Category Archives: Book Clubs

Creating Conversations That Move

In my work as a literacy coach, I have the privilege of working with teachers as they implement elements of reading and writing workshop into their classrooms. Right now I’m working with a team of 7th grade ELA teachers in book clubs centered around social issues.

You know that feeling you have when you unleash your students into the world of small group discussions? You’re excited because you know they’re smart and they’ve actually been reading the book. But you’re nervous because, well, they’re kids. And you’re not in control and that’s always a little nerve-wracking.

That’s how we felt on the first day of book club discussions last week. Students were engaged in their book club texts, reading with vigor. As a class, they had discussed the ways how books can be windows, mirrors and doors. Students had learned about point of view and perspective. On this day, they were to talk in small groups about what they’d read so far.

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We provided students with a stack of questions from the Table Topics cards I learned about in a tweet from Tricia Ebarvia and we stepped back to watch the magic. Soon we noticed that, well, there wasn’t a lot of magic.

To be fair, it was magic-ish. Students were eager to share. With some nudging from teachers, students used the vocabulary from the perspective mini-lesson. But these normally talkative kids just didn’t have much to say beyond “I really like this” or “It’s interesting.” Before we resorted back to teacher-driven “discussion,” we took a deep breath and went back to our roots, to the core of what we know works in a workshop classroom: Choice. Time. Explicit teaching.

We were on the right track: Students made choices about the texts they were reading. We had carved out time for their reading to “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1983) . But, we’d forgotten about the teaching! Sometimes we teachers get so busy setting up the conditions for success, we forget the key to it.Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 11.31.07 AM

Armed with this realization, we developed a plan. We needed to explicitly teach students the art of conversation. So this week when we get back (after snow days and sick days!), we’re going to try a new approach.

Models: We know that when students are learning something new, they need a model to begin to envision how success might look. We are going to watch a video of 4th grade students having a book club discussion. Together we’ll create an anchor chart in our reading notebooks titled What We Notice About Good Book Club Discussions. I know, though, that having this list of traits isn’t going to be enough for the thinking to transfer to action.

Naming the Moves: We know from Katie Wood Ray that naming things gives them power and makes the moves accessible. So as students think about the kinds of moves they notice the students from the video making, we will go back and name them. Inspired by the moves Joseph Harris outlines in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things With Text, we decided we want students to be able to:

  • Agree & Explain
  • Connect & Explain
  • Counter & Explain
  • Ask Clarifying Questions

The first three are moves we’d like to introduce in the next writing unit when we focus on using evidence in their own writing (modeled after the super smart work happening in the National Writing Project C3 Writers Program). We decided to bring these moves into the discussions as a way to front-load. As students discuss what they notice, we’ll be intentional about using this language to name those noticings. 

Nurturing: We know that as students first try out these moves, they’ll need support. We don’t want to develop an over-reliance on thinking stems, but we want to help bridge theory into action. We will invite students to paste the sentence stems handout into their Writer’s Notebooks and to keep it handy as they talk. We are reminded that when you first learn something, it’s okay to feel a little clumsy, but the only way to get better is to keep practicing.

I’m excited to spend time talking with students tomorrow, to dig into texts, and to teach them how to uncover their thinking.

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH, area. She loves connecting with other educators, including on Twitter @angelafaulhaber. Her perfect day includes snuggling with her three kids, talking about school with her math teacher husband, and eating nachos with her girlfriends. 




Promoting Community in the Workshop Classroom–and Out!

IMG_6878-COLLAGEThere were about two weeks of school when we came back that I wondered if I was doing something wrong.  It seemed like I had WAY too much time on my hands, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was just forgetting about responsibilities, and therefore shirking them in some way, or if I actually was managing my time better.

(Scoffs) Of course, it wasn’t the latter.  I simply FORGOT that I was in grad school.  This past week, as grad school classes started up again, I thought, “Ohhhh yeahhhh, that’s what was missing.”

I have questioned my life choices many times throughout this graduate student plus full-time (and then some) teacher season.  However, it is increasingly amazing to me the fact that teaching is more a study in behavioral psychology than it really is in any content.  The questions we ask ourselves are never just, What should I teach next?  Rather, they are loaded questions like, What can I teach next that will engage students, help them reach their potential, and provide a learning experience that will last beyond my classroom?

For this reason, my current class–focusing on social and emotional components of learning–is rocking my world.  The ore I read, the more I realize that it is my job not only to encourage healthy social and emotional characteristics in individual students, but also with each other.

So as my students are gain their reading strides this year, I’m pushing them to talk to each other about it more than ever before.  Here are some way I’m promoting community in my classroom, even among different class periods.

The Reader Hall of Fame:  This was my colleague’s idea, so I cannot take credit at all.  She started taking pictures of her students with their first finished book, and then she adds a small strip of paper with each new title they finish.  It looks AWESOME, and it really allows a constant brag-on-the-students feel to the classroom.  Students love coming in and seeing the new developments of their friends, the titles they’re reading, and the PAGE COUNT.  Yes.  They compare page counts like nobody’s business.

