“Just Me, Really?” Fostering Personal Taste in the Classroom

I happened upon a Facebook post this morning that included one reader’s comment that she was the “only person on the planet who really disliked that series.” That got me thinking of books that I find myself seeming to be the only person not to like them. Others soon chimed in with titles they felt alone in not liking, and we also quickly realized that we are not alone in our dislikes.

The idea was sparked, then: how can we bring this to the classroom? Should we have our students, perhaps, share the books they didn’t like that everyone else loved? Should we help them find that they’re not alone?

This made me think of my reading last night. I’ve been making my way through Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild (I like to read professional books over break when I can really digest them). I’m in the middle of Chapter 2: Wild Readers Self-Select Reading Material. Without giving away everything that happens (as you really should read the book for yourself), Donalyn gives us a story of a time in her classroom when she abandoned a book that it seemed like everyone else had loved. What she does next, though, is brilliant. She turns it into a challenge to see who will try the book so that she has someone to talk to about it. Of course, her students follow her lead, and she has many students sign up to read it, and eventually, it finds its proper home (Miller 58-60).

There are things I think are right about the way Donalyn Miller does it that we might find ourselves neglecting if we try another way. The conversation clearly includes a reader’s right to not finish (from Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights), yet — and this is the key — stays positive about books and reading. When inviting others to try a book you didn’t like, you’re communicating to them “this book was not for me, but I’d like to know who it’s right for. Maybe it’s right for you. Would you like to try it?” And it becomes a gauntlet thrown down, in a way, for someone to read the book and like it. And eventually, someone will.

Now, the Facebook thread was just fine for us, because just about everyone who commented was a teacher or librarian, or at the very least an adult reader. We know and understand that just because we didn’t like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, and it doesn’t mean anything negative about those who do like the book. Our students don’t necessarily realize this. I think it’s vital that we spin the conversation away from “what books did you not like that everyone else did?” and more towards “who is the right reader for this book that you didn’t like?” It keeps the reading environment a positive one, reinforces the right for every book to exist, and supports those who feel in the minority — both those who like and those who dislike books.

So, even though I’m a math teacher this year, this is what I would do were I teaching English. Perhaps you English teachers could humor me and try this out, eh?

  • Upon returning from break, I’d share with my students a book I recently read (or abandoned) that I didn’t enjoy, even though it was highly recommended for me.
  • I’d ask them to create a short list (no more than 3 books) that they didn’t like that everyone else seemed to love.
  • For each book, I’d want them to list specifically what didn’t work for them.
  • For each book, I’d want them to think of who would like this book. If someone were to like this book, what other books would they probably like? Are there any specific people in the classroom who they think would like the book, even though they didn’t? Why?
  • We would share. And we’d try to match readers to books. We would foster the “I didn’t like this book, but I think you might” conversation.
  • And then, of course, we’d read.

What other ideas do you have with the “Just Me, Really?” phenomenon and how to use it in the classroom?

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One thought on ““Just Me, Really?” Fostering Personal Taste in the Classroom

  1. Great post, Brian. While it’s important to stay positive about books and reading, I think it’s also important to stay real. And that means sometimes our individual tastes don’t mesh with those of the masses.

    In class, I say it loud and proud: I abandoned Book X because … My negative personal reactions are balanced against tons of positive ideas about specific books, but I want students to know that it’s OK to bail out on a book that doesn’t suit us. (We review those Daniel Pennac rules from time to time too.) Donalyn’s advice about students who abandon book after book is another matter.

    In my online reviewing and other activity, I tend to not be so forthright about the books I don’t like. I usually just don’t say anything at all about those titles, unless I’m specifically asked, and even then I try not to be too harsh, unless I consider a book outright dangerous. (I have two books in mind that most of the world loved but made me go blechh. Not dangerous. Just blechh.)

    I also like this idea from Paul Hankins. After book-talking a specific title, we can ask, “Who would read this book?” This brilliant question mobilizes students to say–either out loud or internally–“I would” or “Not me.” Students are clarifying their own tastes with either response.

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