Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.
As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.
While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.
With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.
*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.
Last year around this same time in “the before,” my students were participating in a book tasting to choose their book club books for the fourth quarter of school.
As I walked around the library (no seating chart needed) and looked at my students smile, scowl, and everything in between, students passed around books on their tables. I built up my library of books so I had multiple copies of popular, widely representative books mostly from the ProjectLIT list, and I was very excited to see what students would pick.
I spent the first days of my break leafing through my students’ ranked choices, and I was pleasantly surprised that they almost all fell perfectly into groups where I was able to give them their first choice.
It was my team’s first time trying out book clubs; I was thrilled to try something new and to see what it would teach me! Unfortunately, we all know how that ended–my students never got to do those book clubs, and I did not get to see them again.
Here we are a year later with my current students (including some of those students from last year since I moved up a grade) engaging in overwhelmingly successful book clubs in a hybrid teaching model in a pandemic!
If you told me at the beginning of this dumpster fire of a school year that I would have been able to try out any new instructional model, let alone book clubs, I would have told you to cut out the toxic positivity and leave me to my despair.
I will not lie, the logistics and setting things up was a lot of work and overwhelming at times, but I am so glad we took the time to do this. My students are having meaningful conversations about their books, some are reading a whole book for the first time in years, and almost all engaging more than they have this year because of these clubs.
I am so grateful for this huge bright moment in a pretty bleak year.
As far as logistics go–
I first gathered class numbers from each of my colleagues who do not have their own sets of book club books, and I made sure we could make it work with what I and my one other colleague, Deanna Hinnant, had.
Since last year, we have taken advantage of First Book Marketplace’s low prices, promo codes and book bank prices to gather books for clubs. Once that was settled, and I gave those teachers their books, we had to figure out how to facilitate a book tasting that was both safe and accessible to students online.
My amazing librarian, Tasha James, made us book tastings for students to choose books for their independent reading at the beginning of the year, and I just modified one she had already created. My colleagues who did not feel as tech-savvy reached out to Mrs. James, asking her if she could create their book tastings for them.
Here is the one I created. I gave the students about half of a class to look at the book tasting and to complete this form to rank their choices.
From there, it was pretty easy to get kids into groups and to assign kids who chose not to respond. I intentionally had the groups be a mix of online and on-campus students, but some of my colleagues chose homogeneous groups. I also chose to go through each book and break it into 5 sections that aligned with chapters (if there were any), and I gave them this document in hopes that the groups would mostly stay on the same page. (I know there are date discrepancies between some of the documents. We can thank the Texas Winter Storm for that one!) My colleagues chose to let their students break it into 5 sections themselves and decide as a group where they would reach in their book for each discussion, which seemed to work just as well.
After we had our list of groups, we stayed after school two different days in two different weeks in order to hand out books to online students. We began advertising this well before students even chose their books through parent emails, telling the students at the beginning of every class, and sending Remind101 messages. As expected, there were lots of students who did not pick up their books. We tried our best to meet with these students one-on-one to set up alternate times, to leave the books in the front office for them to get or to explain to them how they can get the book online from our school/county library. At the end, 90% of the students got a hold of their book in one way or another, and the ones who did not were not participating in class at all regardless.
For our assessment, we created a TQE document that you can view here.
We practiced using this method during our reading of The Crucible one time before it was used for book clubs to make sure students understood the method, but also to make tweaks because it was our first time as teachers using the method, too. The “Topic of the Week” aligned with our mini-lessons each week and were merely a suggestion of what to think about as they read. You can find more about the TQE method from the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast episode 103 or from their blog post. This is where we got the idea and modified the method for our purposes.
Overall, I found this method to be an amazing, fairly-easy way to get kids to make their thinking visible and to prepare them for their book club discussions. However, I did have to “fail forward” when I realized during the second book club discussion that I had not made it clear that the “Thoughts” and “Questions” (and maybe epiphanies) portions were to be filled out before their discussion while they read in preparation for the discussion.
