Book Clubs with a Twist

I’ve always loved teaching eleventh grade students. They are fun and funny, curious about the world, and on the verge of adulthood. This is often the year of first cars, first girlfriends and boyfriends, and first after-school jobs. When I used to teach in the States, it was the year when they could finally go off-campus for lunch, the year for college visitations, and the year when they started to really get serious about their futures, saying goodbye to childhood and hello to the grown-up world.

I also see it as a key developmental year, when many students really start to read grown-up literature, as they are starting to have the life experience and background knowledge that is needed for so many books.

Eleventh grade used to be all about American literature. The focus was more on content than skills, and as we continue to teach with the common core state standards, it’s easier to get away from the traditional canon as we embrace student choice.

My students are reading all sorts of titles and authors and genres, which means that the priority has been shifted. Students may be doing more reading than fake-reading (and because of this they may actually be actually reading more American literature than they did in my previous years of teaching). However, we aren’t organizing our units according to topics like romanticism and transcendentalists. We organize by skill, by the type of reading or writing they will be doing in the unit.

However, it’s been a little strange to teach eleventh grade English without the heavy focus on American literature, so one of the ways we are trying to reincorporate content is through book clubs.

A few months ago my students participated in nonfiction book clubs, and last week they asked me if we could do it again, but with fiction. With classics! Who am I to say no to such a request?

So my eleventh grade teaching partner and I gathered titles from our department’s book room and classroom libraries, and came up with some book club options. We had two self-imposed guidelines (not requirements…we are always flexible): books should be written by American authors and have at least a significant portion of the plot taking place in the US, and that there should be a film to go with the book.

American lit book clubs
These are the titles we could come up with in just a few days.

We book talked the titles and gave our students a few days to research and digest the different options, and then had them mark their top five choices. This allowed us as teachers a lot freedom and flexibility when making the groups, while also allowing us to honor student choice. I ended up with students in my class reading the following titles:

I kept my book clubs in groups of two or three students, so that everyone has to participate, and no one can sit back and let others do the thinking for them.

To the students who didn’t get their first choice pick, I reminded them that simply because they aren’t reading it for this book club doesn’t mean they can’t read it later in the year.

Next is the twist! Students had to be willing to watch the film that goes with the book. We teachers know that students will watch the film. It’s just the nature of teaching high school. While that used to be a problem for me in previous years, I’ve started to relish the idea of students watching the film, and sometimes I surprise myself by telling them to watch it first!

Watching the film creates background knowledge. It gives students an access point to text that could otherwise be too challenging and complex. It’s fun. I’ve seen students who would struggle to read what I think is an easier book push right through Game of Thrones because they’ve seen the show and they are motivated to read the books. img_6590.jpg
When we are asking students to read titles that they might consider boring or outdated, why not give them permission and encouragement to create background knowledge and enthusiasm for the book? Plus, it helps to address this standard: Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 3.45.24 PM

Students will be graded on their ability to sustain rich, academic discussion, but we also wanted to give them the chance to suggest other assessment methods. So for this part, we are letting them make some choices. If they don’t want to get creative with this, then they can talk about the film and its relevance during their discussions and leave it at that.

While students are practicing reading and viewing in their book clubs, what they don’t know yet is that they will use these skills and strategies soon. We are going to read A Raisin in the Sun as a whole-class text, and we’ll be viewing at least one of the films. So these skills they practice together will come in handy in class quite soon.

The last point about choice in this assignment is regarding due dates and timelines. These novels are varying lengths, and our goal is that students are reading a minimum of two hours or 120 pages per week. Because of this, the due dates for each group are all different, depending on the number of pages in each book club’s title.

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We’ve given lead up time to the beginning of the reading portion of the assignment so that students who don’t like to read more than one book at a time can finish what they are currently reading, but students can start sooner if they prefer.

When their group is done with the reading and discussing, they might choose to start a new novel together, repeating the process, or they might stay in their groups but choose different titles, still discussing ideas and themes, but this time with dissimilar titles. Because it’s a more powerful reading experience for everyone when we can share ideas instead of reading in isolation, we plan to leave options open. We believe when students are reading and thinking, they should also be talking about their ideas and questions.

