The case for a chart

On the e-mail discussion list for the Journalism Education Association, a teacher asked for guidance on book reviews for beginning journalism students. Since the school has a 30-minute required reading class each day, members of the faculty suggested that the newspaper publish some suggestions for books students might select.

What a great idea. The traditional idea would probably be to publish several reviews as 300-word stories, put a few cover shots to accompany the reviews and call it a day. I responded with the suggestions below, which I have expanded here.

This is a perfect opportunity to:
1. Collaborate with library media specialists at your school
2. Present the information in an easy-to-read chart

Consider doing a chart where the structure is established in advance. Each student will know before beginning his or her research and writing just how much is necessary to write for the final product, and the reviews will end up about the same length.

Work with your students to develop the categories (a project editor can do this, too). You’ll have the basics like title, author, genre, a 25-word synopsis and a cover shot (used from a legitimate source). Ask the media specialists to suggest some for a variety of readers, such as ELL or reluctant readers. They might also have suggestions for additional reading (“If you liked ___, you might try ___.”). Include where the book is available (library or store).

Students could interview someone who read the book and explain why he or she liked (or didn’t like) the book. That’s a good opportunity to reinforce interviewing and questioning skills. Specific questions will yield better answers (e.g. “What did you like about the book’s characters and why?” instead of “What did you think of the book?” This question could be the same throughout the category or could change for each book.

When planning a chart, determining the look in advance is helpful. When students see a sample, they know that they need to return from their research and interview with an appropriate amount of information to fit the space. No need for a 30-minute interview for a 50-word question-response section.

Another option would be to divide the charts into several sections. For example, books about teens, books on college-level reading lists, classics, lesser-known books by famous authors, books published this millennium.

Use a rating only if everyone agrees on the rating criteria in advance and if the definitions are published on the page. Someone might be too generous and someone else stingy.

There are lots of ways to make this into a feature in the paper that will serve the dual purposes of educating your readers and actually getting them to read the content. What a great reader service, too. Compile a bunch of these at the beginning of the year but run them as a smaller themed chart each issue (books about holidays, books about the next step in life, books about family relationships, nonfiction books, etc.).

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