Book Tasting during Assessment Week

Last week marked the second iteration of Assessment Week in all of our Secondary Schools. Back in October, our principals and vice principals, along with the department heads from English, Social Studies, Math, Science and Modern Languages at each school came  together to propose that we build into the semester-end schedules a five-day assessment week. Rather than year-end attendance and instruction limited to exam participation, our Assessment Week proposal would allow for innovative instructional and assessment practices for all students beyond what had been scheduled in the past.  The proposed schedule would accommodate innovation that reflects the priorities of the new curriculum and give students a chance to show what they know in new and authentic ways.

Our five days of Assessment Week is split evenly between Extended Learning Opportunities (mornings) and Assessments (afternoons).  Schools have the flexibility to organize their days in a way that suits their unique needs.  The consistent feature is a balance between these two types of instructional time.  The following video provides the why and captures the sentiment of and spirit of our initiative.

Becky Toews (left) with Vice Principal, Jaimie Webster

Now, as I traveled from school to school last week, popping into classrooms and observing various extended learning opportunities, I came across Becky Toews at Abbotsford Traditional Secondary School. I was quite taken by the Book Tasting she had set up for her students. I asked her if she would like to “uncork” her thinking and present it within my blog … she graciously accepted my offer. So, sit back, enjoy the bouquet, and let Becky serve as our literary sommelier.

Book Tasting: What Do You Fancy?

Each year we ask our students who have signed up for a Pre-AP or AP English course to complete a summer reading assignment. In the past, getting this information to these students, two thirds of whom I have not met before, has presented itself as a logistical challenge. As the sun comes out (a little late this year), and the end of the year draws near, students tend to tune out announcements and are reticent to think about much past their exams. I needed a way to get all the students who have signed up for these courses together to explain the summer assignment to them and present them with their book choices. I found my answer in an activity that I had done earlier on in the year with my current AP12 students: an activity that I pillaged from Pinterest.

This semester for three ELO sessions, I offered “Book Tastings” for these would be Pre-AP and AP English students. The purpose of these sessions was two-fold. Firstly, it allowed me to have the students together in one group to which I could explain the summer reading assignment. Secondly, it gave each student the opportunity to see, touch and explore each novel. In previous years, students were merely presented with a list of novels that they had to choose from. A lot of our students had not heard of the novels before, and so the choice was made blindly. It was my hope that the ELO sessions would offer an engaging and interactive introduction to the titles.

As each student entered my room, they were greeted by a seating chart which had five tables each named after their respective book. They found their name on the chart and proceeded to the corresponding table. Once seated, students found on their tables the novel, a “menu” with a synopsis of the novel as well as pamphlets that each student would fill in and take to each table. Students were encouraged to break the rules and judge the book by its cover. Then one student at each table was charged with reading the synopsis out loud while another charged with reading the first page of the novel to the group.

After some group discussion about their first impression of the novel, students filled in a section of the pamphlet writing down their thoughts about the novel and giving it a rating out of five. After a period of time, students were asked to move on to the next table and next meet their next novel. A highlight was when our book loving VP walked into the room, picked up Wuthering Heights and sighed. Students then got to see her and myself “battle it out” about why she was Team Heathcliff and I was not. Not only is it powerful for students to engage with books, but there is also power in seeing a love of literature modeled. It was a completely unplanned and dorky teachable moment.

As an English teacher, it was thrilling to see students leaf through the pages of novels and engage in discussion with their peers. I am coming to realize, sadly, that many of my students live in homes without books. Imagine – no books! Any time I can get a book into their hands feels like a win. To most students, summer reading is a chore (also something I can’t imagine), but over the past few days, I have seen students with excitement in their eyes as they discovered the worlds that could be opened to them this summer.