It’s a more powerful reading experience when we can share ideas instead of reading in isolation.

Setting up these book clubs was far from rocket science, and it isn’t perfect. I’m sure we will figure out how to make improvements as we go along, but I think the essence of what’s important is there. We are honoring student input and student choice. We are encouraging some measure of cultural literacy through the reading of some classics. We are allowing students to develop some of their own assessment methods. We are pushing  students to create background knowledge in order to access some difficult text. We are asking students to think critically about the books and movies they will be consuming, and to tell us and each other why these selections are or are not worthy, what titles we should have included and could include in the future. We are asking students to think critically and communicate about how stories are presented in diverse ways. We are encouraging students to plan their next steps as they finish the initial book club selections.

One of the things I love about this is that while we continue with our regularly scheduled research writing unit, students are also getting the opportunity to participate in small group book discussions, to read some classic American literature, and to add an extra layer to their learning.

I am feeling good about this added reading “bonus” — it’s a way to weave some traditional American literature into a modern curriculum, and a way to get kids to read titles they might hesitate to read if they were entirely on their own. I have a feeling that students will discover that titles that may have seemed out of reach to them are manageable and enjoyable, and I can’t wait to hear the discussions they have about their new experience.



Multiple Types of Assessment with a Whole-Class Text

I’m a firm believer in the power of student voice and student choice. When students are trusted and taught to make thoughtful, reasonable, and sometimes risky choices with their reading lives, something magical happens. They learn. They grow. 

But after a semester of embracing the concept and practices of individual student-led book choices in my grade nine classes, I decided to assign a whole-class text. It was time. My students were ready. 

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I assigned Of Mice and Men.

First of all, it’s a classic. Students are smarter for reading it. It feels like serious literature. It’s chock full of imagery, foreshadowing, symbolism, and injustice. Students feel emotion when they read it. 

Second of all, it’s manageable. It is 105 pages long. I gave my students eight days to read it. Books were handed out on a Sunday, and students needed to be finished reading by the following Monday. For some, that meant they could read it multiple times. A few finished it overnight and then got right back to their choice novels. Others planned to read fourteen pages per night so they could finish just in time. Even though they all read the same text, voice and choice were still built into the assignment. 

While reading the book, they regularly met in small groups, book club style. They discussed topics of their choice after making plans and committing to be accountable to one another. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce the Notice and Note fiction signposts, and many of their discussions were prompted with something they had noticed while reading.

This anchor chart was posted during the two-week narrative unit when we read Of Mice and Men.

Once my students were done reading and discussing, it was time for some assessment. In order to prepare for the book club discussions, students annotated their thinking, their questions, and generally marked the passages that resonated with them. IMG_6061

The day that they were supposed to have the book finished, I collected each copy of the book and did a quick annotations check.

It took about 90 minutes to go through all of them. Our ninth grade team had decided to give some basic guidelines to our students: annotations should be plentiful, at regular intervals, show a variety in type of thinking & approach, and add original content.

We don’t ask our students to annotate everything all of the time, but because they needed to be ready to have purposeful and deliberate discussions with each other, the annotations seemed like a good call. After checking over each student’s annotations, I handed back their results and let them know that if I had under-rated them, they could confer with me in order demonstrate thinking that I had missed. This assessment provided quick feedback, and didn’t require a ton of teacher time for grading. 

If students weren’t happy with their marks, they were given another opportunity for learning and for demonstrating proficiency. They were given the option to read and annotate another classic novel within two weeks. They were also instructed to schedule some conferring time with me to make sure they were on the right track.

There were guidelines and timelines for the second opportunity to demonstrate the skills and strategies they needed to learn, but enough choice that students were comfortable with the options.  This idea of choice reinforces that it’s not about which title we are reading, but about the skills and thinking that are required when we read for this purpose. 

