This should be the post where I tell you about Troy High, an intriguing and inventive novel which sets the Trojan War in a modern American high school. But I can't. I haven't read it.
In fact, I haven't even seen Troy High since a student purchased it for our classroom at a Scholastic book fair three weeks ago. Claudia borrowed it and then gave it to Emily, who passed it on to the other Claudia, who will then pass it on to Kiersten. But Angelica promised to bring in her copy for her other classmates to borrow, so there's a chance I might get to read it sometime before June. That is, unless, it begins to circulate among the other two sections of my sixth grade classes. Shana Norris, consider your book a big hit with middle schoolers!
And it's not just a girl thing, either. The boys have been swapping graphic novels like crazy, especially with the upcoming visit of Amulet author Kazu Kibuishi to our school.
The point is, word of mouth "sells" books, especially among middle and high school students. If peer recommendations are such powerful motivators, then we as teachers should take advantage of them, especially if they'll encourage our students to read.
Student Book Review Sites
Below I've described some sites where students can read book reviews by kids their age, and submit theirs as well.
Scholastic's Share What You're Reading site not only provides students with opportunities to read and write reviews, but also features How to Write a Book Review with Rodman Philbrick. Book reviews are separated by genre (classics, nonfiction, myths, fantasy and science fiction, etc.) and also grade level (K-12). Please note, however, that Scholastic quite clearly notes on their submission form that due to the large number of submissions they receive, they cannot publish all reviews.
Spaghetti Book Club has been around for years, and continues to boast a huge collection of student written reviews, alphabetized by title. Students can also locate books by author's name, which they can do, of course, just as easily on Amazon or any online library catalog, but this site then offers other students' perspectives on books by that author. If you choose to participate as a class, you can group your students' reviews together (see a random class), which provides easy reference for students and parents. Please note, however, that Spaghetti Book Club, unlike Share What You're Reading, is a for-pay site which works with schools, providing a curriculum which leads to the publishing of student reviews.
And that's it. I'm stopping there. The fact is, I spent hours checking out sites featuring book reviews by students, and all have at least one constraint that will keep all of your students from sharing reviews.
So let me now share the best option: Create Your Own Book Review Site.
Don't let that idea scare you off. You could easily use a blog, wiki, or a student-oriented social media site to publish student reviews.
Advantages: these sites are free, these sites are as public or as private as you choose, you control the format and content, and all students get their reviews posted.
Disadvantages: Just a little bit more work for you.
I'm a big fan of PBWorks, a wiki provider. My sixty-five Reading/LA students store much of their digital work in a single class wiki which we call our WikiWorkspace. This allows students to easily access their own work from one location, and read and comment upon their classmates' work as well. Visitors can read what's posted, but are prevented from commenting or editing. So far we've got over one thousand pages and images stored there (including Prezis and videos), and yet we've used just this much of our allotted free space:
On a separate wiki called Monsters Inked, we posted stories in which we collaborated with second graders. Both of these examples illustrate the simplicity of the site. Classroom accounts are free, student accounts are password protected, and the teacher sees all. The site allows embedding of many digital formats, so book reviews need not be static, text-only affairs. Students could easily choose to create book reviews in Photo Story or video format, both of which can be embedded here. (For Photo Story inspiration, check out Mark Geary's article on that topic).
Wikispaces is another wiki provider which I've used in collaboration with other educators, but never in my own classroom. This sample review page shows how a template might be created for a book review which incorporates multimedia.
The following video shows you the collaborative nature of any wiki, regardless of the provider.
Let it be known, my class hasn't created book reviews. Yet. But like reading Troy High, it's something on my To Do List, and something I think I'll enjoy. (Shana Norris, if you're reading this, my students request that you please write a follow-up soon!).
What are your experiences with creating student book reviews? What application or program would you recommend? How are completed projects shared with peers? And most importantly, what else are you doing in and out of your classroom to take advantage of the power of word of mouth to get students reading?