Adventures in American Lit Book Clubs, Part 2: Organizing Prep Work, Learning Activities, and Conversation Structures

In my last blog post, I shared how I used book tasting to help students pick one of five books for our American Lit book club project.  There are many ways teachers may structure book club meetings and assignments—some choose a path that is very open and flexible while others may provide more structure.  I tried to hit a happy medium knowing my juniors were not ready to be turned loose with no support or scaffolding, but at the same time, I did not want to over-structure or complicate the experience.  Drawing upon what I had observed with my students’ learning habits and keeping in mind we were moving forward as we began the state testing season, I provided my four classes a daily schedule of what they should be working on in terms of:

  1.  A reading schedule for each book with deadlines.
  2.  Learning activities

I gave students a reading schedule for each book:

I also shared with students the number of annotations due (see this previous post) due by each book club meeting; this number varied slightly by course level between Honors and “on level” classes.

Book Club Prep Work:  Meetings 1 and 2

For each book club meeting/round of reading, students were assigned a “book club prep” handout to complete and a set of review questions that covered their assigned reading.  For the first meeting, each book club had the exact assignment; I made copies of this prep handout on different colors of paper for A day classes and B classes (we run a modified block here at Lanier High).

For the second meeting on May 14, each book club group had the same task of choosing three significant passages, but the questions for group discussion were customized for each book.  For the second round, the prep sheets were printed on colored paper with each color corresponding to a specific book.  I tried to strike a balance in having students come prepared with some specific passages for discussion while giving them choice in choosing those passages and some common questions the groups could discuss.

In the days leading up to each book club meeting, students had generous amounts of class time to read, work on their prep materials, and to work on their annotations.

Supporting Book Club Meeting Discussions

Book Club Meeting 1 Structure

Prior to the first meeting, all students completed a survey on what they felt book club meeting norms should be for meeting manners and etiquette.  Universal agreements included coming prepared, staying focused, and being respectful to each other.  Other agreements included:

For the first meetings on May 3-4, our book club conversations were structured into four segments since we had a ninety minute block:

Period 2A Honors did incredibly well with this structure–the joy and energy was palpable in the room, and they were incredibly engaged in the work at hand.  Period 3B Honors did a solid job, but they did not engage with the same gusto as 2A.  My team taught 4A struggled as only about 40% of the students came prepared enough to participate in the book club; those who did not come fully prepared worked in another room with my team teacher to catch up.  For my final class, Period 4B, I changed the fourth round to what I called “wildcard” discussion round—they could pick any discussion point from the prep sheet, the review questions, or their annotations.  Though Period 4B did a fantastic job with the first three discussion rounds, the fourth “wildcard” round was the one that generated the most energy and conversation–so much so that I had difficulty getting them to stop!  Based on this experience, I decided to incorporate the “wildcard” round into the second book club meetings that took place on May 14.

I also incorporated two additional tasks into the first book club meetings for each class:

  1.  For each class, I provided students a notetaking sheet to jot down ideas they heard from their peers.
  2.  Each student completed a post-book club meeting set of reflections and self-assessment.

Book Club Meeting 2 Structure

In the week leading up to the second meeting, students had ample class time to read and do the next round of prep work, but I also did some fun and brief formative assessments that I called “hashtag” assessment.  Student simply followed these instructions and posted their responses on sticky notes or neon-colored templates I provided them:

Not only was this a fun formative assessment to check for understanding, but it was also a great opportunity for students to see/hear from fellow students across other class periods.

Prior to the second book club meeting on May 14, I gave students about 10-15 minutes of what I called “pre-book club meeting” discussion time on Thursday and Friday, May 10-11 to meet with their book club groups and debrief on where they were and any talking points of excitement about their book as well as “muddy” or fuzzy points of understanding.  Whether students were meeting with the same group or were meeting with a slightly different group from the first meeting, this informal “warm-up” was popular with all my classes.

Because the second book club (May 14) took place on our “skinny” day in our modified block schedule (roughly 50 minute class periods on Mondays), I shortened the discussions to three rounds and did not require students to take notes or complete an immediate post book club  meeting reflection or self-assessment. The compressed time frame forced students to really focus the conversation and engage with each other as they talked about their books.  For the second meeting, I kept the first two rounds from Meeting 1, but I made the “wildcard” round the standard “third” round of discussion for each class period.   I felt this modification helped students have some common conversation points but plenty of room for choice as well.  I could see students had more confidence in this second meeting, and they were more spontaneous with their conversation points.  I was happy with the quality of engagement I saw in most groups, and students seemed to enjoy the second meeting just as much as the first one.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share how we concluded our book club experience with mixed book club groups and how we made connections between our books.  If you are doing student book clubs as part of the literacy learning experiences in your room, how do you support your learners and organize the book club activities?

