by Julie Hemree
Expert Educator Columnist, USA
Sometimes the lessons of teamwork come from situations where you least expect it. Athletes who play team sports like football, soccer or baseball know that your team is only as strong as your weakest player. It takes a team to lose and it takes a team to win.
On the other hand, a reading incentive program isn’t usually considered as a collaborative model. Battle of the Books however, it not your typical reading program, and has everything to do with authentic teamwork skills.
The Oxford dictionary defines teamwork as the “combined action of a group of people, especially when effective and efficient.” Of all the 21st century learning design skills, I believe the ability to work effectively in a collaborative team rises above all others. In a traditional school, teachers most often assign students to complete individual tasks such as worksheets, reports or assignments for a singular grade in the gradebook. While this model has value, overuse of this style of instruction sets students up for failure in the workplace. Without practice in collaboration, students don’t develop the experience of working successfully in a group. Very few jobs require a person to work in complete isolation. We all have to work with others. Even artists and writers need art shows and publishers to showcase their work to the public. Yet, how can students get practice in these skills from the early grades? One solution is by participating in a Battle of the Books program.
The Battle of the Books program is a reading incentive program with a twenty-five year history. It began in a small, rural district in California and has since expanded to countries in every continent except Antarctica. The purpose of the program is to “nourish the hearts and minds of children with excellent literature.” Students in grades 3-12 read quality literature and have fun while competing with their peers.
Typically students self-select teams of 3-4 and read the books on the Battle book list. If there are 10-12 books on the list, students decide within their team how to divide up the books, so all are read before the start of competition. Each team member is responsible for reading 3 or 4 books on the list. Then the student teams come together to demonstrate their knowledge of the books in competitive “battles”.
A majority of the elementary librarians in my school district have participated in the program for many years. This year the middle school librarians, including MIEExpert15, Richard Snyder, have joined as well. We have also adapted the program to meet the needs of our students. We generate our own book lists based on national, state, regional books awards and librarian recommended novels. Because our program is not just for star readers, we include a wide range of text complexity and genres. This range allows students who might be struggling readers, but want to participate in the program, the chance to be successful. There are always one or two books they can read and contribute to a team.
Besides the obvious literacy benefits, the Battle of the Books program promotes authentic teamwork for both the students and the librarians. Each student team member shares a responsibility for reading their assigned book. They monitor each other and re-assess book assignments when a team member is falling behind. Their work is interdependent and working together is the only way the team will have any success during the competitive stage.
Likewise, the librarians model teamwork. As a group we collect suggestions for the book list and then decide which will become part of the final Battle list. Each librarian agrees to read a book and write the questions for our battles. In addition, we have district coordinators who set up the technical pieces for our district competitions. Similar to the students, we have deadlines we must keep or the program will fall apart.
One of the distinct advantages of this program is fostering independence. Other than introducing the program and providing sign up lists and books, the librarian does nothing to micromanage the teams. I provide a check off chart and let the students know when the battles will begin. The rest is up to them. When students come to me and say they aren’t ready, I let them know that the success of their team is their responsibility, not mine. Students are often surprised by my candor, but I believe that the only way students can learn to be independent is to make them truly independent. This program is completely voluntary and students don’t earn grades. Participating is a safe way to learn the advantages of independence and teamwork.
Once competition begins, the teams who have read all of the books outshine the rest. You simply can’t answer a question about a book if you haven’t read it. Their shared responsibility produces an interdependent outcome with lasting effects. My ‘battle’ students quickly learn the value of teamwork. Every year I have a few 4th grade teams who didn’t prepare as well as they could have. Instead of giving up, they come back the next year ready to do the work and be successful.
A criticism of this program is that reading is linked with competition and the questions we ask aren’t deeper level questions. Both of these criticisms are true, but the benefits of reading extra books and learning the benefits of teamwork outway any negative factors. In our program, we do have a building winner, but everyone earns a certificate of participation and is acknowledged in front of the entire student body at the end of the year assembly. Students know when they become 4th graders, they can finally be part of Battle of the Books. For many, it’s a right of passage into middle school.
Battle of the Books seamlessly links reading with technology. We use powerpoint presentations to introduce the books and Sway will be another option for us next fall. We save questions in our Learning Management System or through OneNote notebooks. With Office 365 our librarians can easily share documents with other. We use Lync for intraschool district battles, although Skype is an option as well. Technology brings us together virtually. Students don’t have to travel and no extra expenses are incurred.
This program can easily be replicated within a classroom, library or school. Select a book list, provide copies for students to borrow, advertise it and hold a competition. I guarantee your students will increase their reading skills, learn important steps in decision-making and the value of teamwork.