addresses the writing skills for an analytical essay and provides evidence from the text using embedded quotations; and

(iii)  analyzes the aesthetic effects of an author’s use of stylistic or rhetorical devices

As a consummate consumer of reviews from blogs, websites, and journals, I’ve read wonderful reviews from passionate readers that balance authentic reading response and critical analysis.

Students came back to the library so that we could read and deconstruct these real-world reviews in order to craft them ourselves.

How do readers share with one another?


After a brief discussion on the difference between a book report and book review, we began by simply reading nonfiction book reviews posted on websites like Goodreads and Amazon.  To engage them in the task of deconstructing a book review, I posed a very simple question to students:  What sticks with you?

When we use mentor texts for writing, we begin by inviting students to identify the patterns in the text.  As we identified something new in the review, I color-coded details.  With my guidance, students created an anchor chart that identified four key concepts that they needed to understand about writing nonfiction reviews.

nonfiction anchor chart

Our (not so pretty) anchor chart uses the mentor texts we analyzed and four key concepts to remember that coordinated with our color-coding.  Not only did students have a visual reminder in their classroom of the writing task they were preparing for, but the teacher had a ready-made rubric to assess students’ writing.

Students would now go forth and read their books…but wait, what was going to happen between the this eye-opening day in the library and when they came back to write the reviews?

How could we intentionally scaffold and support students’ responses and reactions to their selected books in order to prepare them to write reflectively and critically?

The Book Pass Gets a Nonfiction Face Lift

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Setting the Stage

bookpass_7When a veteran English teacher came to me to share her thoughts and seek inspiration on getting her students excited about nonfiction, my heart went pitter-patter.  Over the last decade at my campus, I’ve seen a tremendous shift to emphasizing recreational reading and seeing our students as readers.  More teachers bring their classes to the library to be introduced to new books, maintain a classroom library, talk to their students about their reading habits, and provide students with the time and space to read in class–but the primary recipient of all of this love has been fiction.  

In my graduate library courses, we were encouraged to read all genres widely.  When we reached the nonfiction module, I sighed and told myself I’d get through it.  I wasn’t that kind of reader, I thought.  But, then I was introduced to books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksBomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Deadliest Weapon, and How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous and realized that I was, in fact, a nonfiction reader!  Suddenly, I remembered such favorites from my reading life as Devil in the White CityDiary of Anne Frank, and An Unfinished LifeA Memoir by Lillian Hellman.

When and why had these reading experiences taken backseat to their fiction counterparts?

I was excited to embark on an journey with this teacher’s freshman English students that would allow me to promote nonfiction and learn more about the nonfiction reading habits of teens all while re-kindling my own flame for nonfiction reads

To set the stage, we decided to adapt a strategy that is a staple in the library and in classrooms:  the book pass.

I first found the book pass as a budding Reading Specialist while reading Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads:  Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading.  When cultivating reading lives of students–especially teen readers–choice is paramount.

The Book Pass quickly (and messily) allows students to explore multiple titles, recording their thoughts, observations, and wonderings, and then passing them along.  It’s safe because students don’t have to commit to anything they don’t like.   It’s effective because out of 200 books that are scattered around 8 or more tables, each student is bound to find something that he or she can “date.” 

Book passes in our classes served to get students looking at a variety of books, making their own judgments on the interest and readability of the books, and finding books they were willing to seek out…(Allen, 2000, p. 103)

When I entered the library and brought my book pass with me, I made a few adaptations here and there.  These days, I set the activity up like a speed-dating experience.  We talk about how dating a book is like dating a person–you judge it by the outside, but have to remember to listen to what it has to say before you make up your mind about it.  I find that teens latch on to this idea of reading relationships. 

My book passes have also been organized by theme, topic, or genre–depending on the class and teacher’s needs.

While preparing for my first nonfiction speed-date activity, I had to ask myself, how do teens select nonfiction books?  Probably the same way most of us do–by topic.  So, I came up with 8 broad topics to create tables.  




Beating the Odds

Youth in Conflict



Real-Life Crime



Now, the nonfiction speed date was much more difficult for me to facilitate because the nonfiction section is the weakest part of my collection.  It was an eye-opening experience to see the gaps in selection.  And, due to limited availability, I had to break my own cardinal rule and NOT allow students to check out the books they previewed right then and there like I do with my fiction book passes.  We had wait lists dozens deep for books like The Blind Side and Steve Jobs.