Adventures with American Lit Book Clubs, Part 1: Book Tasting

Prior to spring break in late March, I wrestled whether or not to do a whole novel study like the rest of the junior classes or take the plunge with book clubs and give students a choice in book study.  My interest in book clubs dates back to my graduate school days at the University of Georgia; I did an action research study on an after school book club under the supervision of Dr. Mary Ann Fitzgerald.  In addition, I completed an independent study in the summer of 2005 on literacy communities and sponsors of literacy (which included book clubs) under the direction of Dr. Mark Faust.

Though I supported literature circles and after school book clubs as a media specialist, I had never implemented book clubs in the classroom until this past spring with my seniors.  While whole novel study would have made my life simpler, I knew that book clubs would offer my 11th graders a new and memorable learning experience.  Inspired by the work of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Julie Swinehart (who really helped me visualize the possibilities–thank you Julie!) , I decided to go for it.

After reviewing what titles were available in enough copies to work across four sections of classes with more than 140 students, I decided to offer these choices:

  • A Raisin in the Sun
  • Our Town
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Of Mice and Men

Our media specialist, Suzanne Gordon, pulled enough copies of the books so that every student would have a copy to browse and organized them by carts.  I then arrived and set up “tasting” groups by putting all 5 books at each student’s seat.  As students arrived, they found their table assignment and put away their bookbags.

I asked students to spend 12-15 minutes with each book; they could begin reading front to back, jump in the middle, or pick any starting point.  I also asked students to think about the cover and title as well as to read any “teaser” info on the back of the book.  Each student received a book tasting form to record their reactions and responses to the reading:

I projected a large clock on the screen that Ms. Gordon had set up for us, and students could track their own time and move along at their own pace.


When students had sampled all five books, I provided them a final evaluation form to complete for ranking their top picks:

It was fascinating to watch the students work and how they selected which books to sample in their own unique order.  You could easily tell by facial expressions when a student was really connecting with one of the novels or plays.  Most really invested themselves in the effort since they knew they would be living and breathing their top choice; most chose their top picks very carefully.

Once I got their work, I tallied the results for first choices for each period.  With the exception of roughly 3-5 students, I was able to give every student his/her first choice; those that did not get a first choice got a second choice.  Here is the breakdown of book assignments by period:

Book Title Class Period Number Needed
Of Mice and Men 2A Honors 9
Gatsby 2A 6
Catcher in the Rye 2A 14
Our Town 2A 0
Raisin in the Sun 2A 4
Of Mice and Men 4A CP 7
Gatsby 4A 3
Catcher in the Rye 4A 3
Our Town 4A 5
Raisin in the Sun 4A 11
Of Mice and Men 3B Honors 10
Gatsby 3B 7
Catcher in the Rye 3B 12
Our Town 3B 0
Raisin in the Sun 3B 4
Of Mice and Men 4B CP 8
Gatsby 4B 7
Catcher in the Rye 4B 13
Our Town 4B 0
Raisin in the Sun 4B 4

I compiled this list plus a “roster” of names and books by period so that our media center staff could easily pull the number of novels needed per period and to make sure each person got the novel he/she had picked.  I am indebted to Suzanne Gordon, our media specialist, and our media clerk, Kim Pierson, for their help and support with the book tasting and then the actual checking out of the novels!  In addition, I am thankful they not only gave us a three week loan period, but they have allowed us to keep the books up until the very last days of school; having been a media specialist in the recent past, I can appreciate the depth of their help!

In my next post, I will outline how I set up the reading schedules, “to do” tasks, student established norms for the book club meetings, and how we juggled this project with state Milestones/End of Course testing as well as various other tests.

Strategic Writing Loops and Blind Peer Review for the Georgia Milestones EOC Test

This Friday, April 27 and Monday, April 30, my juniors will take the Georgia Milestones/End of Course test in 11th American Literature and Composition Language Arts, a state exam that counts as 20% of their final average.  Though ideally I would have done more intentional writing loops earlier in the year like those outlined in the series from Moving Writers, we have been focusing on practice and work with mentor texts with the three types of writing tasks my students will see:

  • Constructed Response: item asks a question, and you provide a response that you construct on your own. These questions are worth two points. Partial credit may be awarded if part of the response is correct.
  • Extended Constructed Response:  item is a specific type of constructed-response item that requires a longer, more detailed response. These items are worth four points. Partial credit may be awarded.  At least one of these items will be a narrative prompt based on a passage presented to a student.
  • Extended Writing Response:  this  item is located in section one of the ELA EOC (Day 1 of the test).  Students are expected to produce an argument or develop an informative or explanatory response based on information read in two passages.  The extended writing response task is scored on a 7-point scale: 4 points for idea  development, organization, and coherence, and 3 points for language usage and conventions.

