In the Classroom: The Shared Book Experience

I love leading my students in a shared experience with one book.  By “shared book experience” I mean when the whole class studies/reads/discusses/delves into and otherwise spends time with a single book together.  While I understand that there are teachers who make this a misery I think there are others of us who do not.  Done well, the shared book experience can be joyful, enjoyable, and even transcendent.

While I agree with the importance of choice for much of children’s school reading experience I think it shouldn’t be all of it.  Connecting around a single book can be a magical and a special classroom experience too.  Done well,  such group literary experiences can be grand.  So far this year my fourth graders have had shared experiences with Charlotte’s Web (which they each read on their own), Cosmic (read to them), and When You Reach Me (ditto).  Very soon we will be starting a study of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and toward the end of the year they will all read and explore The Wizard of Oz.  None of these shared experiences keep them from their own reading.  What they do is provide my students with another sort of reading experience — one where a group becomes connected and engaged in a special shared time with a book.

Recently the New York Times Learning Network asked teachers, “What Are Your Favorite and Least Favorite Books to Teach?”    The responses are fascinating.  Here are a few excerpts:

Nothing is more frightening than 9th graders jeering “4 legs good, 2 legs bad” over and over again. — Ms. K

Every single year that I teach British Literature and start with Beowulf, someone points out that “it is not even in English, Mrs. H!” And then it starts….and they fall under the spell of the story that has everything to do with what the Western world understands as a hero: They never tire of it, and I never tire of it. — healigan

Beowulf was just terrible to slog through. — Tim Howard Magyar

The Iliad is another great story to teach. I’m convinced that if a teacher loves a book, then it will probably be a good experience for the whole class. — Mrs. Law

Every year The Odyssey seems to be the book kids love and remember the most. As most comments have thus far noted, the books that go over best are the ones loved by the teachers, and The Odyssey is always my favorite. — Marc-Paul

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie has consistently reached students who don’t love reading. One girl said, “That’s the first book I’ve ever finished reading on my own.” (She’s in 9th grade) They connect with Junior, a boy who is not perfect and facing tough choices. It’s also a book I really love to read aloud because Junior’s funny. But reading aloud is also something I believe is important, even at the high school level. Reading is not an activity that should be relegated to parents and children; reading should be an activity we all share with each other to make characters come alive and connect with each other in a world that’s different from our day-to-day world. — Jessica Mills

If I’ve learned anything in teaching so far, it’s to get out of the book’s way. Some of the toughest books became some of the greatest hits with the kids once I let the book do the teaching and made it my job to help them get through the unfamiliar language or style.  — Brian Tippy

In a larger sense, though, I’m convinced that it is not the texts, but rather the strange intersection of student, classmate, teacher, and text that make a course truly transformative for a student. There is no magical “right” text; rather, each teacher and each new class bring with them different possibilities for that intersection. Certainly, some texts are more flexible than others, but there are so many wonderful and important texts out there that I think it behooves the teacher to try to make that intersection happen. — Matt

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “In the Classroom: The Shared Book Experience

  1. K. Lasley

    So glad to see Sherman Alexie’s book on your comment list! A friend and I are developing a list of books for students at our high school and it was at the top for the same reasons listed here.

  2. Kristin M.

    Thanks so much for sharing this link – it was interesting to read the different posts. I found it interesting that many of the posts focused on middle school and high school texts. It would be interesting to hear from more elementary level teachers.

  3. Do go to the Times site itself as there are many more comments from teachers, including elementary teachers. I just selected a handful that spoke to my thoughts on this issue.

  4. I can almost remember what I wore each day that my sixth grade teacher read LORNA DOONE to us…I so vividly recall the details of that wonderful experience. And I can still see the faces of my sixth graders when I read TOM SAWYER to them…they had not been read to by a teacher since first grade per school rules. I just decided to break the rules.

  5. The “shared book experience” is one that is too often missed by teachers who think that they are too busy to “fit it in.” With the ever looming national testing that is hanging, the “shared book experience” gets pushed to the side.

