February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Texas High School Celebrates Battle of the Books

“March Madness” has taken on a secondary meaning in rural Pollok, TX, where 423 high school students have been closely watching, rooting for, and predicting the winners of a unique elimination contest this month—not basketball, but books. Under the direction of Donna Steel Cook, district library director and high school teacher-librarian, Pollok’s Central High School has incorporated School Library Journal ‘s fifth annual Battle of the Kids’ Books (BOB) into an engaging program to support reading.

In Pollok, a district of more than 1200 students in East Texas near the city of Lufkin, “We have three schools, each with excellent libraries and librarians, and I get to do my thing for the students at the high school,” Cook says. “I think libraries should be the busiest places in the school, and we are.”

For Cook—who has served on YALSA’s Amazing Audiobooks committee, the Printz Award committee, and the Texas Library Association’s  TAYSHAS committee—it’s not enough to provide her school with top-notch materials; the goal is to get kids to use them. Her high school programming runs the gamut from library skills to promoting the various teen best book lists (such as YALSA Teens’ Top Ten, ALA Quick Picks, the Printz books, and the TAYSHAS). BOB presents another opportunity to get her students critically thinking—and talking—about young adult literature, she tells SLJ.

“I teach classes all the time, but they are research classes and how-to-find-good-books classes and Printz-books-are-super-cool classes,” she says. “I see BOB as a way to make more commotion about books and authors. I’ve watched [the contest] since its first rattle out of the box, both online and in the print journal. The art work—books with arms and legs in fighting stances—just thrills me.”

Cook introduced the concept of BOB to her high schoolers a few weeks ago as a March Madness tournament—so named to avoid using the word “kids,” she says—by visiting each of the 27 English classes for a quick promo session. She also set up a bracket display on a window at the school and created a slide show for the school library’s website.

Fortuitously, during that first week, “One of the principals came for an evaluation session, and he got the whole scheme just like the students did,” says Cook. “He said he was happy to know what all those ‘explosions on the library windows’ were about, and said it sounded like a good thing to him. My administrators are always for promoting reading and books.”

For each BOB match, Cook sets out a table display for the competing books  with voting boxes and a picture of the judge for that bracket. She then tasks her students with predicting the winners, modeled after similar promotions surrounding the college basketball tournament.

At the end of each day, Cook tallies the predictions and records them on a spreadsheet, and, with the help of her senior aids, updates all the screensavers on the workstations in the library with the latest results. She adds, “My principals are helping immensely by making daily announcements about the contest and which students are leading the school in the longest streaks of correct predictions.”

Cook also sends the English teachers regular emails to update them on the BOB results. “I am trying to keep in mind that their minds may be loaded with state-mandated testing here in the spring, so I’m keeping BOB on the fun and light side with as little pressure as possible,” she says.

Those students who correctly predict the winning books for each match receive small awards, which is a key component of the program, Cook says, adding, “I have been a high school librarian for 36 years, and I know I have get past all the distractions of their daily lives. Cool awards will do that.”

One correct prediction earns students a mini candy bar, while the second in a row earns a soft drink, the third earns a yoyo (from a supply of them gifted to Cook from a vendor), and the fourth earns a golden dollar. Five or more correct predictions in a row earn the students a golden dollar for each.

Although the probability is very low that students will earn the largest prizes, as it turns out, they love the candy anyway, Cook jokes, noting that she makes awards time fun by going into each class to hand deliver the prizes. “My goal is make them think about books and authors,” she says. “Their goal will be get [prizes]. Our goals will intersect when they are successful.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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