Conflict Book Covers: What Truly Sells a Book?

Janine JohnsonJanine Johnson is in her second career, having worked in marketing and public relations before obtaining her master’s in educational technology with K-12 library media certification from Fairfield University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Simmons College and has worked at both the elementary and middle school level. Janine is now in her fourth year at Scotts Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Jessica BurnsJessica Burns has been teaching 7th grade Social Studies for 12 years at Scotts Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, Connecticut. She is currently piloting a new Human Geography course with her grade level counterpart focusing on the C3 Framework. She earned her bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences with a certification in Secondary Education and a master’s in Curriculum Design at Western Connecticut State University.

Follow Janine and Jess @SRMSLLC.


Seventh grade Social Studies teacher Jess Burns and I are fortunate to work in a well-funded middle school with administrators who enthusiastically support creativity and risk-taking, with a focus on personalized learning. Jess and I have several things in common. Chief among them: a healthy willingness to take risks, a pretty geeky appetite for new tech ideas, and a hearty belief in what creative collaboration can do for student learning outcomes.

When Jess came into our Library Learning Commons one Friday this fall, she explained that her students were about to begin their “Conflict Book Covers,” and she wanted to give them an extra day to ponder how we judge a book by its cover. (More about the lesson plan below.) She wondered if I could “do something” that would allow the students to consider what truly sells a book. I followed my own advice:

  1. Never say no to a teacher asking to collaborate (if something really doesn’t work, offer a great alternative.)
  2. Drop everything and whip up a lesson plan, however brief, and share it for a quick review.
  3. Wherever possible, try out a technique, program or app that fits seamlessly with the overall lesson plan. In this case, it was the augmented reality (AR) app, Aurasma (now called HP Reveal.) HP Reveal is a free app that links images or objects to augmented reality graphics, audio or video.

By Monday morning, my wiz-bang assistant Emily and I had pulled a variety of books for display and were ready to roll.

Here’s the brilliant assignment Jess had given her students, a new idea she had come up with on her own, tied to Connecticut’s C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Social Studies framework:

Students had been examining conflicts in several regions around the world. They were asked to pick Newsela articles about the conflict region of their choice among the four they were given: India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Sudan/South Sudan, and Catalonia/Spain. They were then tasked with creating a front and back book cover and final chapter for a story that incorporated their new knowledge and offered a resolution to the conflict. They chose a genre, planned out their story, and then turned their attention to the book’s assembly and “saleability.”

On Monday, students sat at tables in the LLC where a wide variety of our books, from graphic novel to picture book, were on display. I posed the question, “Why would you want to read this book?” In silent, partner, and whole class discussions, students stated why they would or would not want to read the books, rotating between tables and writing down what they noticed. They looked closely at the art alone, then the headline, pondering the balance between the two. They considered reviews, and the overall elements they felt either helped or hindered the book’s saleability.

Students then set to work in our Makerspace assembling their books. It was a wonderful opportunity to put old, weeded books to use, and glue guns were in high demand. The final step was for them to create a quick, thirty-second video pitching their book. Students would vote for the winning title in each class. They took pictures of the front covers of their books and used those as the “triggers” that would launch their video, or ‘aura,’ in effect allowing the narrator to “pop out” of the front cover. When complete, students considered one another’s books, used our iPads or their phones to view the Auras, and voted using Google Forms. Watching the engagement level for students at all learning levels at this stage was something that went well beyond the “wow!” factor.

Not all, but many of the book covers were truly outstanding. Standing on tables near other “real” books, one could barely tell them apart. Even more gratifying was the quality of the writing. Jess was truly blown away by how students captured their understanding in heartfelt, creative ways, and the students loved the AR element.

Three days later, we shared the lesson at a staff meeting, something that happens pretty regularly in our building, and multiple teachers approached us afterwards to ask about adapting elements of what they saw into their own curriculum. As we all know, the world beyond our school doors is exciting and invigorating for our students.

Keeping that level of excitement going once they step inside school each day is our challenge. Coupling higher-level thinking with multiple personalized opportunities heightens interest and leads to real understanding.

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