The standards we were focusing on for the reading, TQE’s and discussions can be found here.
When I tell you that these book club discussions I listened into made my heart leap in my chest, I am not being hyperbolic in the slightest. These kids, man. They just amaze me.
Students were demonstrating mastery of so many standards, but also just saying such thoughtful things while connecting with each other. It’s everything I have wanted for this year.
It was not a perfect start, and some kids came to their first discussion with only five pages read, but I saw so many kids start to read when they heard how excited their peers were about their reading.
I had a couple groups of students who I actually had to redirect because they would try to talk about their books when we were working on other tasks in class, or I was giving a lesson. Honestly, I do not even mind that they were being disruptive!
I had one student who is designated as SPED who was reading Monday’s Not Coming* by Tiffany D. Jackson who was having a hard time getting into the book and getting motivated. After her groupmate encouraged her and raved about the book, this student read 100 pages in one day. She shared that this will be the first book she’s read in its entirety in years. Many students have been positively affected, but that one student becoming a reader would have been enough to make it all worth it. Fortunately, this is one of many stories of students finding books they love and finally seeing themselves as readers.
I will not lie and tell you that the organization and logistics were not hard and time consuming and frustrating at times. We had students we couldn’t get in contact with. We had different people, including me, out at different points during that unit for weeks at a time and others on our team had to pick up the slack.
We also had an unprecedented winter storm in Texas that took a week of instruction and rocked many of our staff and colleagues’ lives.
Some students never got their books and some students are still just on page 50 after five weeks of reading. In addition, we had students dropping other classes three weeks before the end of the quarter grading period and being added to our classes in the middle of book clubs.
It was not perfect, but it is one of the most impactful things I have done in my classroom since I started doing independent reading with my students, and I cannot believe we were able to pull it off during hybrid teaching with everything else we have added to our plates this year.
As my dad would say, “You can do hard things,” and this hard thing was well worth the effort.
*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.
Rebecca Riggs is currently in her 4th year teaching (feels like 10th) at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She loves recommending books! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs and on Instagram @riggsreaders
I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.
While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.
The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.
Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.
Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time.
If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.
If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.
Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin
“The students are asking me if they’re going to get to do book clubs this year,” Julie told me last week. Her junior English students had participated in a few rounds of book clubs last year and it was encouraging to hear that the learning stuck.
This was validating because last year, teachers worked hard to create experiences with book clubs that were engaging and meaningful (you can read more about that here or here). We noticed that, as Kate Roberts writes in her book A Novel Approach, “Book clubs, when done well, dance along the line of truly authentic student-driven reading and teacher-directed, curriculum-based literacy.”
But, the fact remained that organizing book clubs was challenging. For many teachers, it felt like an insurmountable task. Even though we work with amazing librarians (shout out to Amanda and John!), if we wanted to use current, engaging titles, it was difficult to collect enough titles to give students choice and have enough copies for everyone. Teachers were hauling books in their trunk to school, then back to the library. The logistics became something that was holding teachers back from implementing a practice we knew was good for kids.
Teachers Alex White and Kassidy Hammonds spend a few hours on a Friday sorting books for book clubs. Since nobody wants to do that, we had to find a better system.
So, this year, we decided to make book clubs more sustainable using Book Club Kits, an idea I first heard discussed while working with teachers at Anderson High School in Cincinnati, OH.
What is a Book Club Kit?
The idea is based off of book club kits at public libraries where librarians put together multiple copies of the same title along with questions and other resources. Put simply, a school Book Club Kit is a collection of multiple copies of multiple titles, along with a possible plan for implementation.
How do we make a Book Club Kit?
Step one: Collect titles
Hopefully if you’re using book clubs, there’s a culture of literacy in place so students might be able to help identify titles. If that is not yet part of the culture, there are lots of places you might go to look for ideas. You can visit websites like Nerdy Book Club and Pernille Ripp’s blog and the Disrupt Texts site and hashtag. NoveList Plus, a resource we can access through our public library, also has excellent recommendations. Additionally, there are lots of threads on Twitter where teachers and students share titles.
