I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones recently. It’s a powerful book. I couldn’t put it down and inhaled it in a weekend.
When I finished, I wanted to talk about it, like, now. So I did. I texted my cousin. I read reviews. I talked to anyone who would listen.
In short, I did the work of a reader. As a teacher of readers, I’m reminded of how important it is for us to create space for students to experience this same magic and urgency, to have space to do the work.
That work is about so much more than just the physical act of reading. It’s about wrestling with tough questions, thinking about themes and the way the big ideas relate to our own lives, looking at the way characters change over time.
As a literacy coach I’ve been working with teachers to design book clubs where students can build their literary analysis skills while engaging in reading communities.
Some of our core beliefs around this work:
Yesterday I spent the day with my colleague Emily and her freshman students taking part in a book tasting. Emily and I curated a list of about 20 young adult titles with the help of lists from Nerdy Book Club, Project Lit, and our local librarian. We stacked books on tables and invited students to come to our Book Tasting.
The first round, we asked students to find a book that looked interesting. I held up Time Bomb by Joelle Charbenneau and read the first page. I asked them to do the same with their book — just read the first few pages. What’s your gut reaction. We then asked students to rate the book on a scale of 1-5 on the menu they had (you can find lots of these all over the web).
For the second round, I book-talked Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Students moved to a new table and grabbed a new book. We set the timer for three minutes and let kids take a taste of the new book.
We worked through several rounds, letting kids talk to each other about books periodically (book-talking Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore). The goal to “taste” at least five books. Then we asked students to fill out a google form where they shared their top three choices, which we used to put students in groups (most of them got their first or second choice).
For a long time, I struggled with what teaching looked liked within book clubs. I understood letting kids read books they’d chosen. I knew students needed time to talk about their reading. For too long, though, I relied on the “role sheets” as outlined in Harvey Daniels’s book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. (Daniels himself has since lamented teachers over-zealousness around the role sheets).
But, role sheets didn’t do enough. I didn’t feel like I was teaching and more importantly, I didn’t feel like students were growing as readers and thinkers.
It finally clicked when I read A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts. I realized that there was space within book clubs for the mini-lessons that work so well in writing workshop. In fact, they were necessary. I’ve also had the opportunity in the last year to work with districts that are adopting Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Units of Study for Reading, which has helped inform my thinking tremendously. I realized that when we’re planning the teaching, we need to think about three things:
- Name the skills we want students to be able to do better. What’s the unit’s focus?
- Find a short text we can use as a shared read (we’ve been using Pixar shorts, children’s books, and short stories).
- Keep the mini-lessons mini. And give kids time to practice.
One of the keys of success for our books clubs has been in our planning. We’ve adapted Roberts’s thinking about how to spend time. We’ve started calling them A-B-C days.
- A day: students have time to read (many of our
students do not read at home, or we have limited copies so kids are unable to take books home)
- B day: book club meeting where students talk (we like using Conversation Cards if kids get stuck).
- C day: we teach a mini-lesson and then give students time to practice applying the skill to their book club book.
With these rhythms in mind, we start to map out our time. A week might look like:
There are so many smart ways that teachers assess the work that happens in book clubs. During the process, we are talking with students all the time. We listen to their conversations. We engage in small group teaching when necessary.
For summative assessment, we’ve been thinking about having students do podcasts, or write blogs. Emily plans to have her students write multigenre projects about their books. Another colleague asked her students to create slide decks to share their learning.
We’ve also been thinking about how we might give students a chance to transfer their learning to a performance task. What if we give students a “cold” read and ask them questions that relate to the work they’ve been doing in book clubs? It mimics what many of our students have to do on state testing, and lets us know what we might need to re-teach in the next reading unit.
Book clubs have been transformative for so many of the students we’ve been working with. Kids who haven’t read a book in a long time find themselves thinking and reflecting deeply on the texts they’ve chosen. Some students read more than one book in the 3-4 weeks we spend in this unit. They were talking to each other, trying to figure out meaning.
They are doing the work of readers.