The next assessment was a traditional multiple-choice comprehension quiz. It’s the first one I’ve administered in quite a long time, and because it is part of a portfolio of assessment, it feels like an appropriate thing to do. In the last few years I had avoided this type of assessment, favoring other writing tasks, reflections, and conferences. Those are all great ways to check students’ understanding, but the difference this time is that it is in addition to the other types of assessment, not simply the assessment. I’ll probably ask students to do more of this type of quiz, as it still feels low-risk. It’s only a fraction of their grade for this unit, but it quickly helps me get a picture of my students’ understanding.

The last assessment our students completed was a graded video discussion. Teachers weren’t in the room for these, which seemed like a game-changer. Students used their books (with annotations) and directed their own small-group discussions for roughly twenty to thirty minutes. 

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Students developed their own methods for annotating. This student used multi-colored sticky flags to mark important passages.

We were able to assess the discussions later, rewinding and fast-forwarding as needed, knowing that if we missed something we could go back to it. After the discussions, I can confer with students, pausing at important points in the discussion to point out especially thoughtful moments, explain where I think the thinking could have been pushed. 

All three of these types of assessments helped to create a big-picture of student understanding and their ability to apply strategies and skills. The marking/grading took a reasonable amount of time, and we teachers know that is an important consideration. 

The entire unit, from passing out the books to the final assessments, took ten school days. It was a fun and thorough way to check in with my students’ ability to read an assigned text, complete some discrete tasks, but still allowed us to move on to the next unit of learning quickly. I think we will do it again. Waiting a whole semester might have been too long. 

How do you do whole-class texts? How do you ensure that your students are familiar with the traditional classics? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

3 Ways to Utilize Audio and Visual Recording with our Readers and Writers

There is much debate regarding the use of digital technology in the classroom. For teachers, cell phones and other technology are both frustrating helpful when it comes to student use. They have the potential to be distracting and disruptive, as we all know, but tech is useful when it comes to some classroom activities, such as keeping a next reads list, or looking up word gaps. I love the idea of using them for the powers of good, so recently, I tried asking my students to use their mobile phones just for the purpose of recording, and to try to ignore the notifications that might come across as they used them.

I’m always looking for new strategies to help the readers and writers in my classroom, and in the past few weeks I’ve tried a couple of different applications. Using cell phones and iPads is simple, and it meets one of the simple rules I am trying to follow when it comes to working with students: meet them where they are.

Recently, while my grade nine students were in the thick of drafting informational essays, I asked them to read their essays aloud, and listen to the flow, the choppiness, the parts that sound great, and the parts that “just don’t sound right.” While I’ve asked students to read their own work aloud before, this time I asked them to record themselves, and then after, to listen to their voices while reading, keeping a pencil in their hands, pausing the audio and editing and revising as they go.

My students were reluctant at first, but once they got over the initial awkwardness of listening to their own voices, they indicated that it was a simple and useful strategy for revision. It’s one that can be used in other classes, and doesn’t require any other tools or even other people for help.

Another strategy we employed using recording technology was focused on the use of video recording. Before my students had started writing informational essays, we studied informational texts, using the Nonfiction Notice and Note signposts, along with the Book Head Heart strategy found in the works of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.


When students learn reading strategies and skills, it’s important to be able to see just where they are in the learning process, but it takes time to thoroughly check in with each and every one of them. So with this unit, our ninth grade English teacher team decided that it would be great if students could demonstrate their learning through a think-aloud. Doing this in class would take a lot of one-on-one time, so we asked students to demonstrate their thinking and reading skills on their own, and to use the video recording capabilities on their iPads and cell phones.

A screen shot from a video-think-aloud

Because we, as teachers, had modeled the think-aloud strategy in our classes many times, students knew exactly what we meant, and were able to demonstrate their understanding of the strategies and skills necessary when reading magazine articles. They annotated, exposed their initial confusion, shared their process of finding understanding, and demonstrated a multi-draft reading of the articles they had chosen. It was a successful method of assessment, and I plan to utilize it again. Students had a chance to showcase their thinking and understanding, and it wasn’t a one-off opportunity. They had the chance to try multiple takes with their recordings, so the pressure was off and they could easily share their thinking.