Book Clubs: This semester I am doing my first round of book clubs with my AP group.  Last semester, the students begged for book clubs.  They wanted to be able to read with their friends, which I think is a totally worthy desire that I do not mind milking for all it’s worth.  My goal is to come up with discussion questions along with the students that will promote discussion about life and the world, as well as education (our thematic topic for this unit).

Whole Class Reading Challenge:  Daniel Pink is haunting me in my sleep for this one–re: extrinsic motivation is not sustainable.  I know. However, when it comes to high school seniors, you sometimes have to pull out all the stops.  I follow Brian Kelley on Twitter (@briank) and he so graciously shared this reading challenge bingo with me.  I told my seniors each time they complete seven squares as a class–each square completed by a new student–they could bring to class.  When we complete three cycles, they can have a movie day.  I’m a sucker.  Feel free to troll me on Twitter.

Red Thread Notebooks, Technology Style:  This semester, my colleague and I are trying to get our seniors communicating across class periods, and even between our two classes.  In order to do this, we are going to take Shana’s Red Thread Notebooks, and take them to FlipGrid and possible Canvas discussion boards.  I hope to have different boards for big topics like LOVE, DEATH, FAITH, FREEDOM, on FlipGrid and allow time in class for students to respond to those boards and each other, referencing their current reading.

#bookstagram:  I love this hashtag on Instagram, and it provides a great way to connect to students in their own world.  I want to show a few photos from the hashtag to students in support of my book talks, and then offer an opportunity for students to #bookstagram their own book, or search the hashtag for their next read.

“Why I Read” Wall:  I’m a sentimental freak when it comes to second semester seniors.  They roll their eyes constantly as I say, “Do you REMEMBER when you said you would never read?!  Look at you now!”  Last week, tears streamed down my face–single ones, thank you–as I told them I believed in them and I’m so glad they’re here.  Beyond the sentimentality simply being my personality, it is also a teaching tactic that requires teenagers to reflect.  This is a skill I never thought would be so difficult to teach, but it is!  I want students to think of reasons why they read, and create a little notecard to hang in the hallway.  We could even steal their pictures from the Reader Hall of Fame and put them out there.  This would provide an amazing message for all the students who come into my classroom’s corner of the world that reading is more than just assignment.

And that’s the dream right there, folks.

So how do you promote community across classrooms through reading?

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, a deadly combination at 7 in the morning. Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much. 


What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?


Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at




5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

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Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward


4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 


Join the #3TTBookClub

We’ve probably all seen a ton of posts about the “best” books of 2016, and our To Read Next lists and wish lists and carts in numerous online book shops have grown like crazy. Thankfully, I have some grant money just itching to be spent on new books for my classroom library. Here’s a list all in one place, if you want to take a look. Thanks @shawnacopola!

We’ve also probably set reading goals for ourselves. I played in my new planner, setting some goals that I will share with my students when I ask them to create their new challenges.


If you are looking for a way to spice up your reading in 2017, consider this:

Join the #3TTBookClub on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.

Why #3TTBookClub?

In the introduction to her book Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller writes: “I want my students to enjoy reading and find it meaningful when they are in my class, but I also want them to understand why reading matters to their lives. A reading workshop classroom provides a temporary scaffold, but eventually students must have self-efficacy and the tools they need to go it alone. The goal of all reading instruction is independence. If students remain depends on teachers to remove all obstacles that prevent them from reading, they won’t become independent readers.”

How do we help our students become independent readers if we are not independent readers ourselves?

I am often surprised at how many English teachers I meet who admit to not reading. I wrote a bit about that in a post last year, and I extend the same invitation:  Are you walking the talk in your content? (The invitation to guest post on this blog stands as well. Every teacher’s voice matters. Your voice matters.)

How will #3TTBookClub work?

We batted this one about a bit, but it didn’t take long to decide that even when it comes to book clubs, choice matters. Each month Shana, Lisa, and I will choose a book. We will introduce our books on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page and invite other readers to read along with us. Read one of the books, two of them, or all three (My personal goal, but, you know…time… and all that feedback to leave on all those papers.)

We will share ideas on how we might book talk certain books with our students, share insights from pedagogy books we read, share ways we might use excerpts to teach craft, and just overall share our deep and abiding book love.

What have you got to lose?

We hope you will join us in #3TTBookClub in 2017 — and please, use the #3TTBookClub hashtag and invite your friends. See you on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.





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Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.





Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes


A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.


Book Clubs in AP English: Just let them talk

Some of it was great. Some of it not so much. I’m talking about the book clubs in my classroom this Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.03 PMyear. The great was actually my students reading and talking to one another about that reading. The not so much — the way I did assessment.