    As a student, I will never forget FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER being read to us. Mrs. Beattie read it each and every day and had us in the palm of her hands with Claudia and Jamie Kincaid.

    I, too, read this book aloud to my 4th graders and created that experience. One which we could all draw upon. Having that shared experience connects you with one another.

    Most recently, a former 4th grade student contacted me telling me she was going to be a teacher. She also shared that her favorite memory was me reading PEOPLE IN PINEAPPLE PLACE by Anne Lindbergh (Charles Lindbergh’s daughter). She wants to get her hands on it so that she can share it with her students. I may have to find it and send it to her.

    Thanks for sharing this link and reminding us of the importance of creating those shared experiences.

    • Erin

      Do you have any comprehension or study questions that you use with The People in Pineapple Place? If you do, I would be very interested. This books is on our Reading Competition list this year.

  6. Thanks for all the comments so far! I do want to say that one point I wanted to make was that such shared experiences can be both when a teacher reads a book aloud AND when a class reads a book, that is when indeed each child reads the same book. I think kids need to have both experiences.

    I am always reading aloud a book so that is a constant shared book experience in my class. But we also do books that the kids read on their own, say Charlotte’s Web or The Wizard of Oz. I think those are important shared experiences too. Not to be overdone at the expense of kids reading what they want to read, but now and then during the year a time when they all come together having read the same book is important, it seems to me.

  7. Kristin M.

    I’m so glad you’ve written about this Monica. I teach Children’s Literature in a teacher ed program and one of the main focuses of the course is to give the students (who are hoping to become teachers) the opportunity to have shared experiences themselves. We do five “common reads” over the semester and discuss them in small groups as well as a whole class. One of my hopes is that by giving my students that experience, that they will then see the value it can have in their classroom.

    I wonder what your students would say about the value of the shared experience. My undergraduates so often underestimate the power and potential of elementary aged students when it comes to response and interpretation.

    I’m planning on sharing the NYTimes post as well as this one when we meet this coming week.

    (another thought….I’m wondering if you or anyone reading this knows of any research that have been done surrounding the idea of shared experience – either with read alouds or otherwise – in elementary classrooms)

  8. Hi Kristin,

    I’m glad to know you are doing this. I think that because many have had unfortunate experiences with the one book reading experience that they tend to opt for more individualized reading programs. My impression is that there is support and research on the benefits of reading aloud. I have seen less recent work about the importance of whole class reading books together. There are many experts and educators I respect who tend to rail against this. I do understand how oppressive it can be when kids are marched in deadly fashion through a book (complete with vocabulary exercises, dull comprehension questions to answer, etc, etc), but that is just a poor way to do it. Shouldn’t mean it has no value at all.

    I completely agree with the importance of kids choosing their own reading material, but I think that they also benefit by these group reading experiences for so much. (Hmm…I think I need to do another post on this!)

  9. Variety is good. Choice is good (student choice, teacher choice). Shared experience is good (read aloud, read along, whole class book, literature circles, guided reading groups…).

    The art (and fun) of teaching is choosing from this palate to help students grow as readers.

    (and the books keep changing — except for the classics/favorites, and the kids keep changing, and the world keeps changing, and there’s never a dull moment!)

  10. hope

    Picking the right book is important. Most of shared reading experiences my kids have had have been morality plays like the Spinelli books. I’d rather that they’d read some of those on their own and that their shared books had been a more literary experience instead of values training.

  11. Pingback: In the Classroom: When You Reach Me « educating alice

  12. Ceci

    I am a third grade teacher and have found it hard to come up with a book that my students can all read on their own because they are at such different reading levels (some struggle through Magic Tree House and others fly through A Wrinkle in Time). I have much better success with read aloud sharing and each year I’m impressed by how Susan Cooper’s work entrances these kids. I read The Boggart each year and let them vote on one of her time travel adventures to hear, either King of Shadows or Victory. They love it and it introduces great vocabulary to them, as well as modeling detailed, interesting writing.

  13. Pingback: Ramona Is My Hero and The One Where I Ask You For Help « Teacher Goes Back to School

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