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Mr. Cover's Class Reviews:
A "Real World" Application for Reading


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In response to his students' lack of enthusiasm for, and skill with, nonfiction reading material, sixth grade teacher Millard Cover introduced "Mr. Cover's Class Reviews," a project in which the students become product testers and reviewers and publish their findings online. The project boosted the students' interest in nonfiction and gave them a "real world" purpose and an authentic audience for their work.

 

Some sixth grade girls in Millard Cover's reading class compare the manufacturer's claims with the actual performance of a weather radio. Photos courtesy of Millard Cover.

"The thing I love about teaching is that I end every year having learned more from my students than they do from me," says Millard Cover. "This project has shown me that students are excited about learning, and as teachers, we have to work very hard and consistently to find ways to show students that what they are learning in the classroom has a real connection to the world they live in."

In the summer of 2007, Cover reviewed the literacy scores of his sixth grade reading students from Arkansas' state tests, and a gap was evident. His students at Fox Meadow Intermediate Center in Jonesboro were struggling with nonfiction. In fact, the students seemed to shy away from it altogether. Cover set out to create a project that would give his students a "real world" purpose to read nonfiction and to write about it, and the result was Mr. Cover's Class Reviews.

To begin, students read press releases and advertising materials for a specific product to determine what the product claims to do. Next, they examine the directions and packaging materials for the product and test to see if the product performs as promised. Armed with their research, students work in teams to write a product review and give their opinions about how the product performed. The reviews are published on the project Web site. If a majority of students like the product, it receives the class's "Sly Fox Award."

"The level of discussions that occur while students test the products is impressive," Cover reports. "If students could not get a specific product to work correctly, I would hear them say things like, 'Well, is it our fault because we are going too fast, or Are the instructions written poorly? Let's go back and check.'"

 

Another group of students checks out a karaoke machine, which does well in the product testing.

Cover notes that his students are more willing to read nonfiction material after their experience with the class reviews. They also are more critical of advertising, and some are very skeptical of the promises made by manufacturers. The sixth graders have evaluated such products as a weather flashlight/radio, the Disney "Pirates of the Caribbean" Boombox, and iLIVE Karaoke Machine. Reviews of more products, such as a selection of musical toothbrushes recently donated by a manufacturer, are planned for the future. The boombox fared well, as did the karaoke machine, and so far, Cover supports the students' findings.

"As young teens, the students had some interesting discussions about how the advertising media works very diligently to grab and keep their attention," he shared. "Some of them even gave examples of how they were so caught up in a product because of the advertising that they didn't take the time to really do their research and were disappointed once they bought the product."

High Schoolers Vie for "Sly Fox Scholarship"

In a related activity, Cover's sixth graders evaluated applications from high school seniors and awarded two scholarships funded by anonymous donors. They reviewed the college-bound high schoolers' answers to three short essays and used many of the same analytical skills that they applied in their product reviews. The "Sly Fox Scholarship" was well received.
"One thing that will always stick with me is that one of the last applications submitted was much longer than any of the rest, and I was very worried that the students might favor that application simply based on its length," recalled Cover. "But as I heard the students discuss the applications in their groups, I heard them mention that a couple of answers in this specific application were off-topic. I was thrilled because it showed me that they were truly being analytical." .

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