Identify what students might like. Conduct a survey. Do an inventory of your book room to see what you already have. Ask students for their recommendations. Scour the library. Talk to kids.
Once we did this, I compiled titles into a document and sent to teachers for feedback. From there we were able to use department funds to purchase enough books for six kits (each kit has enough books for a class set). If you don’t have funds available, you might consider Donors Choose, or participate in the #clearthelist social media campaign.
It was also important that the titles could, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop outlines in her scholarly work, act as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors for readers. Therefore, we were intentional about having a wide representation in both content and authors (to read more, read Amy’s post here).
Step Two: Cluster the texts
We didn’t want these books to just sit on shelves to be put into hodge-podge book club configurations. Instead, we decided to be intentional about the way we clustered the titles. For example, in freshman ELA, one of the kits is centered around the theme Coming of Age; 10th graders might participate in a book club around novels in verse, or maybe a genre study of mystery titles. In 11th grade, there’s a kit around memoir. A book club around literary non-fiction for 12th graders contains the most complex titles. You might think about these groupings in three main ways:
Genre (novels in verse, mystery, literary non-fiction, etc)
Theme (coming of age, overcoming obstacles, etc.)
Author Study (Jason Reynolds, Nikki Grimes, K.A. Holt, Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper are examples of authors whose writing is varied enough and would make great book club possibilities)
Make it accessible. We put all the books in clear plastic bins. There’s a sign-out sheet to keep track of the kits. Each kit has a list of the titles and how many copies, along with a QR codes that link to a corresponding unit plan one might use with that set of titles.
I finished organizing the kits last week and already two of them are out in classrooms. We’re getting ready to launch the Mystery Book Clubs once we get back from Thanksgiving and I’m excited to see the way a genre study will play out.
Now that you have your Book Club Kits organized, I strongly encourage you to check out the book Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johanssen (and if you use the code NCTE19 you get 30% off and free shipping!).
Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH, where she gets to work with the best book nerds in all the land. She just finished reading Beartown by Frederick Backman and is in that sad phase of book-mourning where the next book can never live up. She welcomes your suggestions.
British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.
One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.
This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:
Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.
Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.
The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.
The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.
With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.
Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.
Book clubs, or literature circles as some like to call them, can be a real bonus when it comes to not only getting some students to read, but in helping students talk about books in meaningful ways and learn about literature through discussion.
I like to think of Book Clubs as discovery: Students lead the learning. They choose the books they’ll read (often within parameters I give them) set their reading schedules, generate questions about their books, and engage in small group discussions. Each group discovers something, or a series of somethings, that strikes them as readers. Book Clubs by nature are collaborative, yet they can be powerfully personal.
“I really liked being able to just read the book and discuss it like a real book club would, not with any assignment. It gave me the freedom to enjoy the book and not have to focus on finding anything specific.” Emily, 11 grade
When I first started doing Book Clubs with my students many years ago, I didn’t have a clear purpose or direction, and that often created a bit of chaos for me and my students. Although most students did the reading, I didn’t have a plan on how to teach into the reading or any notion of how to authentically assess learning. I knew I didn’t want to teach books but to teach readers, and I knew what that meant when it came to self-selected independent reading — but not for book clubs.
I’ve learned that to have success with the negotiated choice of book clubs, I must do some heavy thinking before I ever choose the book titles. (My hope this coming year is that my students will choose the titles. I’ve never trusted myself enough to try trusting them to choose. I’m learning.)
Here’s a little list of questions I try to answer in order to clarify my purpose and to make a plan for accelerating learning within student book clubs:
What are my goals for my readers? What are my goals for my writers?
How can I help my readers and writers set their own goals?
What books can I offer as choices that will help students meet these goals? Do I include a variety of books that will meet the various reading levels of my students?
How will I help students set expectations for their reading and discussions?
How will I know if students are really reading? How can I help my students hold one another accountable?
