As a principal, I have coordinated a wide variety of events and activities at our school; some have been wildly successful, others have failed spectacularly. Our dunk tank festival to raise money for the Wounded Warriors Project, was a huge hit, with teachers getting in the tank to get soaked by their students. “Dance Party Recess” on the stage in the auditorium was just, as the kids would say, “meh”. I don’t follow horse racing much, but I know there’s something called a “sure thing”, a horse that you pretty much know is going to win a race. I believe that there is an activity that a school can coordinate that is a sure thing — The Booktalk!
Booktalk’s are a foolproof strategy for parent engagement and for learning. First of all, the meeting is about a BOOK. What is better than a book? How many meetings have you attended that were boring or in which the conversation wandered aimlessly across various tangents, some interesting, some not. Personally, I love a tangent — that’s my problem. There are a few things I enjoy more than a meeting about report card comments that morphs into a discussion about the seven greatest Yankees of all time. You think I’m kidding but I’m not, just ask any of the teachers who work here, and parents. When you have a booktalk, it brings a laser-like focus (I just wanted to write “laser-like”) to the issues in the book. And everyone present has a context in which to join the discussion. The magic of a book is the way everyone who reads it finds a way in which it relates to them – their story – their life – their emotions. This is what a booktalk brings out. This is why books are better than TV!
We hosted a book talk recently on the book, Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson. Parents were invited to come to school to join their children in a conversation about the book. This is the fourth year we have done this and each year it seems to get better. Our goal for the booktalk is twofold. First, we want to develop adolescent literacy, there are few goals more important than this. Secondly, we want to give adults a role in the school that is tied to both our academic mission and our efforts to build social emotional literacy. Here is a link to the questions we used for the booktalk. Adults and kids rotated in and out of small clusters of five people to talk about the questions. It was an extremely engaging event. It was especially gratifying to see adults and adolescents together having articulate discussions about what it means to deal with change and failure in their lives.
You need to select a good book, one that is relevant to the issues your stakeholders are grappling with. But remember, we’re talking about books, they’re everywhere and people keep writing them, about everything. It’s fantastic! When a student says to me, “I don’t really like to read”, I reply, “That’s like saying, I really don’t like to eat. I never eat. I don’t like food. Food is boring. There’s no food that I like.” Yes, there are some tricks to finding a book you like and that ignites your passions, but don’t tell me you don’t like to read. Our fantastic librarian, @PatMinikel can help you find a book that aligns with your interests. I guarantee you this.
When you have a booktalk, people who attend are committed to participating because, they read a book. If you devote the time to reading a book to prepare for the event, if it’s raining the day of the booktalk or if you woke up feeling sleepy, you’re going to come anyway because, YOU READ A BOOK! Besides that, Mr. Gately made some righteous quiche for breakfast (get it, Who Moved My CHEESE!?). There are few meetings or events that I facilitate that have this level of commitment, booktalk’s always do.
Another reason I love booktalk’s is that I love facilitating them. When you spend time developing the questions for a booktalk, you engage with the book on a level that you may or may not have when you originally read it. As I reread in order to develop questions, I find myself unpacking the complexities of the text. I also love collaborating with Pat Minikel, our librarian, and Dan Salzman, the curriculum associate for ELA. These two individuals are deeply committed to adolescent literacy and learning. Todd Benjamin, the high school social worker also worked with me to plan the structure for the talk. Todd has amazing insight into people and group dynamics, I am always grateful for his partnership. It is tremendously exciting to work with inspirational people like Pat, Dan and Todd!
The coolest part of the booktalk was at the end when we shared about the discussions that had taken place in groups. One of the parents commented that the most powerful lesson from the book was the aphorism that one of the little people writes on the wall about how to handle change:
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
We agreed that we should all have this displayed on a flyer that is attached to our front door so we will look on it every day when we leave the house in the morning. I know I’m going to use this the next time I have to handle something challenging. I will ask myself, what would you do if you weren’t afraid, and then I’m going to do THAT!