Our most current rationale for the utilization of video in class is with our new short novel unit, in which we formed book clubs. We are squeezing in a shared text at the beginning of second semester with Of Mice and Men. While all of my students are reading the same text, they are split up into groups of three and four so they can form their book clubs. One of the summative assessments with this unit is a small group discussion that they will record. They will need to demonstrate some academic, sustained, literary discussion in their videos, and are practicing in class, leading up to the recorded discussion. I’ll be able to have five small-group discussions going on at the same time in my class, which means precious class time isn’t frittered away with transition times between discussions, for example. Students will be thinking, reading, and discussing, and I’ll be able to watch the video later, when the pressure is off, and I can truly assess the conversation. I’ll try to remove the guess-work because I can slow down the speaking and listening assessment portion of it all.

annotation OMAM
One student has heavily annotated in preparation for the recorded small group discussion.

These are just a few ways to allow students to use the simple technology that is available to them. Kids know how to make movies and to splice audio, so there is little need to instruct regarding the technical details. They can use the audio and video to showcase their skills.

It’s also a timesaver as far as the classroom goes, and it takes some of the stress off of students who have test anxiety or who struggle when it comes to on-demand assessments.

While it’s not a student-recording, I will share one last recent use of video in class. I played the video in this NPR article about a murmuration of starlings as an inspiration for a quick write this week. I played it without sound, and hit replay several times. My students were fascinated and wrote some fun responses. One was even moved to write music: img_5972.jpg

I love how my students are constantly surprising and impressing me. They are unexpected and wonderful.

I’d love to hear more about how teachers and students are using laptops and cell phones for the power of good in the comments below!

This post was originally published on the Three Teachers Talk blog. 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie


What are the kids reading?

I believe that students read more when they know what is available. Isn’t that what advertising is all about? Seeing what is available, and then being tempted by it? So I start each class with book talks. I advertise books. And then I pay attention to what students seem to like, so I can keep pushing the right books.

I do this every class, almost without exception, and when I might get ahead of myself and jump right into the lesson, my students remind me, asking why we aren’t starting with a book talk. It is part of our routine, and we like it.

I try to book talk a wide variety of books, from classics, to collections of poetry, to first titles in a series, to young adult fiction, to autobiographies and memoirs,  to brand new releases, and to the more hard-to-categorize books.

I often share more than one title with each class, and if a student wants one of the books, I give it out immediately and replace that title with a new one for the next class, so I go through a lot of titles.

Some titles are claimed by eager readers right away, while others go back to the shelf. But some titles rarely get the chance to go back to the shelves because they are passed around from student to student.

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One of those titles is Why We Broke Up, a Printz award nominee written by Daniel Handler. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated story that starts with the end, and the line “Every break up starts with a love story” gets potential readers interested right away. The rich illustrations are of the different mementos collected throughout the course of a relationship: ticket stubs, notes written on looseleaf paper, etc. They are little things that students can relate to, and the illustrations tug at their hearts. You might also recognize Handler’s pen name: Lemony Snicket.

Another title which got a lot of attention from my students this fall was PostSecret by Frank Warren. It’s a charming collection of postcards which reveal secrets from people all over the world, and my students love it. I had to hold a raffle for this one because so many students were clamoring for it. I like it because each page can serve as a inspiration for a quick write in their readers-writers notebooks, as the postcard confessions are raw and relatable. This one has what we call “spicy language” and many of the pages are for mature audiences, but I think it’s worth a look. I’m glad to have it in my classroom library.

The last one I’ll share in this post is Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan. It’s an updated version of the classic Snow White story, set in 1920s/1930s New York City. When I book talked this one to a ninth grade class, I couldn’t get through talking about it before I had students asking if they could have it first.

It looks like film-noir, which to my students, is all kinds of cool. Students respond to the pictures and to the familiar, updated, dark story. Graphic novel enthusiasts loved it, and then even passed it around to other students who hadn’t demonstrated an interest in graphic novels before. I called it a win.