What whole-class, skills-based mini-lessons might I teach when students are engaged in book clubs?
How might my students collaborate with other students who may be reading different books?
How might my students collaborate with other students, perhaps on a different campus, who may be reading the same books?
How will I assess student learning, based on the instructional goals I set for book clubs?
The answers to these questions guide my planning. Many of the answers look the same when applied to self-selected independent reading and student choice in writing. The routines of workshop remain the same: We read, talk, write, and talk — every day. And I do a whole lot of listening.
There’s so much to say about book clubs, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to make them work. We have to know our students. We have know their needs and align those needs with instructional goals and practices that best meet them. I think book clubs are one good option for doing so, and I can’t wait to get them started in the fall with my seniors. I’m thinking we’ll do at least two rounds: memoirs and something social sciences, but fiction with multiple or unique perspectives could be interesting.
I’m still thinking.
Amy Rasmussen just spent a week in Chicago at a conference on poetry, hosted by The Poetry Foundation. Her notebook now sings with melodic musings and personal poems. In a few weeks, Amy will start a new position, teaching senior English at Hebron High School in Lewisville, TX. She’s excited about learning with young people again everyday. Follow her @amyrass
Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods. Third quarter always hits juniors hard. It is a reality check that changes are ahead. It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects. My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities. My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.
But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked. I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three. I wanted them to read, to engage, to think. For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.
For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing. I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking. I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment. I get that, too.
I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways. Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters. I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.
Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social. Why grade it with check-listy parameters? I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another. To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would. To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.
So I decided I would assign no accountability checks. Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.
Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear. Why not step aside and set them free?
I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.
Students owned it.
There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays. Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights. I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).
I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world. Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins. Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.
There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade. Students did the work because the elements were there: choice, time, conversation. They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.
I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.
Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break. She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.
We had a snow day last Monday. For those of you that know anything about Vancouver, Canada and the surrounding suburbs, a snow day is incredibly rare. I also know that those of you who live in more wintery climates may have been inclined to laugh at the amount of snow that constituted a snow day as I am sure it would have been considered a light dusting in many other areas of the world. In British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, however, a dumping of snow is a rare event and a school closure due to snow an even rarer event.
For my Monday snow day, I decided to take advantage of the unanticipated day off to do some reading. There is something to be said about being able to immerse yourself in a book and read it cover to cover in one sitting as snow softly falls outside your window.
The book I ended up reading was The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, which is a powerful modern dystopian novel where the world has nearly been destroyed by climate change. The majority of the people who have survived the natural disasters that comes with climate change have lost the ability to dream with the exception of the indigenous people of North America who can still dream. Because of this, the indigenous people of North America are being hunted for their bone marrow because their bone marrow carries the key to recovering the ability to dream.
I picked up this book on that snowy Monday because I wanted the time to read it more closely. I had actually first encountered the book a few years ago when it was part of the CBC Canada Reads competition and have since added it to the rotation in my dystopian literature circle unit. Canada Reads is a yearly competition where several Canadian novels are nominated (each year the nominated books all centre around a theme). The Canada Reads website describes the competition as being like a “literary survivor” where each book is read and championed by a Canadian celebrity. Each week the champion of each book will debate the merits of their book and one book a week is voted off until the remaining book is declared champion.
While I have followed Canada Reads for many years, a few years ago I introduced it to my Honours English 11 class and had the students participate in their own version of Canada Reads. In groups, they each choose one of the Canada Reads novels to champion and they participate in our own “literary survivor” in class at the same time as the Canadian celebrities. Using the “literary survivor” model in my class has had a huge impact on my students. They have been introduced to some great Canadian reads, but have also become excited and analytical readers of their novels as they are debating for the survival of their chosen book each week. They love to see how their arguments stand up to the celebrity arguments (and I find my students’ arguments are often much better than the celebrity ones) and to see if the book that survives the longest in our class is the same one that survives in the Canada Reads competition. At the end of the class competition, the students have closely read a novel, analyzed it and debated it without feeling like they have done any work at all.