Most students walked away with several books on their to-read lists and many options for their nonfiction reading assignment.

The next step was to begin to support their actual reading experiences so that they could share their books through book reviews.

In the next post, Real-World Readers Write Reviews, I’ll share a process that I use for any type of writing that allows students to deconstruct a mentor text-in this case a nonfiction book review.  Stay tuned!

School-Wide Wednesday: Found Poetry

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Tagxedo Word Cloud of My Found Poem

Today, for a special School-wide Wednesday post, I’d like to share a poem I wrote inspired by Jen over at  Last week, Jen shared a strategy she used in her class involving old issues of Upfront magazine, a nonfiction serial publication for teens spanning relevant news, issues, and current events and topics of interest to teens.  Her goal wasn’t for students to think about the main idea and supporting details and then write a five sentence summary of an informational article.  Her goal was for students to play with language and create a response to the test in the form of a poem.  

Found poems are deceptively simple:  they require that the reader glean words, phrases, and sentences from a text or multiple texts in order to compose a poem using the author’s language.  In my experience,  using found poems in response to literature, they allow students to let down their guard and throw away inhibitions about writing poetry.  Found poetry also allows students to gather and collect details that “stick with them” without having to worry about why.  

One of my favorite uses of the found poem in an English classroom is in response to difficult texts such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. After reading an excerpt from “Pearl,” I invited students to highlight adjectives and phrases that Hawthorne uses to describe Hester’s strange daughter.  Then, they went back to the text to glean the language that they felt was most important to create a poem using Hawthorne’s own words to represent Pearl.  

We shared our poems, talked about the patterns and dug deeper into the “so what” or “why” in regards to the author’s purpose and style.  Then, we moved into a formal analytical response.  Since we took the time to play with language and form creative responses, students were ready to think analytically.  

Levels of comprehension with found poetry:

1)  Literal –What’s the gist?”

2)  Interpretation– So what does this mean?

3)  Application–Now what do I understand about the author’s purpose or craft?

In content areas other than English, found poems are a quick, accessible tool to engage students in thinking about themes and topics found in expository and informational texts.  I decided to take an emerging text form, tweets, to create a found poem in response to last week’s Digital Learning Day #DLDay and the plethora of information I received at TCEA in Austin.  

Here was my process:

Step 1–Read my tweets and notes that I took on Digital Learning Day and during the conference.

Step 2–Pull out words, phrases, and quotes that “stick with me.”

Step 3–Draft a poem by rearranging phrases, creating repetitions, thinking about form, etc.

Step 4–Publish poem:

“I can’t create my future with tools from your past.”
Personalized learning
Collect Consume Create Communicate Collaborate
Student-centered, relevant
Podcast, publish
Digital advance team
New tech adapters
Problem-solving, inquiry
Envision, re-vision
Student-student collaboration
Tech risk-taker
Student-teacher collaboration
Teacher-teacher collaboration
Envision, re-vision
Application of innovation, not acquisition
Culture of collaboration
Pedagological shift leads to real transformation
Collect Consume Create Communicate Collaborate
Tipping point
“It’s not you teaching the children; it’s the children teaching you and one another.”
If I can create a found poem out of Twitter-text and tweets, then it can be done in response to ANY text in ANY content area.  

What are your thoughts?  How could students use a found poem in your content area?  What types of texts could they respond to?  

Module 12: Hole in My Life

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Jack Gantos loves books and loves writing, but as a mischievous, dreamy-eyed teenager, his determination and drive to get to college to study writing take him down a dangerous and criminal path;  he agrees to help to smuggle a boat-load of drugs to Manhattan from the Virgin Islands.  As a result, he serves his sentence in a federal prison, chronicling his days in a copy of Karamazov.

APA Reference:
Gantos, J. (2002).  Hole in my life.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Girous.


It is a memoir about the author’s decisions that led to him being incarcerated in a federal prison at the age of nineteen for smuggling drugs from St. Croix to Manhattan. Gantos was received the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book awards for this title. 

In the opening and the final chapters, Gantos takes the reader into his experience in a federal prison. He does not shield or protect teen readers from its realities (violence, rape, depression, drug use, etc.), but he doesn’t provide gratuitous and graphic details in excess either. The moments and scenes where he does get graphic are balanced with a sensitivity and profound revelation or reflection on the part of the author, making the overall message of the book that much more effective. 

