2019-2020 Chestatee Academy Assessment Literacy Learning Reading Instruction and Workshop Student Book Clubs Teaching and Learning

Discussion Structures and Tools for Supporting Book Club Discussions in 8th Grade


In my last blog post, I shared the note-taking strategies for reading our book club texts more closely and choices for taking reading notes.  In this blog post, I’ll outline the discussion structures/strategies for each book club meeting and scaffolding I provided for meetings and refinding notes for each of my classes.  Whether you are working with experienced book club veterans or  students who have never participated in book clubs, you may find the information in today’s post helpful.

Book Club Meeting 1:  Friday, January 17 (First Steps)

For our first book club meeting, we reviewed our discussion manners and etiquette we have practiced all year.  I encouraged students to do more than simply read their notes and to build conversation off each other’s noticings.

While some groups were able to interact in a spontaneous and meaningful way with their reading notes as a springboard for actual conversation, I had at least 2-3 groups in each class the struggled to do more than simply read their notes “round Robin” style even though I had specifically stated merely reading notes was NOT the same as discussing.  I was not entirely surprised since very few of my students had experience in an actual student book club in their previous Language Arts classes.  I think much of the literature I’ve read on student book clubs over the years—including some recent new book titles— gloss over this challenge.  We have plenty of ideas on how to organize book clubs, ideas for discussion and reading notes, routines, and manners….but not so much on how to actually help students play and build off each other’s ideas in their discussions.   Even awesome discussion cards like these didn’t seem to help students generate discussion in our first meeting.  I think in the future, I will video a group having an exemplary discussion and show it to the class in advance to help them to see and hear effective and meaningful discussion about a book.  I suspect this challenge might be more common in middle school than high school, but I could see some high schoolers struggling in this area, too.

Students turned in their reading notes as well as a self-assessment they completed at the end of the book club discussions.  I felt most were pretty spot-on in evaluating what they did well as well as some areas for improvement for the next meeting.  Reading notes were weighted as a summative assessment as was the performance assessment of the book club meeting/discussion.  We also completed a short reflection survey and sticky note activity.


Book Club Meeting 2:  Friday, January 24–Common Points of Discussion

When we returned to school on Tuesday, January 21, students could continue to create whatever kind of reading notes they wanted, but they also needed to take notes in these common areas to help build conversation for Book Club Meeting 2.  I provided a checklist to help students make sure they recorded every detail they needed for each kind of note.

In addition, I offered a notetaking template (we named it Option 5) or those who felt they needed some support to take better notes or may have been overwhelmed by the more open options from the previous week.  As a bonus, I offered students an extra credit option that could give them additional discussion material.

We also completed a Quickwrite on external and internal conflict; again, I provided a drafting template and scaffolding with a complete model complete with color coding to help students.  Each student received his/her own drafting template as well as a neon pouch with the color coded model to use in class.

As you can tell, it was an intense few days in class leading up to meeting 2!  I do feel like the “Common Core” set of notes helped improve discussions, especially in my groups with mixed book titles around a certain theme or genre.   Students shared they felt this common core set of notes/talking point helped them as well.  Overall, I felt the book club discussions were stronger, but a few groups still struggled to do more than merely read their reading notes and prep work and actually DISCUSS ideas/questions.

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Once again, we completed a self-assessment; students completed this self-assessment (very similar to the one from week 1) and a self-evaluation of their notes.  These items, along with their notes and any extra credit work, were submitted via a folder so that I could easily collect all work.  We also did another sticky note reflection task; in some classes, this activity was a warm-up; in others, this was a post-meeting activity.

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In evaluating the notes, I felt many students struggled in Week 2 to be complete in their notes.  While they could identify examples of each kind of note, many lacked textual evidence and commentary/explaining sentences to articulate their analysis.  Even with the checklist that clearly outlined the requirements for each kind of note, many students seemed to overlook these details.  For students whose notes were really lacking both depth and breadth, I required them to do the note-taking template for Week 3 to help them craft more complete notes and to help them be better prepared for the final book club meeting.


