Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Reports, 1982

Remember book reports?  The old-fashioned kind teachers used to require students do?  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Morris, who was seasoned and weary, followed this formula:  

  • ·      Tell the students they will need to choose a book to give a report.  (45 seconds)
  • ·      Take them to the school library.  Stand and chit-chat with the librarian.  (34 minutes)
  • ·      Sit at your desk and read Ladies’ Home Journal while students read.  (5 days.  At least.)
  • ·      Give them the weekend to write the report.  Don’t actually explain how; just tell them to do it.  (12 seconds)
  • ·      Have the students give their book reports in front of the class, one after one after one...  (6 days)

I asked my older sister how to write a book report.  She was in seventh grade, so she knew everything.  “Oh my gaaaaaawwd,” she rolled her eyes and dipped her graham cracker into a glass of milk.  “Please don’t just stand up there and say what happened in the book.  Please.  It’s so boring.  All the other kids just want to put their head down and sleep.  So don’t. do. that.” 

Huh?  That’s exactly what I thought a book report would be.  “Well, then… what do I do?” 

“Outsmart them,” she said.  “Tell them who wrote the book, how long it is, that it was told in the first person or third person or whatever.  You can talk about the character’s point of view.  The theme and moral and main idea.”  Another graham cracker.  “You’ll sound really smart and you’ll get a good grade.”

“What will the other kids say?”

“They won’t say anything,” she snickered.  “They'll be asleep.” 

She was willing to help, so I emptied my change purse—after all, nothing came free with my sister.  She walked away two bucks richer, and I walked away with a solid book report.  I practiced with 3 X 5 index cards in front of the bathroom mirror. 

When it came my turn to present my report, though, the air in the room got thick.  Everyone—Mrs. Morris included—looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.  Theme?   Plot?  Point of view? No other book reports covered those things.  At the end, no one clapped, like they were supposed to.  I slunk back to my desk and waited for my face fire to cool. 

Before lunch, Mrs. Morris stopped by my desk. “I just wanted to know what happened in the book, honey,” she whispered.  She patted my shoulder. “I’m just… I’ll just not give you a grade, okay?”

I mumbled some sort of thanks, but felt deeply, deeply ungrateful.

That night, I yelled at my sister—told her she’d made me look stupid and uppity, and she’d done it on purpose.  Furious and embarrassed, I swore I’d never take her help again. 

She had this way of looking sympathetically supportive and, simultaneously, deeply amused.  I wanted to smack her, but didn’t, because I knew she’d get past the amused part and get to the sympathetic and supportive part.

“Sometimes you’ll get a teacher who doesn’t ask kids to do hard things, and just has everyone do the same thing and get the same grade,” said She Who Knew Everything.  “It’s just the way it is.  So you just have to deal with those things.  But you can still do your best.  You should be the most prepared kid in the room, even if no one appreciates it.”

Those were astoundingly wise words from “just” a teen, but I’ve never forgotten them.  Granted, I didn’t always heed her advice—in fact, sometimes I shunned it, fiercely—but I did think a lot about what she’d said.  I still do, today, especially when considering how teaching has evolved for students as they respond to books.  I think about how we outline expectations for students, how we assess what they do, how we reward independent thinking and risk-taking, how other students in the class respond to the learning of their peers, and if our teaching provides oxygen to the flame of learning. 


We all have early learning experiences we can’t forget.  Some caused angst; others brought triumph.  Some did both. I’m grateful to the Mrs. Morrises of my school years, and to my wise sister, and for the ways I’ve been able to reconcile unexpected opportunities for deeper learning—even old-time book reports.

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