Snow White Graphic Novel

I’ve noticed some students don’t think illustrated books “count” or are “real books.” They either shy away from them and limit themselves to more traditional books, or they don’t bring the graphic novels they are reading to class, and only read them at home.

So I’ve tried to make an effort to present more non-traditional, beautifully illustrated books intended for more mature, young adult audiences. I’ve tried to send the message that not only are they “real books,” but those of us who aren’t in the habit of reading them should branch out and try something new in the form of non-traditional looking books.

I believe it’s important to meet students where they are, especially when they are emerging readers. When teachers validate students natural preferences, we gain trust and credibility, which is important when we are recommending new genres and authors to them, helping them to build their reading lives.

It’s important when we are trying to teach them anything, when we are trying to build community in our classrooms. Talking about what matters to students is one of the most effective ways to build trust, and I’m happy to read and discuss these beautiful books with them.

Get to know your library through book talks

One of the very best ways to spark and fuel our students’ interests in reading is to ensure access to plenty of high interest books. My students are lucky enough to have an excellent collection in our school’s learning commons, and in addition this fall we were blessed with a brand new classroom library.

While both collections are full of amazing titles and are a rich resource for my students and me, it’s challenging to get to know all of the titles in the collections.


I want my students to know and love our classroom library and our school library. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to put the perfect book into the hands of a student right there in our classroom environment, or to walk up to the learning commons and select something together. But before we can get to that point, someone has to really know and appreciate the collections.

While our librarians know the collections well, I also felt that I had to figure out the most efficient way to get to know the library collections and to transfer that knowledge to my students. Because what does it matter that we have a lot of books if the students don’t know what’s there? If they don’t know that they want to read them?

I think book talks are a great way of getting to know our collections. I know it seems counterintuitive – the best book talks are delivered only after we’ve read the books, because then we can do things like choose our favorite passages and explain how we connect to the text. But if you, like me, are given, happen to inherit, or in some other manner are responsible for a large collection of books, and for getting them into the hands of students, you have to realize that reading all of them before the book talks isn’t realistic.

Selecting new books off the shelf isn’t out of the question. Simply reading the inside flap or the back cover is okay. These book features are supposed to get a reader interested, and they do. Reading the first paragraph or page is also a great strategy. Think about Salt to the Sea or the Cirque du Freak series. Those first lines grab a reader and don’t let go.

“I’ve always been fascinated by spiders. I used to collect them when I was younger. I’d spend hours rooting through the dusty old shed at the bottom of our garden, hunting the cobwebs for lurking eight-legged predators. When I found one, I’d bring it in and let it loose in my bedroom.

From Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan

Guilt is a hunter.

My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.

It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.

From Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I book talk two or three books a day, depending on what classes I have scheduled and if the first class checks out the books I’ve promoted and I need to search for new titles to talk up.

I always list the titles of the books we’ve discussed on my wall so that we can go back to them and find them.

Last year I got to know our school library’s collection quickly by sharing books with my classes by theme. I grabbed multiple books that seemed to somehow connect to each other, and depending on the class, I would talk about a couple of them or many of them, but simply by talking about the theme and having them on display, often, even the ones I didn’t talk about would get some attention from a few students. It also ensured that within a few months, I had hit critical mass as far as knowing the books we had in our collections.

When I move on to a new school next year, I know it’s a strategy I’ll employ so that I get to know the new collection and make sure students know what resources are immediately available. I’ll miss knowing my library’s collection as well as I do currently, but I firmly believe that this strategy will allow me to get to know the new books pretty quickly, which means I’ll get to share them with my students in a way that makes sense.

As an aside, I think it’s also important to be public about what we are reading as teachers. I know that if I talk to my students about what I read, it’s more likely to come from my classroom library or from the school library, and when it comes to those books, I go beyond the inside flap when I talk about them with my students. Those are the books that are often checked out by students right away. But I can’t wait to read everything before I book talk it because it would just take too long.

