It was a tranquil, cafe-like setting: a darkened media center illuminated by an image of a fireplace on a projector screen. Soft jazz music played and artificial candlelight glowed atop tables covered with red-and-white checkered cloths. Students enjoyed the ambiance while busily discovering a buffet of books.
Junior High English teachers Shantel VanderGalien and Katie Sluiter, dressed as wait staff, offered Book Tasting to all eighth-graders. The tasting included a sample of 10 books, all with multicultural flavors, for their in-class book clubs. From table to table, students munched chocolate chip cookies and considered menu options – book summaries – to please their reading palates. Entrees included “The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, a verse novel set in Cuba,” by Margarita Engle and “One Crazy Summer,” by Rita Williams-Garcia.
“I feel it’s different. It’s engaging the students more in reading the books,” said eighth-grader Ashley Lopez, a fan of dystopian fiction. “I’m excited to have a whole list of books to choose from.”
For teachers, the Pinterest-inspired event was a way to offer diverse literary ingredients to inspire students.
“We are big fans of giving kids choice for what they read,” VanderGalien said. “We wanted all of our students to be represented in the literature, so the books we chose have an African American female protagonist, a girl from India as a protagonist, a Latina protagonist. We wanted our students to experience other cultures as well so they can see themselves in literature.” Assigned books last semester had male protagonists.
Having multicultural books available in the classroom at the diverse school has helped students blossom as readers, VanderGalien said. “It’s brought powerful conversations to the classroom, a deeper understanding for each other and various cultures.
“It’s powerful when students who read about a person who has a similar story to them because maybe they felt alone or isolated, experienced poverty, homelessness or leaving a war-torn country.”
English teacher Katie Sluiter said book tasting is a fun way to expose students to different works, create a community of readers and have them expand their reading repertoire. “They might have never read a book about their own culture, or they might choose a book that’s a window to something they’ve never heard of before.”
Added VanderGalien: “They are able to say, ‘me too, I’ve had that shared experience. Here’s my experience.’ In sharing their voice, students who have been marginalized or quieted find a place in the classroom.”
Eighth-grader Aubray Palma called the book tasting “cool.”
“Usually you get books offered to you that are one genre or culture, and it’s nice to get books from multiple cultures to learn about different things,” she said.
Eighth-grader Trista Werkema jotted “Never Fall Down,” by Patricia McCormick, and “Homeless Bird,” by Gloria Whelan, on her list of books choices. She liked the idea of choosing from multicultural options.
“When our teachers give us hands-on experiences we get more out of our learning,” she said. “It gives us a chance to learn more about what other people around the world are going through. It gives us an outside look because we tend to think only about our own lives and culture, and not consider what other cultures go through.”