Book Club Meeting 3:  Tweaks for More Robust Discussions, January 31

For the final week of prep work in class, we continued with the same five note-taking options though those who really struggled to complete notes were required to do the Week 3 note-taking template.  For those using Options 1-4, they received reminders about completeness of notes and a note-taking checklist.

In addition, students had class time each day that week to work on the Book/Head/Heart brochure for wherever they were in their reading; this tool could be used in the final book club meeting as well.  Though students responded enthusiastically to this task for the most part, many ignored the instructions to compose two sentences for each question prompt.  I was also disappointed many did not incorporate any color or artwork into their work; however, I did have some exemplary responses.  I created this rubric to assess their work.

For the third book club meeting, I decided to scaffold the large group discussions with pair or trio discussions since many of my students tend to do better conversation work in a smaller setting.  When students arrived, they saw their partner or trio assignments projected on the board and got with that person or people.

After reviewing discussion manners, we then started with a common discussion point in our partner/trio talk:

We then moved to our notes for discussion; students could discuss these items in any order, but they had 15 minutes to engage in partner talk and go as in-depth as they could with their thinking and conversation.

We then moved back into our regular whole group book club groups and engaged in conversation for about 8-10 minutes.

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An overwhelming number of students indicated they enjoyed this modification; survey results showed most students enjoyed both their small group and regular group conversations.

In addition, the post book club meeting #3 survey revealed 68.3% would give their partner talk an A; 30.2% rated their partner talk quality as a B.  In contrast, only 54% rated their regular book club group discussion talk as A quality vs. 44.4% rating their book club talk a B.  Students turned in all work for the week via their folder (easy way to keep everything together!) and completed the post book club survey I created in Google Forms to provide some overall feedback.


Reflections and Takeaways

Overall, I am very pleased with the design of our three week book club unit.  This is the first time I’ve established the reading schedules for students, and while it was a lot of work to do so for 15 different titles, I think it paid off by pushing my students to stay on track with the books.  Three weeks seems just right—not too little time, but not too much time, either.  I also felt providing three days of class time to work on book club activities and reading was just right as well.  All the students loved their books, and many have asked for read alikes or the option to read another one of the book club titles for choice reading.  The only negative remarks I saw about any of our book choices was that many felt the middle of March Forward, Girl was a little dry/boring.  Below is a slideshow of our book choices:

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In addition,  I am also happy with the student growth in the quality of the notes.  There was balance in the note taking options; I am glad I provided multiple choices, and the requirements were enough to push student thinking without overwhelming them.  In addition, the fifth option–the graphic organizer for taking notes in Weeks 2 and 3—provided scaffolding and structure for those who needed it or those who needed something less-open ended.

Supporting high quality conversations was definitely the most challenging part.  This year’s students don’t have much experience in student driven discussions and even with the many discussion structures we’ve used in class, many struggle to engage in high quality student talk beyond partner talk or a small group of three.  I’ll continue to contemplate ways to help students generate more organic conversation and to be responsive to each other’s ideas/questions/thinking, but for this year’s students, partner talk or trios are definitely a huge WIN and success for them.

I’m worried many of my students still seem to have difficulty identifying and analyzing theme (even when provided a list of theme topics) as well as social issues (again, I provided a list to support them and their thinking).  It’s hard to really know if this is where they are as learners right now as 8th graders and may not be able to think that abstractly, or if this is a true gap in understanding.  However, an overwhelming majority felt the Notice and Note Signposts (we used fiction since we read literary nonfiction and memoir) were especially helpful and among the favorite kinds of annotations/reading notes to think about and compose.

In my next blog post, I’ll share what we did to wrap up our book club work and bring things to a close with some cross-pollination of ideas and final assessment, including a converSTATION activity this past Friday (February 7) that was a major success.

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