Though I feel my students are fairly well prepared for all of the possible writing tasks, I also believe it is important to provide them practice writing situations with the kinds of test prompts they will see so they can feel comfortable with the structure and language of the prompt.   We began reviewing and composing constructed responses roughly ten days ago, and our starting point was a writer’s notebook prompt asking students to recall what they knew about argumentative writing since that was my first writing genre of focus.  Once students had time to brainstorm individually, we composed collaborative lists in four of my classes.  You can look at the similarities and differences in depth and detail below:

Interestingly enough, my “lower” level classes included more details in their lists, and my 4B class made connections back to mentor texts we had studied last semester and this semester.   My 4B  class was so enthusiastic and engaged that I could barely keep up with them as I typed their responses—this moment was truly a memorable moment for a class that has come far from August when they felt they should not be asked to do any thinking or work on a Friday!

Once we completed our notebook time and collaborative share out, we reviewed the criteria for a high quality response on a constructed argumentative writing task.  Using the online materials from the DOE, I provided students a sample prompt and they composed their response in class.  I then collected these, made copies on neon paper (color coded by class period),  and  then used assorted neon stickers to hide names for the blind peer review activity I had planned as our next step.

My first pass at the blind peer review was this past Tuesday with periods 2A and 4A; my original design was to have students provide blind peer review individually.  We began with notebook time in which students looked at an exemplar constructed response for our prompt; students also got to look at a model that would have received one point and a model that would have received zero points.  For each model, I asked students to list their noticing about each model; we then shared aloud.  With the notebook time and noticings as our springboard, we then moved into our blind peer review gallery walk.

As we began our blind peer review gallery walk, I asked students to complete these tasks for each draft reviewed:

  1.  Read the draft closely and then complete a rubric with two open ended questions.  Once finished, place the rubric in the folder that is next to the draft (mounted on pastel chart paper) and put a check on the folder to indicate you have placed a rubric in the folder.
  2.  Annotate one piece of the draft; I provided students a handout with sentence starters for possible “glows” and “grows” to use if they got stuck.  These statements were based on the criteria on the state rubric for a constructed response on the EOC test.  I mounted the drafts on the pastel chart paper so that students would have plenty of room to annotate.
  3. Try to gather “mentor” sentences of high quality writing that they might collect to use as models for their own writing; I provided students a handout to serve as their collecting place for these mentor sentences.

Students worked for about 40-45 minutes on the gallery walk with the goal of reviewing as many drafts as possible with quality.  Once completed, I sent students to their own work using a roster of the number assignments I had crafted to make sure everyone found his/her work.  Students then did a brief three question reflection before leaving; once finished, students could fold their chart paper with the draft annotations/feedback and tuck in the folder with their rubrics to take home with them.

While I was pleased with the flow of the activity, I didn’t quite feel the energy I had expected from either class.  After thinking about what I might do differently to ramp up the energy of the activity, I decided to have students work in pairs the next day.  To make the assignment of pairs random and fast, I simply had students come find a table when they arrived in the media center with the stipulation of no more than two people per table.

This move was DEFINITELY the right one!  Because students knew they would need to read the draft with their partner and collaborate on all areas of the feedback, they were more intentional with their constructive reading of the drafts and the feedback they were providing.  I was incredibly impressed by the depth and detail of many of the conversations I heard as I walked around and observed students working; I felt joy listening to the thinking that was taking place out loud.  I highly recommend having students work and talk through their analysis of a draft of writing in pairs.

In closing, this activity was a considerable investment of time (especially on our modified block schedule), especially for a constructed response, but I think it was a great opening writing loop and collaborative thinking activity for my students.  We’re doing some shorter bursts of different responses and collaborative work now as we get closer to test day.  As I return to middle school this fall to teach 8th Language Arts,  I hope to incorporate these writing loops and experiences earlier into the year and into our units of writing year-round; these kinds of experiences will fit into my larger framework of having writing groups and circles in my classroom in 2018-19.