And yes, I have had guest teachers come in to talk about books, and yes, students share what they are reading with each other. And yes, there is something special about a teacher sharing his or her reading life with students, and it must be fostered, nurtured, and encouraged.

I don’t think of this method as “cheating” – we teachers have a lot to do, and while I would love to spend all of my spare time reading YA literature and discovering new graphic novels, I have to be realistic. I give myself permission to talk about books I haven’t read. It means that students are exposed to more new books, develop better and better Next Reads lists. Eventually, they can book talk great titles to one another, taking me out of the loop all together, which leads to an independent and robust culture of reading in our schools.

Making thinking transparent: Annotating with Nonfiction Notice and Note Signposts

When my students read, they think. There’s no question. But as a teacher, I struggle trying to figure out what they are thinking about, what they wonder, what resonates, what is confusing, and what they reject. Because reading is a mostly solitary activity, it sometimes feels impossible to tap into their brains so that I can “read” my students’s thoughts.

One of the strategies I employ is reflective essays. Other times, instead of in writing, students reflect verbally, either through conferring or through class and small group discussions. But sometimes that’s not enough. I need a window into their brains and hearts, and annotating text in a close reading can help to serve as that window.

My grade eleven students are deep in an informational text unit. They are in book clubs, and in addition, I’m regularly assigning the Kelly Gallagher Article of the Week for them to work on at home. Because these weekly assignments are with a short text, I feel comfortable asking them to demonstrate a close reading in a way that I’m not asking them to do with their longer texts.

I spent quite a bit of time teaching the nonfiction signposts from Reading Nonfiction, and instructed my students to notice and note when they recognized the different signposts.

But when I heard repeated individual students asking clarifying questions about annotations, I realized it was to spend another significant chunk of class time going over an article that students had read and annotated as homework. In the end, I think that investment of class time was worth it.


I projected it on the white board, explaining that while I had skimmed the article before assigning it (teacher life is real!), I hadn’t become familiar with it, and my annotations and think-aloud were authentic and unrehearsed.

I feel that with an authentic model think-aloud, the teacher should be mostly or entirely unfamiliar with the text that is being considered. We can’t be perfect in front of our students; how else will they understand that the struggle to learn and understand is messy, and that it is rare that a person understands difficult text during the first read? That it requires multi-draft reading in order to reach sincere understanding, the kind of understanding we have when we can not only discover main idea, but describe the nuance and ambiguity we often find in complex texts?

So I demonstrated by talking my way through the article, using a purple marker to show my initial confusion, and a red marker to demonstrate my second-draft reading.

This is what the white board looked like after the think-aloud. I wish I would have taken a photo while the text was projected, but so it goes…

I showed my students where I noticed the signposts, why I thought they were important to notice, and generally talked and walked them through my thinking. I made a point to show my confusion, highlighted words I wasn’t sure about, and I told them what I wondered.

I tried to show them that I don’t have all of the answers, but that I am willing to try to connect to text and find a deeper understanding of it.

I believe that teachers not only must model reading for pleasure – novels and narrative nonfiction should be a part of who we are – but we must also show the productive struggle that even mature readers often experience with shorter texts, and then show our students that the energy and effort that go into the process of understanding are worth it. And that most importantly, our students can do it too.

I think the moment of struggle is when when a lot of learning can happen. I don’t always time it perfectly; sometimes my students struggle too long, and sometimes I’m too eager to offer “the answer,” but I try to be aware of it. I think that’s all we teachers can do – pay attention to our students and act responsively.

Annotations start off sounding simple (just show your thinking!), but I think when students have different purposes for annotations in different classes and for different types of texts, they can get a bit confused. The purpose of demonstrating thinking is different from what might be the purpose in other classes, and this time, taking more time for more explicit teaching and modeling seemed to be the right call.

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This is a picture from very early in the year when the anchor chart looked a little different. I realize it needs to be updated for each unit, and I’ll get better about that.

I was also reminded that I should update my “sample annotations” anchor chart with each unit, and be more explicit about how students can discover the purpose of annotations. I think I will ask my students if they don’t mind putting some of their own annotations up on our walls, as student work feels like a more authentic way to model the task. It is a good reminder that anchor charts should be dynamic instead of static. They aren’t meant to be handmade posters.

