(This article originally appeared in Age of Awareness)
People are often surprised when I tell them that my college students aren’t reading books. Sometimes even my students are shocked to learn this fact on the first day. In composition courses, though, we do not always have time to read entire books in one semester. The focus is on writing: essay structure, research strategies, and documentation. Don’t worry; they read plenty of short essays and articles. (Note: my literature classes are a different story.)
Even though we don’t have time to read entire novels, I still bring books to class throughout the semester. I bring a whole bag of books. As it turns out, books can be used for more than just reading. The following three activities can be adapted to many disciplines without too much extra work.
Activity 1: Judging a book by its cover
For this activity, we focus only on the covers of the book, asking questions and making assumptions. I hand out a book to each student and ask students to take notes on the following before switching books with a partner:
What do you think about the title?
What genre do you think this book is and why?
What are your reactions to the cover art?
Based on the book cover alone, would you want to read the whole book?
Paired with Chip Kidd’s TED Talk, “The Art of First Impressions—In Design and Life,” the lesson always sparks discussion about our tastes and first impressions.
Activity 2: The hook
Since we spend a fair amount of time in class talking about attention-grabbers and introductions, it makes sense to read first pages with the same level of care that we spend on the front cover. In this activity, we read the first page(s) and consider the strategies authors used to hook the reader. After this class activity, there are always a few students who seek me out and tell me they want to buy/check out the books they were reading. Encouraging literacy isn’t the goal of the activity, but I certainly indulge in a mini-happy dance when students are excited about reading.
The books they seem the most interested to keep reading lately: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Educated by Tara Westover, and Circe by Madeline Miller. Non-fiction titles are often pretty popular, too.
The key is to bring a variety of genres. I make sure to have a mix of contemporary books, as well as classics, and I usually make a trip to the library before class where the librarians help me select titles.
Activity 3: Reverse research
This activity generally requires nonfiction books. I hand out books to each student (or sometimes one book per small group) and ask them to think about the research involved. How much do we think the author already knew about the topic before writing the book and what kind of research did they conduct to write a whole book about the topic?
We discuss subject, purpose, and audience, then get into a computer lab to see what kind of research we can find on that same topic. Learning more about the author is usually a part of our own personal research, depending on the book.
Books that work well for this activity:
In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, Jane Smiley says, “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” I couldn’t agree more. Watching my students hold books—actual books—in their hands is a joy. Bonus points when my joy coincides with their learning.