Pam McMartin is English department head and Senior School teacher librarian at a school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is currently thawing out after our short burst of unusual winter weather and is looking forward to the return of more mild temperatures.
I am committed and inspired to move into true Reader’s Writer’s Workshop after NCTE and a near semester under my belt in a new school. I left for the conference in Houston with a plan to read The Great Gatsby in December, and as much as I wanted to totally scrap it and start with a routine inspired by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in 180 Days, I didn’t.
Although every classroom minute is precious and developing readers is the most timely need, I wanted to give myself time to process this shift, to think through how my classroom would run, and brainstorm how to help my students, who from my inquiries have only experienced the full class novel, navigate texts with more autonomy and independence.
Going from trained text regurgitation to full choice would have been a huge, potentially disastrous, shift for my students. Since August, they have looked to me to create meaning, to judge whether their writing is “right” or “good,” asking what I think about the text versus presenting their own original idea. These students will grow immensely from workshop, which makes me so excited for January, but I felt they first need scaffolding up to meaning-making and trusting their interpretation and ideas.
I created a Book Club atmosphere with students for our reading of The Great Gatsby, having students meet in “Discussion Tables” with their peers to process the text with each other. As 180 Days suggests, I asked students to come with one question and one comment to their discussion tables. Students were also responsible for close reading and annotating/sketchnoting key scenes of the text, commenting on development and language. Their annotations served as a launch point for continuing and deepening the conversation. A Book Club-style approach allowed for a more structured release of responsibility to students while maintaining the shared experience of full class novels my students are accustomed to. I stood back as an observer, listening in to their conversations, witnessing students make meaning together versus wait to be guided to a single answer or idea.
As the unit was primarily based on discussion and conversation, so was their culminating assessment, the “Persona Discussion.” Students were given a choice of what character they wanted to embody, from the core characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan to more minor characters like Mr. Gatz or Meyer Wolfsheim, even “background” characters like the party goers were an option for students. The core characters provided limited space for interpretation while added characters, like party goers, allowed for more creativity in the persona. Students signed up for a character and prepared by thinking through their characters in their journals.
The discussion works like a Socratic Seminar, where students are the drivers of the discussion and can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction. I created this assignment for AP Language students who loved to debate and discuss in Chicago–they adopted the persona of Henrietta Lacks’ family, doctors, and author Rebecca Skloot after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. For Henrietta’s Persona Discussion, the central question of the discussion was a quote about medical ethics.
Students felt that the smaller characters were given a voice, an idea we discussed earlier in the passage when examining the wealth and marginalization of “the other” characters in efforts to disrupt the traditional text.
Maggie, who played Myrtle, said she liked feeling immersed in the book: “At first, I felt like Myrtle would only ask questions to Tom or George, but as we all started being our characters, I thought about how Myrtle and Gatsby were actually more alike and could have been friends, and I wanted to ask Daisy about her marriage more.” Jordyn said the discussion was better for understanding the web of deception because “…it was like seeing the book as a play or real life and it made our group discussions more real or, like, meaningful.” After discussing the text as a reader so much, Riley, a reluctant reader who has learned, as he admitted, to “fake it,” said, “It was more fun to prepare to play someone than to think about the big ideas for a regular seminar. It made me want to do well and really know Tom.”
As we build into full workshop mode in January, students have a foundation for how to enter a text, methods for creating meaning, and more confidence in their thinking. Students were engaged with this type of discussion and reflected about their enjoyment, so I am going to incorporate it into next semester, perhaps jigsawing the characters from students’ choice reading or book clubs together from different realms or as a way to review major characters and texts before the AP Literature exam. We’ll see what other “personas” develop!
Maggie Lopez is enjoying Utah ski season while re-reading 180 Days as she preps for second semester, American Girls: The Secret Life of American Teenagers before bed, and The Poet X in class. She wishes you a very merry, restful holiday season!
While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.
Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.
To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.
While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.
Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.
Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.
With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.
Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.
With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.
Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.
Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.