Tag Archives: instructional design

Q & A: How do book clubs work in a Readers-Writers Workshop classroom?

Questions Answered

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

Remembering Why We Become Teachers

Last week, when I met with my new crop of Spring semester students for the first time, I asked them to write one sentence that told me how they’d come to teaching.

Do you know what almost every single student wrote?

“Because I love working with kids.”

It was a reminder, for me:  these young, idealistic, preservice teachers, on the very cusps of their careers…were here because of LOVE.  For children, for learners.

We will spend the next three years with them working on their teaching craft, their pedagogy, their educational philosophy.  We will offer classes in professional inquiry, classroom management, instructional design, content area methods, technology integration, special education, and more.

But we do not offer a class on why most of these students become teachers:  a class on caring for kids.

We cannot offer such a class, because what would we put in the syllabus?  It’s very simple:  just remember to love and care for each of your students, day in and day out.

And that, for me, is the key.  To remember we care for kids.  To keep our students at the center of our classrooms.

I don’t believe anyone can be a good teacher if they merely love their students.  Good teachers must, in addition to caring for their students, have mastery of content, pedagogy, and methods.

67685151d15291cb47b599262f7625a8Whether or not our instructional practices show our care for our students is a good acid test for teaching reading and writing.  Does assigning a book and then creating fifteen “gotcha” pop quizzes make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice.  Nor are so many of the worksheets, textbook curricula, or 1990s-designed unit plans I’ve seen employed by some teachers.

But those are boring, you say.  Well, what about something more fun?  When teaching high school English, does assigning a reading project of tracing your hand and making it a turkey on which you list five books you’ve read make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice, either.

You’ll notice I’m measuring good teaching and good learning by student competence and confidence, and not by some other measure of “students are having fun,” or “students enjoy themselves.”

There are five core human drives that apply across all societies, all classes, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders.  One of them is the drive to learn.  All students want to learn, to satisfy curiosity, to demonstrate mastery–both to themselves and to others.  Offering them learning opportunities to achieve and demonstrate this mastery show our love and respect for students, not our supreme wisdom or sublime control or smart strategies as teachers.

I’ve been troubled, lately, by how much talk there is in education about “fun” in the classroom, about how “students wouldn’t need grit if we made learning more fun,” and so on.  When we make things too easy on our students (and too hard, or too meaningless), we aren’t showing our love and respect for our students.

Teaching and learning are difficult, complex things.  They can rarely be boiled down to an algorithm, a strategy, or a single method.  Carol Dweck, coiner of the phrase “growth mindset” (the foundational principle behind books I’ve loved like Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and Choice Words), recently gave an interview in which she expressed heartfelt regret that her work was being turned into an easy and fun strategy for teaching.  This “false growth mindset” essentially says that all you have to do to foster learning is praise kids for effort, whether or not that effort was successful.

When we focus too much on praise, or effort, or one simple strategy that will solve everything!!, we run the risk of teaching the strategy rather than the student.  Amy recently shared with me a piece that it took me about four reads to unpack:  “On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing.”   This excellent blog post reminded me that when we do something like book clubs, if we spend too much time teaching students how to do book clubs, we aren’t spending enough time getting kids to actually do the work of literacy.

That’s not to say I don’t find value in book clubs, or the multigenre project, or any other lens through which kids might read or write.  There is great value in using a few core strategies, again and again, to help students make sense of what they’re trying to understand.  The key word is a few–so that students keep their focus on literacy, not the strategy or the project or the assignment.  Keep it simple:  quickwrites, book talks, constant revision, constant talk, and a high volume of diverse reading and writing.  Period.

When we keep our classrooms simple, doing more with less and simplifying our instruction to include mostly reading, writing, and talk about reading and writing, we are keeping our care for our students at the forefront of our work.

As we launch into 2017, let’s remember why we became teachers in the first place:  because we care about our students.  Keep that love for learning at the heart of your work, and growth, competence, and confidence will be your rewards.


Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Shana in 2015, shows us her process for designing writing instruction.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you design instructional units in the workshop classroom?


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First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.

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The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

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