We are asked this question frequently, and it came up at a recent workshop during a break. I had read a passage from Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell, and the teacher wanted to know the exact page number of the part I had shared. Generally, I don’t like to answer a question with a question, but I asked, “Is this a favorite book of yours, too?” She told me this was the first time she had heard of the book, but she wanted to get it and share the same passage with her class. What I told her next is, for me, at the heart of answering the bigger question, How do you choose books for use in your writing classroom? I gave her the page numbers (something I don’t always do) but urged her to read the whole book first to find out if she loves it as much as I do, and to find out what exactly she loves about it. (There’s a lot more to the book than the few pages I read.)
So, that’s my big selection criteria—I have to love the book, and I will only know if I do after having read it. I need to experience the book as a reader first, to discover how I might be able to use it as a writing teacher with my students. As I am reading a book, my good friends—the six traits—are right there with me helping me interact with each word, sentence, picture, character, and event. When I am offered a particularly vivid description that creates a strong image in my mind, Ideas and Word Choice are at the alert, taking notice and making notes for later because the writer has shown me how important this image is. When I find myself immersed as a reader in the rhythm of well-crafted sentences, varying in length and structure, Sentence Fluency is my dance partner leading me along. This is often true for each of the traits, including Conventions, where the writer’s skill, control, and confidence provide me with total access to the book’s big idea.
Whether it’s all of the traits as a package or just one or two that individually stand out as real strengths, what I love about the book is something I will want to share with my student writers. That sharing may be as simple as reading the book aloud—all or part—intentionally and purposefully guiding my students to an understanding of what the writer has done to connect to us as readers, to help them become aware of what they can do as writers for their audiences. Many times the books I love will suggest a practice—imitation, extension, exploration—that I can lead my students through as part of the overall writing instruction I plan for my students.
I shared the passage from Sahara Special in my workshop because I love the book and it is such a strong example of how vivid, sensory-filled description engages readers both visually and emotionally. That can help them understand the trait of Voice! That was part of my instructional plan for the workshop, not just something to fill time.
Using and integrating literature into your writing classroom is not about looking for and choosing books because they might lead to writing activities; that’s too limiting and even shortsighted. It’s about sharing your love for books and writing to help your students become better writers.
(So how about sharing a book that you love? How have you used the book in your classroom? Come on! We share, you share. :))