Forming Birds of Feather Reading Clubs with Informational Texts and Topic Tasting

Our district pacing guide calls for a focus on informational reading and writing during the second nine weeks of the academic year.  Originally, 8th grade had planned to do nonfiction book clubs, but after realizing the books would not arrive in time to do that in the fall, I suggested to my fellow 8th grade Language Arts teachers we step back and do reading clubs with nonfiction articles.   Not only was this adjustment a solution to our dilemma of books that had not arrived, but it was a sound instructional decision to help scaffold students informational reading skills with shorter texts.  In addition, we know these are the kinds of texts students will see on our end of year Georgia Milestones assessment.

Nearly three years ago I had the privilege of attending a multi-day literacy workshop led by Smokey Daniels in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   One of the activities from this workshop that I recently adapted from for my 8th graders is a reading frenzy, a learning experience that allows students to sample different articles and rank their interest level in the topic.  This activity can be a springboard to different kinds of collaborative work, including inquiry or “birds of feather” interest circles.   Because my students are not speedy readers like adults and our class periods are less than 60 minutes, I modified the activity to be a “topic tasting” over two class days.  The primary purpose of this activity was to form “birds of feather” reading clubs to help students hone their group discussion skills as well as their skills in reading and thinking about informational text.

Prep Work:  Curating the Text Sets

The prep work is by far the most time-consuming aspect of this activity.  First, I had to decide what topics would be the basis of the text sets for the topic tasting and how many topic/text sets to design.  I wanted to try to have something for everyone—something with a current event focus, something with a social studies focus, something with a science focus, and some additional topics that might be fun or timely for students.  I settled on the following topics:

  • Smartphones/screentime/teens and tweens
  • GMOs (genetically modified organisms and foods)
  • Concussion and youth/youth sports
  • Japanese Internment Camps
  • Food deserts in Georgia
  • Fortnite

I decided on six topics because that number gave me a range of topics without having too many , and six happened to match the number of tables I have in my room!  From there, I set to work on developing text sets that would include different sources, perspectives, reading levels, and information.  Because I have developed text sets for other teachers and their students as a librarian, I have experience in developing rich text sets.  While the task is not hard, it does take time to research and format the articles in a printer friendly manner.  Overall, I estimate I probably spent at least 12 hours of time putting together the text sets for all six topics.  You can see my final list of articles for each set here or below:

My go to resources for finding articles include:

  • Galileo:  this is our state digital library that provides us access to thousands of databases and publications, including student friendly publications like those from Scholastic through EBSCO’s Middle Search Plus.
  • NewsELA (our district provides us a subscription)
  • Science News for Students
  • Smithsonian Tween Tribune
  • The Atlanta Journal Constitution
  • The Gainesville Times (local paper)

I organized my text sets in Google Drive from home with the work I did outside of school though I did some last-minute additions to the text sets at school, so I do need to do a little final clean-up of my text set folders over our next holiday break.  Here is an example of how the sets look in the cloud so that I have an archive of each set; in addition, I have a folder for each text set with the hard copy and the markings (text set and article numbers) I used to make the hard copies.

Organizing the Text Sets for Students and the Topic Tasting Activity

Once I collected all my articles in PDF format, I printed a clean copy of each and then decided which would make the final cut for the text set students would see.  Once I did this, I labeled each article with the text set number and assigned it an article number; consequently, I then typed a final checklist for each text set (the one you saw earlier in this post).  I made 5 copies of text set; I also  made copies of each checklist for students to use to note their favorite readings, and I did these on different colors of neon paper to help them stand out visually to students.  Yes, I used quite a bit of paper, but I went with paper copies of text sets for these reasons:

  1.  I wanted to students to move through each text set in 10-12 minute timed rotations to keep them focused and  on task.
  2.  Students don’t read very closely and tend to “drift” when they are asked to work with digital text sets (I have   learned this from first-hand experience in prior years trying to save paper).
  3.  We are not a 1:1 tech school, so rounding up enough computers is always extra work if you want each student   to have a Chromebook in your classroom or to book lab time if you really want to go to paperless.

Making copies was a challenge since we are under copying limits in my school, but my fellow 8th grade teachers collaborated and pooled together our copy codes to make this happen for our students.  I purchased and provided the neon paper to make the color coded checklists for my students and those of my neighboring 8th Language Arts teacher.

Topic Tasting:  Nuts and Bolts of Making It Happen

For my students, I scheduled two consecutive days for the activity.   On Day 1, I assigned students to different tables to facilitate the flow of the activity.  Once everyone arrived and put their belongings away, we reviewed the guidelines for the topic tasting:

In addition, I stressed the following points to students:

  • You can sample the articles in any order in the text set packet.
  • You do not have to read the entire article if it is longer, but read enough to get a sense of what it is about.
  • SKIM AND SCAN–this activity is not about close reading.
  • Stay focused because each reading round is like a sprint and there is no time to waste!

I served as timekeeper and walked about the room during each round to monitor students’ reading.  In addition, I played soft music in the background as “white noise” for students.  After 10 minutes, students paused as I provided them the checklists for their current text set/table (I did not give these out ahead of time because I felt they would be a distraction for my students, but this may not be true for yours!).  Once students received their checklist, they used the columns to mark all the articles they had sampled and to indicate articles they found most interesting or would want to continue reading if they had more time.  This task took about 2 minutes; once finished, we rotated in a clockwise motion around the room as a group and started a new round.  Completed checklists were the only things that traveled with students as they moved to the next table.

The first day we had just enough time to complete three rounds; student helpers assisted me in stacking the text sets in order (which I numbered 1-5 with a purple marker to be sure none walked out of the room); students also stapled together their checklists and left with me for safekeeping until the next day.

On Day 2, we finished the remaining three rounds of topic tasting and then students received a handout for ranking their interest in each topic area; they were also asked to explain their top two choices.  They stapled this “ranking” handout to all their neon colored checklists and turned those in to me at the end of class.

Post Topic Tasting:  Using the Results to Form Birds of Feather Interest Reading Clubs

After school and during my planning, I went through each student response sheet and typed a list of each person’s top interest by class period.  I worked hard to make sure each student got his/her 1st or 2nd choice; for students who were absent both days, I assigned them to a topic group since there was not a way for an 8th grader to make up two hours of instruction.

Before Thanksgiving break, the “birds of feather” reading clubs met and decided which student would be responsible for reading 2 unique articles.  Each reading club then decided a third and common reading.  Each club also collaborated to decide what they already knew as a group about their topic, what they wanted to find out, and questions they hoped to answer through their reading club work.

This activity took an entire class period, and once I collected their work, I made copies of their notetaking sheets for each member and also created a master reading roster for each club to post in the room just in case anyone loses their materials and to make sure everyone is on the same page about the readings.  Clubs also receive a master copy of this reading list that I typed up based on their notes.

We’ll begin our club work in earnest next week (Wednesday, November 28); in my next post, I’ll share more about what students are doing are in their reading clubs and learning structures I’ll provide to help them prepare for their reading club discussions.  I’ll also share how we’ll fold in our Notice and Note nonfiction annotation strategies into our reading club prep work.

We’re navigating our reading club work around two days of benchmark testing, a day of Lexile testing, a day for classroom spelling bees, and probably at least one other day for something I’m forgetting right now; consequently, I am anxious about the kids having sufficient time to have a high quality learning experience with basically 10 days of instruction left in the 15 we have between now and our holiday break in December.  I’ve already had to cut lots of learning activities I felt were important, so I am hoping the ones that are left will be meaningful and impactful for my 8th graders.

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