The Seasonal Feast of the Skimathon

It was a moment of high suspense: the moment somewhere in mid-January when I announced the results of the Skimathon.

The Skimathon, lasting from one to two weeks, staged a grand meet-up between all the students in the class, usually about 15, and a collection of books, usually at least 30, all related to our theme for the next several months. These were called starter books, because they would eventually serve as the seeds, the starters, of the students’ individual research reports connected with our theme.

Early in my teaching life, when I first asked 11 and 12-year-old students to write extended research reports, they found their own books–or tried to. Unfortunately, things like this happened: a child who wanted to observe, read and write about the behavior of chickens found only a technical manual written by someone at Tufts Veterinary School. Maybe a good book, but not very effective for that kid.

I invented the Skimathon as a way to give students support and a head start, while still honoring and working with their individual preferences. Over time, as it evolved, the Skimathon became a structure for combining our energies toward their success.

Although the Skimathon temporarily interrupted well-loved ordinary reading activities, it felt like a feast. During the Skimathon, students spent each silent reading time skimming and assessing several books, and then took home several more to look through that night.

Students weren’t required to skim all the books, but I usually set a minimum to ensure that an open-minded student wouldn’t be smitten with the first three books and quit. Within each class, always, a couple of kids tried to read (not just skim) all the books that interested them–or even every single book in the bins! Some parents acknowledged that they had read quite a few of the books that came home.

The students recorded their reactions to the books using codes of their own invention, in a special Skimathon packet. Here’s a sample page:

skimathon mimi2 sample

The next day the skimmed books came back to be swapped for new ones. I heard a lot of “Did you know?” as kids wowed each other with amazing new information. Did you know that the Iceman was found by random hikers? Did you know that some bats really do suck blood? Etc.

The goals of the Skimathon evolved along with the process. At first, I just wanted kids to experience less frustration finding books. Gradually I realized how much this activity could do for us.

Partly it was about getting good at skimming–sampling the informational content and the presentation style of each of many books, fairly quickly, in order to make choices. I supported this with mini-lessons about particular techniques for skimming non-fiction books, and about the use of specialized book parts, like the glossary or table of contents.

(In all work of this sort, I’ve thought often of Karen Kuelthau Allan, my content area reading professor at Lesley University. She modeled, so beautifully, a collection of effective strategies for getting the most from nonfiction reading, and I’ve wished again and again that I had encountered her much earlier in my own student years.)

On Time by Gloria SkurzynskiThe Skimathon process also helped students begin or continue to notice a wide variety of non-fiction approaches–the different ways authors, illustrators, designers and publishers have found to organize information and ideas into the form of a book. (To the left, a fascinating book by Gloria Skurzynski, about the history of time keeping, organized by the length of time being measured or designated.)

At the end of a Skimathon reading time, we showed sample pages, sharing different reactions to the same book, or different books about similar topics. Many kids issued recommendations to the full group, sometimes based on content, sometimes based on book style: especially gripping photographs, or helpful maps, or funny little cartoon characters reappearing, like Waldo, in the illustrations.

Ultimately each student would be matched up with one of those starter books as the seed for individual research, report writing, and display making. So the Skimathon was an exercise, for each student, in learning to judge what would work, what would sustain his or her own engagement.

jellyfish steve parkerThe process of skimming this many books also gave students a really wide-angle overview of our theme.

(Here, to the right, one of a set of books about animal behavior. This one helped students think beyond vertebrates.)

For some students, the overview helped them be more receptive to their classmates’ teaching about individual topics, later on. For some especially omnivorous students, casting such a wide net at the beginning helped them accept the necessity of narrowing down later.

For the opposite kind of kid, the one who started out thinking that she would die if she couldn’t do her report about x, the Skimathon could stretch horizons, build flexibility, open up new connections. The last seven or eight years of this process, I asked students to come up with at least three good strong personally-appropriate choices, no longer ranked in any way visible to me. (No, I explained, it wasn’t fair to write PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE next to a particular topic, or to offer bribes designed to appeal to their teacher’s weakness for chocolate.) Each student had an important job: to come up with multiple choices that could all work. Not just one favorite path, but several highly promising paths.

Every year, at least one or two students found it impossible to choose, and listed the maximum number of choices–five, or six, or whatever I’d set as a max. That was sort of wonderful, of course, but I always felt that I should think particularly carefully about those kids. I know that condition of almost pathological over-enthusiasm. Those of us who are prone to it need help being more discriminating, making distinctions, thinking through our own needs more carefully.

Meanwhile, I had the important job of making sure that every student wound up with one of his or her choices, a really engaging and effective topic for that person, without any overlap within the group as a whole. That way, the full collection of individual topics would offer rich opportunities for peer education. Each student would have unique responsibility for some part of our big picture–a responsibility to which every student could rise, regardless of reading or writing levels or rates.

I knew, though, that the peer teaching would be lively and whole-hearted only if each student got a combination of the right topic and the right style of starter book. I looked at their choices for themselves through my own perspective about their capacities. Would a person who read thoroughly (but slowly) be swamped by too much reading material in this first resource? Would a person who thrived on narrative excitement, even within nonfiction learning, find enough of that? Would the structure of his book help a person who needed lots of help connecting details with larger concepts?

The Skimathon worked remarkably well as a way to launch a research report process. The world is fascinating; kids have an inborn desire to understand it; publishers for children have been producing increasingly engaging, thoughtful, and well-illustrated nonfiction books. Finally, the Skimathon worked because it gave me some room to provide support, but honored the vision and choice of each individual child–thereby strengthening their capacity for both vision and choice.

And here’s how I knew it worked: students in my mixed-age class for a second year asked immediately and impatiently, at the beginning of January, “When are we going to do the Skimathon?” With any luck, the bins were full and nearby, the lists were ready, and I could answer, “Soon!” or even better, “Today!”

In the next post, I’m going to answer the question, “What would I give as advice to a teacher starting out with a skimathon process?”

1 thought on “The Seasonal Feast of the Skimathon

  1. Pingback: Mimi Reports | a year to think it over

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