Late Night in the Library: “Genrefying” Fiction

Last night an awesome group of sixteen sixth grade girls, three of their moms and I, worked incredibly hard at “genrefying” our library’s fiction collection. Although our nonfiction collection has been re-shelved according to topics that are meaningful for our patrons, for over a year now, and we are more than happy with the results, I’ve been putting off similarly re-shelving fiction according to genre.  Although I wholeheartedly believe that the results would benefit our students in their quest to read, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do long before I ever even considered a similar scenario for nonfiction, I was apprehensive about the process. This is not to say that creating middle school thinking categories and sorting books accordingly for our nonfiction collection was an easy task, because it wasn’t! However, I knew that the most difficult part of genrefying our fiction collection would lie in deciding what genre a book best belonged; this part of the process was even more difficult than I originally thought!

Difficulties:

Our first difficulty arose when the database I planned on using to help with this process, Ebsco’s Novelist K-8, became suddenly not available! (I’m still not sure what’s going on, but hopefully a call to Ebsco on Monday AM will help me out.). A quick connect with my PLN, through LM_Net, Twitter (#tlchat), Google+,  and e-mail helped resolve this problem; however, different resource gave us different answers! We ended up using a combination of  the following tools to help us identify genres:  the book’s summary, the book’s copyright page, Destiny  book record information, (including the 650 Marc record tag), Titlewave, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, Amazon and even Wikipedia!

Our second difficulty emerged when I realized that we all had slightly different understandings about genre characteristics, and that we weren’t alone! With some cursory research, it seems that others who’ve published their findings also differ in their opinions. (The understandings where experts were far more in agreement, characteristics such as conflict source etc., were far too difficult for our group to identify and characterize, due to our ability level, our lack of experience with critical analysis of literary text,  our lack of familiarity with each book,  and most importantly, our time constraints! Plus, keeping in mind our 5th and 6th grade audience and why we were doing what we were doing, this kind of deep analysis seemed unnecessary.) For example, Mystery and Adventure genre characteristics often cross; where would you place A Series of Unfortunate Events or The 39 Clues? Where do you place something that just happens to be set in a historical period but the historical period is not significant to the story? What about stories explicitly set in other cultures? Is a separate Multicultural section the correct terminology? is it even politically correct? Our Realistic Fiction section is way too broad; however, are Chick Fic and or Relationships categories appropriate or even applicable for our 5th and 6th grade audience? What do you do with seemingly realistic or historical fiction that happens to have a scene with an angel or ghost? Is this considered Supernatural? Do we even have enough books to have a Supernatural section? Daunting to say the least!

During my first year as a teacher-librarian, our after school book club read the Newbery winning When You Reach Me and we were incredibly lucky to share a special Skype visit with its awesome author, Rebecca Stead. In answering one of our student’s question about the book’s genre, Stead answered that she was honestly unsure, and that it was too difficult for her to pick just one. In making that decision for her, are we inconsiderately not considering the author’s original intent? Also, are we unfairly pegging a book into a hole? By doing so are we limiting a book’s audience? I do think these issues deserve further review and consideration and I know that there are others who have done a good job of doing so. In this case, however, I decided that it was necessary to put my worries of unfairness to rest, in order to create as shelving scenario that helped to meet our goals fro the majority of students: fostering independent reading and enthusiastic readers.

The Learning Experience:

What our students learned through this experience far outweighed the problems we faced, and in reality, they learned more, precisely because of these problems! I came home feeling exhausted, but fulfilled, and by the hugs I received at the end of the night, I know that I was not alone.

I’m left wondering how we can duplicate the positive aspects of this learning experience in our classrooms?

  • True collaboration; we were a team, and as a team  figured how to work effectively as a team!
  • Problem based learning; even reaching outside our school walls for assistance with our problems.
  • Real world project with a real purpose.
  • Having fun while working hard.
  • Intrinsic motivation; no grades, no rewards. (If you don’t count pizza, snacks and good music!)

Of course all learning experiences can’t share these characteristics, but I do believe that there are more opportunities to create learning experiences that create change: where students are not just practicing for the future but participating in the now.

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