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Battle of the Books: How 25 Books Can Help Shape Students

Julie Scullen
 | Feb 21, 2020

Each year, our district middle schools participate in the Battle of the Books. If you are unfamiliar with the Battle of the Books, it is a massive book trivia contest in which participants battle in teams of three to answer questions about a list of 25 books everyone has read. It’s a shared reading experience of epic proportions. About 10 years ago, we started Battle of the Books merely to get kids reading and talking about books they might not normally choose. In hindsight, we recognize these battles have impacted our students far beyond that initial goal. The following are four areas in which these battles of the books have had an impact on our students far beyond our initial goal.

  1. Exposure. We select our books for our yearly list with an eye toward ”something for everyone.” Our list starts with the Minnesota Maud Hart Lovelace Award nominees to ensure books are available and likely to have been read by many other educators. This list always offers a wide variety of genres and styles of writing. To that list, we choose a few books that represent the first in a series (hoping to get kids hooked), a few graphic novels, a couple of sports books, and a nonfiction title or two. Every year, we add at least one book to the list our students’ parents were likely to have read in middle school, hoping to spark nostalgia and conversation at home. We seek out books representing multiple perspectives to ensure all students both see themselves and gain insight into the experience of others. Finally, we ensure that our list has books representing a range of difficulty so that everyone can participate and be challenged.
  2. Teamwork. In their teams of three, students attend monthly strategy meetings. They talk about the books and recommend ones they have read to others. Although most teams start by splitting the number of books to be read evenly, students learn to accommodate and shift responsibility for particular titles as life happens over those six months. Students learn to accept and honor the reading styles and preferences of their teammates. Those who participate for multiple years recognize the value of having more than one team member read each book. The teams come up with their own team names each year; names that represent them. One of the most memorable teams named themselves “My Favorite Students of All Time,” so that each time I read them a question I had to say, “And the next question goes to My Favorite Students of All Time.”
  3. Background knowledge. We know that one of the best ways to become smarter is to read. Students participating read as many as 25 books between September and February. Not only does this make students better, stronger readers, but also it introduces them to topics and perspectives we just don’t always have time to teach deeply in our harried classrooms.
  4. Insight. An entirely unforeseen benefit of the Battle of the Books has been the impact on staff. Our teachers and media specialists write our Battle of the Books questions (we don't purchase them through outside sources), which means our teachers read from a wide variety of middle grade literature each and every year. This enhances staff’s ability to recommend books to their students and allows them to say the most incredible thing to students: “When I read this, I thought of you.”. Our conversations about books are richer. Conferring with readers becomes more targeted. Inspired by this reading, several of our teachers have become Maud Hart Lovelace readers.

Before the final battle for the district trophy every February, I provide students and families with a reminder of what reading does for them: The books we read help shape who we are

Prior to last year’s battle, I read aloud the following list to students, staff, and families: 

“Readers, this year in your wide reading for this battle, you learned:

  • What it’s like to be on a relay team in track
  • What it feels like to live in a theme park as well as all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep animals safe and happy
  • What obsessive compulsive disorder feels like
  • What it feels like to have cerebral palsy, and how you’d like people to treat you if you have it
  • The ins and outs of our legal system
  • That butterflies drink their own pee
  • That it’s never too late to change
  • How to teach dragons to fly
  • How to deal with the death of a friend
  • How to dissect an earthworm
  • What life was like in the Old South
  • The impact of mental illness on families
  • How the culture of India is both the same as and different from ours
  • What is involved in climbing Mount Everest
  • The backstory and history of famous artists and authors
  • The training and responsibilities of the Secret Service
  • What important works are found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • The problems faced and sacrifices one makes when forced into witness protection
  • What it’s like to be a major league baseball player
  • What war is like for those directly involved
  • What it’s like when someone in your family is a veteran
  • What it means to live and survive in refugee camps in Africa
  • The impact of heart transplants
  • What it would have been like to attend segregated schools

….and about 25 ways to deal with a bully.” 

This year’s list will have another long list of things our students learned without worksheets or quizzes, but simply enjoying books. Reading is about more than fluency, reading rates, and test scores. Reading shapes who we are and makes us better humans.

Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Judson University.

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