Hey guys! I know this maybe sounds a little too teacher-y for some of you, but I promise this is going to be less about how I teach and more about what my students think of the novels they chose.
See, when we do our Holocaust novels, they have options. We have over a dozen books for them to choose from (though I limited my classroom to 12, for simplicity and to keep from overwhelming them). As most of us know, when we can pick our books, we’re more engaged.
Most of my kids are not “readers” like you or me. At roughly 14 years old, most of them have read less than 20 books in their entire lives. (This still hurts me.) Some brag about never having finished a book.
Knowing all of this, I try to spice up my Holocaust novels, which are already high-interest just due to the content.
The Choosing Process
In order to choose their books, I have a PowerPoint with the book jacket synopsis on the screen along with the cover and the number of pages in the book. (That matters to them a lot.) I talk through what the book is about as well as what I thought of the book when I read it, since I’ve read all of them at some point.
This year, they wrote down their top 3 choices on an index card and gave it back to me so I could get them one of those books. Most of the time, I was able to go with the first choice, though I sometimes had to go all the way down to the 3rd choice due to availability of certain novels.
Immediately, even before handing the books out, I had some students who have rarely ever talked to me coming up to ask me if I was able to give them their first choice or not.
After handing the books out, I gave students multiple class days to just read, knowing that a number of them wouldn’t read outside of class. Besides, reading in class meant I could answer any questions they had. And some kids weren’t happy with their choices and wanted to change to something else, especially after hearing some of their friends rave about certain books.
I’m not kidding, you guys, my classroom is usually so quiet you can hear a pin drop. They’re excited to read. I’ve been sprinkling in “history days” to talk about stuff related to their stories (background on Auschwitz, how Hitler rose to power, etc.) and they clearly want me to stop talking so they can read. It’s actually really funny for me.
But they are so engaged. When I did my latest history day, they were making connections back to their novels. Some are coming back to me to read a second or third novel from my collection because they’re so interested. Even more amazing, they aren’t losing their books as often. Normally I’m constantly finding forgotten novels all over the school, but this isn’t the case this time.
So What Do They Like?
On a recent homework assignment, I asked students to tell me if they liked their book or not and to be honest–they weren’t going to hurt my feelings. I use this for research, but I think it’s worth pointing out to you guys which books are favored.
- Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman–TONS of kids wanted to read this book because Hitler is a character in the book and they enjoy mysteries. I only had 3 copies, but those that are reading it seem to be enjoying it. One girl really got into it but the other two seem a bit more ambivalent.
- The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne–this was another that tons of kids wanted because, again, Hitler is a character. I liked this book, but the kids reading it don’t seem overly impressed. They think the beginning is slow, which is true. But it’s hurting their enjoyment.
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne–I hate this book, but most of the kids reading this one seem to like it fine. They mostly know the movie, so it’s sort of a comparison situation, but they also like Bruno’s friendship with Smuel. They are struggling to understand some of Bruno’s mishearings, though.
- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys–while not the Holocaust, it’s similar enough we group it with this. And this one is a big hit. I have boys and girls reading this and they all love it. It’s different and interesting and suspenseful. I’ve had multiple girls asking if there’s a sequel. I was delighted to tell them about Salt to the Sea. One girl LIT UP.
- Night by Elie Wiesel–one of three nonfiction options, this is a big hit because it’s the shortest book. Reviews are mixed. Some kids love it because it doesn’t sugarcoat history and it feels real to them. Others find it too horrifying or just really slow and aimless.
- Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse–this is my first year offering this one, but the girls reading it seem to be enjoying it. They like the mystery and the danger of it.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak–a favorite of mine, I was really excited for some of my devoted readers to read this. Most of them really enjoyed this. They’ve commented about how well they remember it, despite finishing it over a week ago in some cases. Only one boy thinks this story is really slow and he can’t get into it.
- Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott–this story in verse is a HUGE HIT with the girls who chose it. They got really into the story and they talked about how they aren’t normally readers but this was great. One specifically talked about how happy she was to have chosen this one.
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen–this time travel story is hit and miss. No one seems to all-out hate it, but no one seems to be absolutely loving it either. Some are enjoying how she knows what their futures hold, but some are bored by the slow start. Still, they all seem to be interested in the plot.
- Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz–Most of my students are familiar with Alan Gratz, so some chose this because they liked his other books. Most reading this are very into the action and seeing how Yanek survives 10 concentration camps.
- I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson–this nonfiction book maybe isn’t a favorite with the few reading it, but a couple have mentioned that they learned a lot from it. A lot of these kids like seeing a nonfiction story on this topic, so it worked for them.
(Some of you may have noticed there are only 11 books here. That’s because no one chose the 12th option.)
I have two boys in my classes who are competing to read all twelve books in 2 weeks. (I lovingly refer to them as dorks because…well, that’s what they are in this moment.) They have created a Google spreadsheet in order to track their progress and constantly see which of them is in the lead. One boy has a slight edge at the moment because he was able to get a book from me after school once. Almost every day, they come up to me wanting to borrow one or two books to try to outdo the other one. A few books, they have to get from the library.
But this is ridiculously funny to me. They come up to me at least once a day and tell me that they finished another book. They also let me have access to their spreadsheet so I can see their progress. Their competitive spirit is fierce. And they both are actually reading the books–one boy had to assure me today that he wasn’t skimming the books, that he actually absorbed the information.
This unit is so much fun for me, seeing this kind of engagement. Students frequently tell me they aren’t readers but they couldn’t put their book down. It makes my heart happy to hear things like this.