Too often in class we read a book to get to the end. Would you ever do that with reading you enjoy? No way! Rather than reading just to get to the end and take a test, bring reading alive for your students. I try to invigorate the experience by finding places to add in art projects, or work across the curriculum and tie fiction and nonfiction together. Possibly my favorite book to teach all year is The Whipping Boy. You might not tackle this novel in your room, but maybe the ways we enjoy reading will inspire you to break out of the read-test-read-test pattern with your next story.
Setting the stage is important. The afternoon before we start our reading, I decorate the outside of my room as a giant castle. I include signs that will have meaning once we read the book and other details, like little rats around the bulletin board. Students are interested the moment they walk in, and they feel as though something special is about to happen. And it is: reading!
Accessing prior knowledge is always a good place to start in reading, but what if your students have little or no information on the topic? My inner-city students have a hard time understanding the 1960s, much less the medieval period. To bring them up to speed, I created a whiteboard file with many pictures and information about the time period.
Then we read the Magic Tree House nonfiction companion Knights and Castles. These information texts are great for getting students to read nonfiction with a higher reading level than the standard Tree House books, but also for giving them a sense of security with familiar characters. Words are clearly explained and Jack and Annie appear throughout to add notes and interesting facts.
Students make Cornell Notes throughout the text while we practice summarization skills. We also examine the table of contents and index. Students are challenged to locate terms using the index or determine what chapter would have certain topics. We use secondary skill pages to support the learning, and complete a quiz using a copy of parts from the actual book. A reading selection is tested using comprehension questions.
The Whipping Boy is not a long read, but the vocabulary makes it difficult. To prepare students and stick with the medieval theme, we create vocabulary shields. The idea came from Crayola’s Dream Maker vocabulary webs, but I use a giant shield for the shape. I trace one onto butcher paper for each student and add dividing lines. Then students find synonyms for each of the vocabulary words we are studying. Students fill in the vocabulary word and place synonyms in the concentric circles towards the center. Then they add illustrations and color, giving us a wall of vocabulary. We do take a vocabulary test, but they are ecstatic to show off their learning!
Common core dictates that reading and writing be intertwined. While working on expository writing, we combine some of our medieval knowledge to make personality shields and write about them. Students draw or cut out images to show important information about their hobbies, family, travels, and aspirations. They can either use their name or a personal motto on the shield. Then students create an expository writing explaining why they made the choices on their shield and what each item means. The result is a very personal writing that still shows their expository writing skills and ties to reading. A winning combination! My mom’s middle school class does a similar lesson with Freak the Mighty, and we share writings between the classes.
Celebrate, Medieval Style!
Once we finish the novel — and we do take a written test — we have a Whipping Boy Day. Students look forward to this celebration of their reading and this chance to tie all of their work together. The walls are lined with their vocabulary and personality shields. I’ve put together a collection of new and old lord and lady costumes from tag sales, church basements, and the dollar store. I help students dress, and they get to wear their costumes to lunch, which is a special treat.
It takes a little bit of money, I’ll admit, but I create a mini-feast for my students with foods from the book and food that would be typical in the medieval period. Students get goblets and all the foods are eaten with foods. Forks weren’t invented yet! I have one VCR copy of The Whipping Boy movie I found secondhand that we watch. Spoiler alert: It is nothing like the book! Students have fun comparing and contrasting the movie and the book, and we talk about why the director might have made different choices.
Having a themed unit takes time and even money. When my students look back at school, they won’t remember the tests, class rules, or what they did in PE. What they will remember is that cool book they read and all the fun activities that brought it to life. Whether you give The Whipping Boy a try, create smaller-scale activities, or do something totally new and different, give reading engagement a twist.
What special book activities have been successful for you?