Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun

As part of the Smack Dab in the Classroom series,  I am so pleased to offer librarian Kathleen Dale's imaginative ideas for engaging kids with middle grade books.

Dia Calhoun: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book?  Kids who might have different interests?

Kathleen Dale: It is always difficult to find one book that 100% of the kids will love.  Motivated students will read anything, so I try to get my students motivated by doing a classroom/library setup for the book.  Here is an example of how I got all the kids on board reading the following books:

Revenge of the Whale by Nathanial Philbrick
I hang fishnets from the ceiling, a calendar of whales and dolphins (picture side out) laminated together and dangle them on strings, small fish dangling around the classroom, a sailors uniform, a giant wallpaper map of the world covering the back wall, an outline of a boat on the floor when students come in with a life-size skeleton laying on it with blood dripping around it, and lots of fog when students arrive.   I set up eight different stations around the classroom or library. At each station is a dictionary and laminated vocabulary words I think students will struggle with during the book.  Also at each station I have a variety of items to go with the story, such as music at one station, of songs of the sea, cake donuts and water to represent hardtack and the lack of fresh water, rough oyster shells to represent barnacles, etc. After going to each station, their task is to write a short story of what they think the book (our class novel) is about.  During the book we track, on the world map with pins, the route of the whale ship Essex.
I have done this with Beowulf, A New Telling by Robert Nye, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Peak by Roland Smith and lots more.

In the library, I do the same set up and then display alike books.  I hang the vocabulary words in the library along with the display, and then have a writing contest about the sea to go with the display.

Dia Calhoun: Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids’ imaginations on fire?

Kathleen Dale: Reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, I covered the back wall of my classroom with white butcher paper and divided it into four sections with marker.  I labeled each section: poetry, articles, comments and thoughts.  After reading the book for that day I allowed approximately seven minutes for students to take markers and fill up the sections.  Under comments, students were allowed to draw a line and make a comment on another’s comments. I even had teachers coming in and commenting on some of the things the students wrote.  We did this each day until we finished the book.  Here is a poem one student wrote, “I have been warned once, but I did not pay heed. I have been warned twice, but I did not believe. I have been warned thrice but will only ignore, I’ve been warned once again only to close the door.  And now before me is a horrible fate, I cannot turn back, it is too late.”

Dia Calhoun: Have you ever done something “outside the box” that worked really well?

Kathleen Dale: Yes, the book club I started eight years ago has expanded from thirty-six to over 100.  We hold our book club four times a year before school.  As a teacher I taught Literature Circles and loved giving the students choice.  For my library book club I choose and read thirteen to fourteen different selections of books.  When students arrive they sit at the table that is marked with the book they read, discuss that selection, eat breakfast and listen to the book talks for the next book club. 

Dia Calhoun: If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be? 

Kathleen Dale: Give students all the prior knowledge they need to help them understand the book.  Too many teachers just plop a classic in to a students’ hands and expect them to love the book as much as the teacher. Before giving students To Kill A Mockingbird, read aloud Mississippi Trial 1955, and then as you read aloud this young adult novel, bring in articles about the Jim Crow Laws, the facts about the south during the 1950’s, have them read articles, and show them pictures/videos about the courthouse where the trial took place.  The students’ love of literature is directly related to the understanding the student has prior to reading.  Make reading fun and motivate them to read.

Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas, Kathleen Dale! 
Kathleen Dale is a Media Specialist at Riverview Junior High School in Utah. The Smack Dab in the Classroom runs on the 23rd day of each month.


  1. Thanks Dia and Kathleen for these great ideas. I hope to incorporate some of them in a future classroom visit.

    1. Wonderful! I especially love the "stations" idea. Kathleen is brilliant!

  2. Kathleen, you're a fabulous librarian! What incredible ideas!

  3. I want to visit her library! What wonderful, engaging ideas!


Post a Comment