“And that’s our ‘Read for 15.’ Find a good place to stop and mark your page with a sticky. Make any notes you need to help you pick it up at home,” I say in a low voice, hesitating to interrupt their reading because it’s just so beautiful.
Thirty-one seventh graders, eight days into the school year, are well into their first book (some starting their second). A few students reach for their Chromebooks to write a response in their personal reading journal (Google form). They already know the routine well, but today is tech-free Friday, and we are going to talk about our books rather than write. I want to get students connecting to characters, thinking about characterization, practicing text evidence, and, above all, thinking through talk. While students were reading, I met with one boy who seems to know everyone well — really social (wink) — and asked him to track our conversation by marking who talks, who says “for example,” and who builds on other people’s comments. I hand him my notebook.
“No Chromebooks today,” I say. “Fridays are going to be tech-free. You know, I don’t always make notes in my books as I read or mark my progress on Goodreads. Sometimes I want to talk about my book, and sometimes, when I am reading at night, I just want to close my eyes. Today, I’d like to try a whole group discussion about our books. I have a question that, I think, applies to all of our books. When you respond, try to connect to what the person before you said — like Similar to what Julie said or I think my main character is like Joe’s– and, like we practice with our written reading responses this week, try to give an example that supports your claim. Here’s the question: Would you want to be friends with your main character?
“I am reading And We’re Off, and even though the main character is an artist and is traveling through Europe, I am not sure I want to be friends with her, Nora. She is insolent to her mother who wants to be a part of the adventure, and she is keeping a secret from her best friend. For example, Nora knows something about the boy her friend is dating, that her friend MUST know, but she is more concerned about herself than her friend’s well-being; I am not going to tell you in case you read the book. Okay, who wants to start? Tell us your book, your main character, then respond to the question.”
“I do,” says Maria. “I am reading This is Where it Ends. Tomas is really brave. In the middle of the school shooting, for example, he makes sure his classmates are safely out of the way before getting himself out of the auditorium. I’d like to friends with him.”
“And it sounds like he is selfless — thinking of others. We get to know our characters because of what they do or don’t do in certain situations, and clearly, this situation shows Tomas’ selfless and brave nature,” I say.
“Yeah, and to build off what Maria is saying, my character is also brave,” says Paul, “but I am not sure I’d want to be friends with him. I am reading Miles Morales, and I don’t think I’d want to be friends with Miles because he gets into trouble at school in part because his teacher is a racist, and he has family members with a history of crime. I think it would difficult to know how to be a good friend to Miles.”
“But Miles is Spiderman, and he can do cool stuff like in that scene where he dunked the basketball and went into camo-mode,” I say, and Paul nods. “Authors work hard to create complex characters. Miles’s back story does complicate his life at school in part because of his Spiderman secret, but Jason Reynolds, the author, also wants to you know how people treat and react to Miles — like the scenes with his teacher. As you read on, you’ll see that relationship is even more complex than you know at this point — you’re around page 150, right?”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll try to get to that part this weekend,” Paul says.
“Similar to Paul,” Katrina says, “I am not sure I want to be friends with my characters. I am reading Paper Towns. Margo and Quentin sneak off in the middle of the night and do pranks. I would not want to get into trouble, but some of the pranks are deserved, and I like how Margo stands up for herself, but I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.”
“Yeah, I hear you. By what Margo does, and how cleverly, we learn a lot about her. Authors help us get to know our characters by their backstory, their reactions, their actions, and how other people behave around them — just like how we are, well us, by our back story, reactions, actions, and stuff,” I say.
“Yes, Bruce?” The bell is about to ring, so I am wrapping up our discussion, but Bruce wants to jump in. ” Um, I think I want to read some of these books, Did you just get us to do book talks?”
“And use text evidence and connect to the characters in our books and think about how authors create complex characters and have a literary discussion? Yes,” I say. “All without a test, worksheet, slideshow, or grades. Mostly, I just wanted to talk about books though.”
“That was cool.”
(All names pseudonyms.)