Tag Archives: creating readers

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

Why I Applaud The Student Who Reads Only Two Books

imageedit_5_2583117499Author, teacher, and reading-writing workshop guru Nancie Atwell recently won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. I have been a fan of Atwell’s work since I read her book In the Middle during my first year of graduate school. In fact, I was star struck two years ago when Atwell sat on the floor next to me during an NCTE workshop (note my shoulder proudly photo bombing Shana’s picture of the goddess herself). While I have subscribed to Atwell’s philosophy since I began my career in education, I was shocked to read in the media coverage that her students on average read 40 books per year.

My students do not.

Don’t get me wrong; the majority of my students read a large amount, yet while I could calculate the average, it would grossly misrepresent the true value of their accomplishments. I have some students who breathe books and complete them at breakneck speed. They add leaves to our book tree at an astonishing rate, yet admittedly not all my students are like that. By the end of the year, some have only completed two or three independent books in total. As a first year teacher (last year), I felt like I had failed these students. As far as I was concerned, the good teachers didn’t run into this problem. They only spoke about the record-breaking kids, not the ones that kept me wracking my brain for a solution. It felt like I was the only teacher who had the two-book-reader.

Last year, mine was TJ. TJ couldn’t seem to make it through a book. Many of my hesitant readers have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders; in past classes, they have felt little success in reading whole class novels. When they arrive in my classroom they are resistant to choosing their own independent reading books. TJ was no exception; he had ADHD and struggled to focus on his reading both in and out of class. I’d watch him stare at a page for five minutes straight without being able to settle his mind and read a line. During conferences TJ discussed his book and claimed he was interested in it, yet he moved at a snail’s pace. By the end of his foray with Jarhead, I couldn’t imagine him undergoing the same tedious process with another book. I thought he’d quit. But he didn’t. Through reading conferences, daily reading time, and check-ins with his parents, I was able to help TJ develop a routine and gradually become a reader. Yet the greatest influence was TJ’s friends. Seeing so many of his peers reading on a daily basis motivated TJ to continue working towards his goals.

By the end of the year, TJ had read two independent reading books and three whole class reads, “more books than [he] had ever read before.” This was a feat arguably equal to if not mightier than some of my students who read 80 or more books. TJ developed persistence and stamina even if he couldn’t keep up with many of his peers. He was proud of his accomplishments and determined to become a better reader the following year. As a teacher, that’s what I want for my students—to push them to succeed and accomplish more than they thought they were capable of.

We all have those students (or maybe it’s still just me) but we must praise and hold these students in high esteem. We must brag about their successes and triumphs just as much as we praise the work of our highly motivated readers. After all, every book is a learning experience and an accomplishment.

Do you have a “two-book reader”? What is your story, and how did you work to motivate that student?

Growing Readers

Autumn in my New Hampshire school district.

Autumn in my New Hampshire school district.

In New England, where I teach, time is measured by temperature. New Englanders cherish Indian summers (the bout of warmth before fall settles in); we sense the bite of autumn, and can smell an oncoming snow. We are a community of seasons, and ultimately these changes dictate the course and development of our year. In turn, to show the development of my classes’ reading progress throughout the year, I drew my inspiration from what New England is famous for—its foliage. To visually represent my classes reading progress within the reading workshop, I developed a reading tree.

The concept of the tree is simple: for every book read, students received a leaf. On the leaf they wrote their initials, the book they read, and the author. They would then staple the leaf to their class’ branch. In turn, students had a visual representation of their individual progress (because they put their initials on the leaves) as well as their class’ progress. They would look to the tree to see what books were the most popular/appeared on the tree most often.

The bare tree before students arrived.

The bare tree before students arrived.

The reading tree exhibits student work and promotes individual success. In addition, it also reinforces teamwork since students look to see how their class is doing as a whole. Furthermore, the tree inspires friendly competition between classes. When I first introduce the tree, I tell students that the class with the most books read wins an ice cream party at the end of the year. This year, due to increased federal health regulations on snacks during the school day, my rules have changed. Instead, students will be able to drop two of their lowest reading scores. Unlike last year, I will tally the total books per class every quarter instead of at the end of the year to determine each quarter’s winner.

Construction for the tree is relatively simple and can be used from year to year.