In his first chapter he writes, “Ironically, in spite of all the fear and remorse and self-loathing, being locked up in a prison is where I fully realized I had to change my life for the better, and in one significant way I did” (p. 7). Had he not slowed down and taken us into his world during these pivotal scenes, this message would not be as resounding.

In places the memoir reads like a travelogue, chronicling his days at sea with the cantankerous former British sailor, Hamilton.  Gantos also honestly conveys his feelings of limbo, being neither here nor there.  As a whole, the memoir is a compelling and sometimes cautionary coming-of-age story, warning of the impetuousness of youth and will appeal to a broad reader base of teens.  

Professional Review:

Focus On: High School

Hole in My Life.
Farrar. 2002.
Gr 9 Up– The autobiographical account of the author’s search for his magical muse is thwarted by a get-rich-quick scheme of pirating a ship of pot up the coast. Gantos takes his consequence in the dregs of prison and reinvents a plan to spring free his intellectual aspirations. This candid, vivid, and illuminating page-turner emphasizes the salvation of journaling while showing how smart choices can right wrongs. Audio version available from Listening Library.
Compiled By Alison Follos

Follos, A. (2004). Hole in My Life (Book) (Review of the book Hole in my life). School Library Journal50(11), 67.

Library Uses:

Hole in My Life would make an excellent selection for a book club for boys.  Gantos’ style, humor, and realism might appeal to reluctant teenage boys, especially those with difficult pasts.  

Jack Gantos talks about how his life moving from place to place helped to shape the person and writer he is today. 

Module 11: How They Croaked

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King Tut, George Washington, Cleopatra, Marie Curie–what do all of these great historical figures have in common?  They all croaked, kicked the bucket, met their maker…they died.  Not only did they die, but they died in some of the most strange, gruesome, and mysterious ways.  This collection of biographies of the famous chronicles the lives of its subjects–often debunking or proving myths–and provides a scientific analysis of each of their deaths.  

APA Reference:

Bragg, G (2011). How they croaked. New York, NY:  Scholastic.

This title details the gruesome deaths of several famous figures including Queen Elizabeth, Pocahontas, Napoleon, Einstein, and many more. This title is a social science/ biography nonfiction book presented in chapters, one for each figure. The margins are wide and text is often accompanied with black and white drawings and figures that correlate with the subject matter. 

Other than just being very informative,
How They Croaked is a riot! The writing style incorporates colloquialisms and humor while providing the details and sometimes hilarious facts surrounding each death (King Henry VIII’s body exploded in his tomb because of the amount of infection and gasses that had built up in the layers of fat!)

At the end of each chapter the author provides little tid-bits and related facts such as all the different things that were named after Caesar (calendar, cesarean section, czar, Kaiser, etc.)

As an example of an excellent informational text,
How They Croaked engages students through it’s relatable language, humorous tone, and related sketches. The brief chapters make for excellent read-alouds for students of all ages. Even our HOSA (Health Science Occupations) teacher came in and bought one for her class because of the direct tie-in with her curriculum.

Professional Review:

The Book Review

BRAGG, Georgia. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. illus. by Kevin O’Malley. 178p. charts. bibliog. further reading. index. Web sites. CIP. Walker. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-8027-9817-6; RTE $18.89. ISBN 978-0-8027-9818-3. LC 2010008659.
Gr 5-9–King Tut died of malaria; Edgar Allan Poe is suspected to have had rabies. Beethoven and Galileo both met their ends due to lead poisoning. Fifteen other historical figures, including world leaders, writers, and scientists, were felled by things as mundane as pneumonia and as unpredictable as angry mobs. Each entry provides the circumstances of the person’s death and gives context to those circumstances, from discussions of the political climate to medical practices of the time. Chapters are separated by a spread of brief facts related to the individual, the demise, or the era. Lively, full-page caricatures set in decorative frames appear throughout, along with spot illustrations. Back matter includes a lengthy list of sources. The sometimes-snarky writing gives the material a casual, conversational tone that will appeal to many readers. The title alone provides an easy booktalk; expect this one to be passed around and pored over.
By Brandy Danner, Wilmington Memorial Library, MA

Danner, B. (2011). How they croaked: the awful ends of the awfully famous [Review of the book How they croaked:  the awful ends of the awfully famous].School Library Journal57(4), 189-190.

Library Uses:
This book would be a very entertaining opening title for a book talk featuring biographies for young adults.  A trailer could cleverly preview a few of the famous and their deaths.