Annotations aren’t revolutionary, they aren’t high-tech, and they shouldn’t be used for every text. But they do have a place, and when done well, they can serve as a window or snapshot into how a student thinks and connects to text. I’ll keep teaching annotation and using this simple activity in my classroom. It’s one of the best ways I know for students to be transparent about their thinking.


Allowing Student Choice through Book Clubs

Getting students to read nonfiction can be a challenge, but I believe that it’s important to get kids reading all kinds of texts, challenging or not. So when we started this nonfiction unit, instead of assigning one title or telling students to find their own individual titles, I decided to offer them some choice in what they read, but not total choice. And I did it through book clubs.

About a week before the official roll-out, I book talked the titles I had chosen, and asked my students write down the titles that they would be interested in reading. I included a variety of topics and structures, and I think there was something for everyone.

Some of the titles offered were Marx for Beginners, Proofiness, In Defense of Food, The Happiness Project, Eyes Wide Open, An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and Guitar Zero.

Putting the book clubs together was a puzzling challenge. I’m not sure what the best way is – it’s all about how many copies of each book are available, and which combination of students prefers which title. It wasn’t easy, and on the day of the roll-out there were some last-minute changes, but it ended up working out.

I gave the books out during the next class period and asked students to really dig in and read for a while. This way they were able to build motivation and momentum for their at-home reading. I asked them to individually check their reading rates with their books, and then to set some realistic individual goals around how much they could and should read per week. Then I asked them to take their books home and read some more, coming to the next class ready to at least talk and think a little bit about their new books.

During the next class, I still didn’t seat them with their book group members. For their quick write, they brainstormed a list of ideas about what it means to be in a  functional book group. What kinds of agreements to group members adhere to? What sort of behaviors do book group members exhibit? Then, at their table groups, which were still not their book groups, I asked them to come to consensus about these points.

Each table group had a small white board and dry erase marker, and before they could put any ideas on the white boards, their table group members had to come to consensus that the idea was worth sticking to, and worth writing down. Once each group had a functional list of book group expectations, they could take their lists to the bigger chart that would become our book group norms.

Only after they had individually thought about what it means to be in a book club, then discussed it in a small group that wasn’t their actual book club, and then agreed as a class on these ideas, did I let them get into their new book clubs.

The reason for this was that I didn’t want anyone to start book clubs without any real thought as to what it means. I also didn’t want to tell my students how to be in a book club because I don’t think it would have “stuck” as well as when they came up with their own norms. And I didn’t want one book club member to start by dominating, or to have any new book club members sitting too quietly. I wanted to offer them as much voice and choice as I could.

The group chart paper ended up looking like this:

It’s not a complete list of book club expectations, but it’s a great start and it represents both individual and group thinking.

Once the book clubs got together, I asked them to set up their own due dates, expectations, and group norms. I asked them to think about how they want to be held accountable and how to hold each other accountable. As I rotated around the room they did not need redirection or any pushing. They had done the thinking required in order to start off on the right foot.

Class ended too soon, as usual. We will finish working on our norms next class, but they all agreed that they knew what they needed to do to get started, and were comfortable with it. Some closing comments from a few of them were about how they liked having a hand in making their own assignments and timelines, and thankfully they even look forward to reading their books.

I look forward to hearing their rich talk in the next few weeks, especially since we are starting to use the nonfiction Notice and Note signposts. 

I wonder how other teachers introduce book clubs, and how much students help in creating the learning situations surrounding book clubs. I’m sure there are other elements I haven’t considered, but I’m looking forward to the coming weeks of student learning with nonfiction.

I believe the learning experience will be richer because we started together, not with the teacher tells students what to do model, but rather in a model where students do the real thinking and planning, which creates the buy-in that is essential to learning. I can’t be the only expert in the room, and I want my students to feel empowered to listen to their own and each other’s voices, and to trust that we all have expert opinions, and that we can all learn together.