  • One concrete form tube sawed in half. I purchased mine from Home Depot and they sawed it in half for me
  • Two cans of brown spray paint. I used a textured spray paint similar to Rust-oleum’s multicolored textured spray paint, but you can use any type
  • A ream of brown paper—the same type you use to cover bulletin boards
  • A staple gun and staples.
  • Four packs of different colored paper for the leaves.
  • Brown or black duct tape
  • Bulletin board


  1. Spray paint the concrete form tube with the two cans of brown spray paint. This will serve as your trunk.
  2. Pull large sections of the paper of the ream and begin twisting the paper. As you twist the paper, begin stapling it to the concrete tube using the staple gun. Continue ripping off multiple pieces of paper from the ream, twist and intertwine them as you go along. This will make your trunk look three-dimensional and more realistic. Leave long ends on the bottom. Twist these to a point to create the roots of the tree.
  3. Before you get to the top of the trunk, fashion what looks like a strap. I did this by taking a piece of the brown paper and folding it to make a 2’ X 6” rectangle to wrap around the top of the trunk and affix to the wall. I reinforced the back of the piece of paper with brown duct tape. I then put this strap around the front of the trunk where the bulletin board first meets the concrete tube. I stapled the strap to the tree then the excess ends of the strap to the bulletin board to ensure that the tree wouldn’t fall over once it was complete.
  4. Finally, I continued twisting individual brown pieces of paper and then layering them by twisting multiple pieces together to create a thicker branch. Make sure to create a branch for each of your classes that will be participating.
  5. As you create the larger branches, staple them to the bulletin board. Because the paper is pliable, it is easily to manipulate to look more like a tree. Add smaller branches by twisting additional paper scraps.
  6. Cut out small leaves and store them in a jar or bag to give out to students as they finish their books. I usually have a volunteer cut them out for me so that I have a bulk amount for each quarter.
  7. Get excited to watch your tree (and readers) blossom!
    The reading tree full of leaves at the end of last year.

    The reading tree full of leaves at the end of last year.

While the tree may look complex, it does not take an extraneous amount of time to complete or teach to students. Last year, I allowed my classes to pick which branch they would like to use. Furthermore, I color coded the leaves based on the quarter. Each quarter, I would let my students pick the new leaf color. Green was the first quarter, red was second, orange was third, and yellow was fourth. Just as fall foliage shows the change of seasons in New England, the changing leaves showed my students their development and growth as readers throughout the year.




You Should Read the Book ______________________

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Like a lot of other people I know, I like books lists.

My friend Kelly posted a list on Facebook last week, challenging her closest friends to join her in a read-a-thon. I thought the list looked dull, the majority of the titles classics I had to read in middle and high school. I’d read 49 books on that list of 100, and the author had asserted “most people haven’t even read 6.” I was a lit major in college. I get it.

And I like to read. Most of my students do not.

I watch for interesting book lists because I am always adding titles to my classroom library. I watch for books that my students will read–like the books on this post: 21 YA Novels that Pack a Serious Genre Punch or this one:  15 YA Novels to Watch Out for This Spring.

See, these lists are more like temptation for bibliophiles like me than “These are the best books ever and you should read them” lists, which do little for the book addict in me. Huge difference.

I have a growing contention with anything “you must read.”  (Okay, not anything. I do require my students to read short works that we study for craft, and analyze and discuss together.) Too many students have told me it’s the force feeding of “boring” books that has made them hate reading.

I know that some might contend that it’s the way those books were taught, not the books themselves that turned kids off to reading. I get it. And I’m guilty of it, too. It’s not like I have never taught a whole class novel, but I doubt I ever will again.

I have a few colleagues who agree with me and many more teacher friends from across the nation who are more interested in developing readers than teaching books; my #UNHLit13 peeps Shana, Erika, Emily, and Penny for sure. Heather, too. She saw Kelly’s Facebook post, and I knew her ire was up when she commented: “I still have to ask. What makes these books more of a must read than any other book out there on the market?”

The topic must have lingered because she blogged about it here: Recommended Reading–Reading Lists. Heather’s question is a good one:

Who gets to decide what the BEST or the TOP or the MUST READ books are for

any given category of interest?

I recently read Janet Potter’s 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To and saved it to use as a mentor text at the end of the year when my students do their final personal reading evaluation. Potter asserts “What [book lists] miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery,” and she produces a lovely list of ways we can decide which books we choose to read. That is what I want.

I want students to choose to read. 

“You should read the book that your favorite band references in their lyrics.

You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed “To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.

You should read the book whose main character has your first name.

You should read the book that you find on the library’s free cart whose cover makes you laugh.”

I am with Janet Potter.


