Do you take the time to teach your students about genres? Do they know what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy, or historical fiction from realistic? There was a time when I thought none of that mattered. After all, you don’t find mention of it anywhere in the Common Core standards or most state standards. And you definitely don’t see it on the state test. Despite all of that, it’s become one of my favorite things to teach. In fact, I set the tone for our entire year of Language Arts together when I teach genre the first week of school.
Three years ago I took a 6th grade position in a middle school setting as a Language Arts teacher. I’m not an English major, I’m a licensed elementary teacher. So I felt a little intimidated, not going to lie. I was trying to soak it all in during department meetings because the conversations were no longer dominated by talk about decoding, fluency, and comprehension strategies. Now the conversations were about great pieces of literature and powerful writing. They were about analytical thinking, symbolism, and depth of thought.
I LOVED it!
It ignited the inner-bookworm in me and I began to see myself, once again, as a reader. I read the books my students were reading. We made trips to the library every couple of weeks and I would talk books with the librarian and the kids. Soon enough, I began to make connections with kids based on what we were reading.
Literature dominated our discussions!
That was only the start, for what really moved me as an educator was attending a conference with Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. It was shortly after they published 180 Days, and I bought their book after listening to them speak. I could write another blog series entirely on how much I love that book and how well it worked in my classroom, but alas… I’ll focus on one piece.
Book talks are short introductions, like 2-5 minutes, to a book. When I heard Kelly Gallagher & Penny talk about their book talks and how powerful they were, I knew I had to find out more. I read their book and watched several videos of Penny & Kelly modeling book talks. I met with my librarian and we curated a list of books with which we could start. And in mid-February, I changed up my classroom routines entirely. Sounds totally sane, right?
I began starting each class period with a book talk and independent reading time. My kids were enthralled with the books I was featuring during book talks! They would fight over who got to check out the book first, and they would wait impatiently until it was their turn.
How Does This Connect to Genres?
I began noticing trends in my classes. Certain kids were hooked when I read a particularly chilling part of a thriller. Others were psyched after the first chapter of a sci-fi. Many of these same kids were book-abandoners. You know the ones. Each time we’d go to the library, they were returning their unfinished book and checking out a new book pulled randomly from a shelf.
So what did I do? I started tailoring my book talks. I’d hit the thriller junkies on Monday, the sci-fi geeks on Tuesday, the realistic fiction fan club on Wednesday, the adventure-seekers on Thursday, and the fantasy fanatics on Friday. I started using genre terminology when introducing books – and reminding kids where they could find these books, and similar ones, in our library. And the most beautiful part – kids started gravitating toward these sections on checkout day. They were finally building their identities as a reader!
An Idea Was Born
As we finished out the year, I saw so much more growth in my students as readers than I had in any of the previous years. We were regularly chatting about books and other things. Students were reaching out to me via email in the late hours of the night after they’d just finished the best. book. ever. and couldn’t believe how it ended. They were emailing me during the summer asking for more recommendations – and giving me some, too!
I knew that the following year, we needed to start the year as readers.
So when we went back to school that fall, we sped through the initial first few days of school and then jumped straight into books. We learned the genres. We identified and sorted. We compared and we chatted. We built lists of books we wanted to read. And after the first week of school, my kids knew the classroom library and school library like the back of their hands.
Teaching genre the first week of school helped set the stage for a classroom of readers.
After the first week of school, we talk about genres all year long. We talk about them daily in our book talks. We talk about them when we talk about our identities as a reader, and we also talk about them when we’re finding our writing niche.
Next week, I’ll share some of my favorite ways to teach genre.