--and living books that relate to our areas of study but that I'm not interested in having Syd read, too:
As a former composition instructor at our local university, I have to say that composition is one of my favorite subjects to teach to the girls. Instead of giving them a checklist of instructions to follow, or asking them to write a draft independently and then have me grade it, I've been having a lot of success taking dictation while I coach in the moment. Some of my in-the-moment edits are simple, such as reminding Will that the first sentence of a book report must include the title and author, and that the title of the book report cannot be simply the book's title (I can't tell you how many college freshmen brains I also had to train that specific edit into!).
Some edits, of course, are much more meaningful, and this is where I feel that in-the-moment coaching is invaluable. Plot summary is important, and will take years to perfect, but it isn't a hard skill to begin. Contextualizing, however--THAT is a hard skill to begin. I have met so many college students who are uncomfortable coming up with an independent thought about a text, and I know how hard it is for them to give up that comfy five paragraph essay format and do real mental work for the first time. So yes, book reports are plot summary practice, but more importantly, they're practice in engaging.
The exact same advice that I gave to my college students also works with Will--you must put the book into context, or you must discuss the book's relevance, or you must discuss the book's importance. We didn't really do this with Fantastic Mr. Fox, because Will worked SO hard on the plot summary that I thought she'd done enough work for one book report, but the reason that I asked her to read I Survived the San Francisco Earthquake, 1906 WAS the context, so we skimped a bit on the summary and focused on context.
I told Will that her book report must answer one of the following questions:
- CONTEXT: How does the 1906 San Francisco earthquake fit into history? An answer to that question could discuss California earthquakes more generally, and how earthquakes are prepared for now.
- RELEVANCE: How is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake relevant to your life? An answer to that question could discuss Will's family who live in California, or her many visits to San Francisco.
- IMPORTANCE: How is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake important? An answer to that question could discuss what made it so unusual or memorable.
Will chose #3 to answer in her conclusion to the book report, and I was quite pleased with her work (hyperbole aside, to deal with later...).
We write all our reports using the Pages beta on iCloud. It's a really user-friendly program, can be used wherever we have access to a computer or ipad, and has some great, easy image editing features. Will's favorite aspect of the program is also her favorite part of writing a book report: when she's completely done with the text, she may search Google Images for an illustration and add it to her report:
Illustrations were always my students' favorites, too, but I would rarely permit them in their papers, unless they were crucial to their arguments.
That's why it's good to be a fourth grader!