This is what I learned and what I will change for next year:

Book Clubs serve as a way to challenge my readers into the more complex books that many of my students would never choose for themselves. Book Clubs also allow my readers to talk about books in an authentic way without the strictures of guided reading questions or anything else that might lead to Readicide. (‘Read-i-cide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” –Kelly Gallagher) I wrote about the importance of balance literacy and how book clubs fit into that in this post.

I provide a short list of titles that I know contain fantastic stories of resilience, survival, hope, courage, and any other trait that prods readers to relate to the human experience. I introduce the books, usually with book trailers or video interviews of the author’s, and I include either on paper or a projected slide the synopsis and ratings from Goodreads or Amazon.

Students select their books, often talking with one another and making selections together. I ask students to purchase their own books, so they can annotate anything “interesting, intriguing, puzzling, contradictory, or you just plain do not understand.” Since most of my students come from less affluent families, we talk about the importance of libraries and surrounding ourselves with texts that can inform and influence our thinking. Often, students will purchase more than one of the books I introduce for book clubs. I also have a few copies of the texts in my room that students may check out if they cannot purchase their own. I always think my copies will be used more than they are, but I’ve learned that my readers like to buy books. Most feel the sense of ownership that I want them to feel.

Our first book club this year, I gave students a choice of the following titles, all centered around themes of family and parents and how they influence our upbringing and our choices:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (literary non-fiction)

More students read The Glass Castle than any of the others, but every book was represented in at least one book club of three to six students. Students loved The Glass Castle, and they told me that they could relate to much of Walls’ upbringing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.19 PMAssessment:  For this first book club, I asked students to read with an eye looking for theme. They would work with their book clubs to craft a mind map that included numerous quotes from the book that contributed to the theme, and they would analyze these quotes as part of the mind map. They could create the mind map as a paper poster or online. As they read the book, they were to mark the text like I had taught with the short passages of text we’d read together in class, and they were to also look for sentences and phrases and passage that pointed to theme.

My students did not have a clue how to do that. Most did not mark their books, so when the project time rolled around, they ended up scouring through the book or searching for quotes on Goodreads or elsewhere to find enough quotes that they could plop into their mind maps. I needed to provide more guidance in annotating, and in reading for beautiful sentences, and in making thematic connections, and so much more.

Also, I allowed students to work in groups to create their mind maps. This did not work because no one in the group would rise up and be the leader. They were new in the class and new in their friendships with one another. Group work is a topic for another post, really. This time it failed, and I’ll need to do a lot more prep work before I spend as much class time on this kind of project ever again (if I ever do).

Our second book club, students choice a title from this short list, all centered around themes of culture and how these cultures influence us:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

More readers chose Sarah’s Key than any of the others. Students find stories of the Holocaust fascinating, and that shelf is a popular one in my classroom library. (Erika’s, too.)  Many students read The Namesake, and at least one book club read each of the others.

Assessment:  This one was even more lame than the first. Sometimes I feel the pull to get back to a Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.33 PMmore traditional pedagogy. I am the only one on my campus who fully implements readers and writers workshop, so I listen in often to what other teachers have their students do. If you teach AP English, at some point, you have probably had students write a hexagonal writing over a piece of literature. (Hexagonal because student write thinking about their knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as it relates to the book. It sounds like a great assignment.)

It was the worst writing my students completed this year — if they completed it at all.

I know why. There was no authenticity in it. Follow the structure I gave you. Each paragraph should be about this… No wonder they didn’t care about writing well. I was their only audience, and I was making them write something worse than a book report.

We wasted a lot of time. (The grading policy in my district requires that I reassess major grades. Hey, let’s write this paper again since you cared so much about it the first time. Right.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.45 PMMy readers would have benefitted more from a gift of time to talk about the books more. Shana posted about the value of book clubs for talk earlier this year, and after two subpar experiences I began to agree:  “asking students to keep the conversation [about their books] going for 20 straight minutes provides valuable time for students to build relationships [around conversations about their reading.]”

I would just let them talk.

Our third book club students selected titles from this short list, all centered on war (or internal war) and its influences on individuals and humanity:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (literary non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The majority of my readers chose to read ROOM or The Bell Jar. They loved Room, and didn’t think The Bell Jar lived up to its hype.

I scheduled more opportunities for students to talk about their books. I wandered the room, sitting at Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.57 PMgroups and listening in as conversations circled in and out and back again. Often, I placed a stack of TableTopic cards for book clubs in the center of their table, and students used these to guide their discussions. (Looks like the book clubs version of TableTopics is no longer available. Sad.)

Next year, I will do this again. I might ask students to look for significant passages so they can practice analysis on a page they select for themselves. Here’s a post that I’ll probably show them with a sample passage for craft study.

I might have them create a found poem or a black out poem.

Or I might just let them read and talk and read and talk some more.

That’s what I do in my own book club.


If you have your own suggestions for improvement, please share them in the comments.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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