I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things about going to an ice cream shop (or one of Athens’ many, many frozen yogurt establishments) is the fact that they’re almost always eager to supply you with these:

image from http://www.icecreamsupplycompany.com

Okay, so the teeny spoons themselves are only kind of exciting–but the real treat is using them to get just a little taste of all the different, delicious flavors before deciding on your very favorite.

This model translates perfectly to a library or bookstore, where browsing books from the shelves or a display lets you sample small snippets of stories before committing to the books you’ll borrow or buy.

And the analogy works quite well on its own when you’re talking to students about choosing a good-fit book–but if you adopt a little bit of structure from more formal events like wine and cheese tastings, you end up with a fantastic activity for introducing students to a lot of new books they might not have “tasted” on their own.

Before I go any further, I must tell you that this idea is not my own. I borrowed heavily from another Clarke County colleague, Andy Plemmons at Barrow Elementary, who hosted a book tasting for a class of 5th graders last spring, and who was in turn inspired by Buffy Hamilton of the Unquiet Library.

Like Andy and Buffy, I provided students with a menu that listed the texts they would be tasting and provided a space for them to take notes and rate their choices.

In 5th grade, I used this activity to introduce students to their book choices for our annual Battle of the Books competition.

In past years, I’ve given students a quick book talk about each of the ten titles on the BOTB list–and while book talks are a great way to drum up enthusiasm for reading, they’re hard on the vocal cords and, in the end, a very teacher-led way to share information.

What I loved about the book tasting was that the students weren’t listening to me persuade them to read ten different books–they were exploring for themselves and making choices based on their own observations and experience with the books. Their “tasting notes” helped them articulate their impressions of each title, and ratings helped them narrow down their choices.

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I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I played some classical music in the background–though I didn’t go so far as to put out flowers or fine china. 🙂

Our 5th grade kiddos were super engaged during this entire activity, and their enthusiasm is easy to quantify: half of our library’s top 10 circulating books right now are Battle of the Books titles, even though 5th graders only make up about 12% of our student population!

For 4th grade, I adapted the model to help students choose topics for their next research project.

Last fall, when 4th grade created their amazing explorer narratives, each student was assigned to one of six explorers in their social studies standards, and the groups were teacher-created.

But this spring, as they embark on a mini-biography project focusing on various Revolutionary War figures, they have a choice of 11 different subjects to research. I told our 4th grade team about 5th grade’s book tasting, and they thought it would be a great way to introduce students to their project options.

So, I adapted the activity in a few ways for 4th grade:

  • Instead of a general book tasting, this was very specifically a biography tasting–but since I didn’t have biographies in book form for all 11 of the choices, I instead printed short, one-page biographical articles about each historical figure from Britannica Elementary. This gave every student access to all of their possible options, and it also ensured that students wouldn’t just pick the person whose biography had the flashiest cover–the focus stayed on the content of the text so that students’ selections sprung from genuine interest in the topic.
  • I organized the tasting with a little more structure so that every student could read about all 11 historical figures. They only had one minute to read about each person, but this was enough time for them to skim the articles and take brief notes about what interested them.
  • Rather than giving every choice a rating on a scale of one to five, students waited until the end to rank their top three choices. So far (though we’re still tallying responses), it looks very possible that every single student will get to research one of their top three–and that each class will have at least one student learning about each of the 11 choices.
  • Oh, and instead of classical music, I played some of John Williams’ musical score from the movie The Patriot (in keeping with our Revolutionary War theme).

You might not guess that a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds would be thrilled to read 11 encyclopedia articles about historical figures in one library visit–but here’s a sampling of their comments during the activity:

“Hey, Mrs. Hudson, did you know that Samuel Adams and John Adams were second cousins?”

“I really hope I get Molly Pitcher!”

“Yes! Paul Revere!”

Here are a couple of snapshots if you’d like to see our intrepid researchers at work:

Next week, I’ll be trying book tastings with some 3rd grade classes to introduce them to a variety of novels that haven’t circulated much lately due to passing fads or old-looking covers. The shiny bindings of our new graphic novels and the trendiness of series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid clamor loudly for kids’ attention–but I’m hoping I can challenge my students to give some quieter titles a chance to sing.

(And if my experience with 4th and 5th grades is any indication, I imagine many of these forgotten fiction books will see a surge in circulation.)

Stay tuned for a full report. 🙂