You should read the book you choose to.

I hope that I can provide enough opportunity, enough time, enough titles that my students will have some kind of positive experience with books. I hope they will notice when people are reading, and they’ll peek at the cover and be curious enough to search out the title.

That’s what readers do.

We notice books. We notice others reading.


Dear Readers, how about we write our own list. Complete the sentence in the comments.

You should read the book ________________________________________.

Part II. In an AP Class, Shouldn’t It Be about the Reading?

Angels sang to me again today. This doesn’t really happen too often, but when it comes to awesome adventures with students and books, the choir starts belting out in fff.

Based on the feedback to my post on Wednesday, I know many of my peers feel the same way as I do about AP students and reading–or not reading–as the case may be. I appreciate the comments and the emails and the encouragement. (I gave a student the Pulitzer Prize Winner Tinkers today, and another one asked for a copy of The Great Gatsby with no prompting from me whatsoever. I know I am doing something right here.)

I’m pretty much the advocate for independent reading on my campus. I talk about it every chance I get: slip it into a conversation here, there, and everywhere. Sometimes the words work their way into another teacher’s thinking, and Hallelujah! the angels bust out in song.

Read this email I got from my friend, Tess Mueggenborg. She teaches our gifted and talented Globesophomores in a special humanities course, which combines AP World History and Honors English II, and AP Literature. She and I share a lot–some things curriculum related, other things not. When we first worked together six years ago, it was as a team teaching the G/T course: me English/her history. I can tell you this:  Tess loves classic literature–some of which I’d never heard of. Gilgamesh, Horus the Hawk. Sigh.

For the past few years Tess’s heart’s been changing (I say that tongue in cheek because her heart is shiny gold), and she’s allowed for much more student choice in all her English classes. This fall she asked for funds to create a World Literature library of contemporary and complex books for her advanced students. Our ELA coordinator granted the request, and. . .

Read this. You’ll hear the choir.


Thought you might like to hear (and read) what’s going on with the new novels in World Experience … Last Friday, we had a day of “book speed dating.”  The students had about 60 seconds with each novel, and if the book interested them, they put a sticky note with their name on the back cover.  Then we divvied up the books, which proved to be arduous but entertaining.  Some of these kids were REALLY passionate about which book they ended up with! Today, they had their first assignment (other than “start reading!”) – a blog post.  Here are the questions I posed:

By now, you should be 1/4 to 1/3 through your novel (if not more!).  Based on what you’ve read thus far, answer the following questions on your blog.

1. How many pages are in your novel?  How many have you read?

2. Who is the protagonist (main character) of your novel?  What is the main conflict this person faces?  What are some possible outcomes that you foresee for this person?  (In other words: guess the ending.)

3. In a well-developed paragraph (with text evidence), respond: so far, what do you like about your novel?  What do you not like about your novel?  Why? Explain.

4. Based on what you’ve read thus far, would you recommend this book to someone else?  Why?  Explain.

5. Pick ONE quote that has stood out to you from the novel.  Give the quote, then explain: what made this quote stand out to you?  How does this quote relate to the whole novel?

And here are the links to several of their blogs:

Chris is reading Transatlantic: http://keyboardandseafood.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/transatlantic-novels-assignment-part-1/

Neha is reading The Namesake: http://neha614.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/assignment-for-1024-the-namesake-part-1/

Nico is reading All the Names: http://nicolasrequena28.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-response-1024/

Rafael is reading Enrique’s Journey: http://parrarafael872.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/enriques-journey-part-1/

Angelica is reading Girl in Translationhttp://perezangelica477.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-part-1/

Aaliyah is reading The Secret Life of Bees: http://aaliyahgonzalez.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-part-1/

Overall, I’m really pleased with the results I’m seeing thus far!  Many of the students aren’t as far into their books as I had hoped they would be, but they all seem genuinely interested to keep reading.  I’m definitely getting more traction with these novels than I have with the literature I’ve done in the past for this unit (“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” plus Islamic and Chinese poetry).  Next week, I’ll start having them tie the cultural content of their novel to the things they’ve learned about World History thus far.  I’m VERY curious to see how that goes!


I ran down to Tess’ room the first chance I got. I was too excited to respond in an email. The books Tess filled her shelves with are rich and diverse. Here’s her list: World Literature Library

As I left her room, one comment made me smile:  “I’d still be using the classic lit, if the students would read them.”

And that’s my point: In an AP Class, Shouldn’t It Be about the Reading?

%d bloggers like this: