American lit book clubs

Adventures in American Lit Book Clubs, Part 4: Circle of Viewpoints Across Multiple Texts

In my last post, I shared how I set up “mixed” American Lit book club groups to facilitate a final cross-text discussion.  My 2A Honors class utilized the Making Thinking Visible strategy of Peeling the Fruit to make connections across texts.  For my 3B Honors class that met the following day, we utilized another Making Thinking Visible strategy called Circle of Viewpoints.

Just like the Period 2A class, Period 3B students were organized into mixed groups; this particular class required some adjustments at the beginning of class that due to an unusual number of absences.    However, the tweaking of groups did not take long, and students did the same silent written response and then “Turn and Talk” warm up thinking/discussion activities as 2A.  These activities took the first 30 minutes of class prior to our lunch break.  When students returned, we reviewed the protocols and instructions for looking at themes and big ideas across books through the Circle of Viewpoints lens:

Students were asking to craft their poster using the Circle of Viewpoints protocol:

  • The center of our circle was a big idea, issue, or theme that spoke to all of the books; group members selected this theme.
  • In the second layer of the circle, students identified a character from their books and choose to look at the theme/issue/big idea through that character’s eyes.
  • In the third layer, the students explained how the issue, theme, or big idea looked to that character through the character’s eyes.  Several students chose to write from a first person perspective; a few completed this task using a third person point of view.
  • The final outer layer provided students to post a big question–this could be a question that students had after engaging in the analysis or a question they felt their character might ask about the big idea, theme, or issue they were analyzing across texts.

Just like Peeling the Fruit, the Circle of Viewpoints thinking structure generated intense discussion in every group.  Most groups discussed their ideas first before sketching a rough draft and then crafting their posters.  Several students also pulled their annotation notes and organized them into a folder as a reference point for textual evidence to support their responses.

Just like Period 2A, we hung our posters around the room.  Because the activity did take the entire 90 minute block, we did not have time for a formal gallery walk, but many students took the initiative to walk about and examine what their peers had to say.


Though I wish we’d had more time for a formal gallery walk and subsequent whole class discussion, the activity was engaging for students and generated intellectual energy while giving students a chance to share and think about their books in a mixed book club setting.  Given that this was the final day of class prior to final exams and took place as AP and EOC exams were ending, I was pleased with the level of engagement I saw from students.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll share some student reflections on the book club experience and how our semester long independent reading turned out to be a pivotal key in the success of the book clubs.  If you would like to read the previous posts in this series, you can access those posts easily below:

Adventures in American Lit Book Clubs, Part 3: Connecting Themes Across Texts with Peeling the Fruit

In my last post, I shared the nuts and bolts of the student book club work and meeting structures.  After our May 14 book club meeting, I wanted the remaining class sessions leading up to the week of final exams to be meaningful for students and engaging.  I wanted positive energy and for students’ final learning experiences to be relevant and challenging.  On Tuesday and Wednesday (May 15-16) , my students composed book club reflections and complete a self-assessment; they also had the opportunity to work on a quote analysis assignment for their individual book.  For the final two days, Thursday and Friday, I wanted my students to have an opportunity to work in mixed book club groups and participate in conversations that would give them an opportunity to hear about other books and to do some critical thinking.

On Thursday, May 17, my 2A Honors class used the Peeling the Fruit thinking routine (also see here) to examine big ideas across multiple book club texts.  As students arrived, they received a handout with a set of 8 questions on one side and their mixed book club groups seating assignment to help them find their “new” group for the day quickly and easily.  Setting up the groups in both classes was a little bit of a balancing act because some students were taking district or state tests that day, and because there were varied numbers for each book club group, I was not always to have a member of each book represented in every mixed book club group for the day since those numbers varied.

We first started with 10-15 minutes of quiet thinking and writing; students wrote jot notes on their papers in response to these questions:

Next, students spent about 20 minutes with Turn and Talk time within their groups as they shared their thoughts and responses to the eight conversation starter questions:

The turn and talk time gave students an opportunity to debrief each other on their books and to have some common starting points for talking about their books and the big ideas in the books.

Next, it was time to do some collaborative critical thinking.  I gave each group a “Peeling the Fruit” template (I used this one) and reviewed the procedures for “Peeling the Fruit”; these were our big ideas:

  • Layer 3 or The Core:  what theme or big idea speaks to each of your texts?  What theme or big idea do they have in common?  Though the core is the ending point when you use this routine over a series of days or weeks, I used it as our starting point since we were doing the activity in a compressed time setting.  However, if I were doing mixed book clubs in the future, I would use this routine throughout the book club process and let students arrive at their conclusions of their own big idea as they traced their thinking through the book over time.   This starting point generated intense discussion and the students in Period 2A were engrossed in weighing and comparing themes to come to a consensus.
  • Layer 1 or “Getting Under the Skin”:  normally this layer is your starting point when you use Peeling the Fruit over a series of days or weeks.  However, in my modified use of this thinking structure, students made this their second step after deciding a common theme or big idea.  This space on their charts is where they gathered textual evidence from their books that exemplified the theme.
  • Layer 2 or “Substance”:  in this section, students shared how their textual evidence represented the theme; this space is where students connect the textual evidence to the big idea.

I also reviewed “intersection points” for making connections across texts.

Once students finished their discussions and planning, they received markers and oversized Post-It notes–and off they went to crafting their posters!  It was fascinating to see how each group approached their work.

Students worked intensely the entire 90 minute period–no small feat for the final day of class prior to finals!  Though some students transposed their layers, they still engaged in the critical thinking piece, and ultimately that was my goal for them and to see connections across their different texts : Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and Raisin in the Sun. Because they worked up until the very end, we didn’t have time to do an extended gallery walk or poster presentation though students did get to browse them prior to the final exam in class.  In the future, I would do this activity and then end with the book club reflections and self-assessment to allow enough time for a meaningful gallery walk or poster presentation session and discussion.

My big takeaway:  I don’t know if I have ever students work with such enthusiasm on the final regular day of class in the 25 years I have been teaching!  It was a wonderful last day of regular class, and the students really enjoyed digging into the big ideas of their books.  In my next post, I’ll share another Making Thinking Visible structure, Circle of Viewpoints, that I used the following day with my 3B Honors class and how we used that thinking structure to kick up our cognition across multiple texts.

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.

Annotation Conferences as Formative Assessment

We are racing toward the end of the year, and my juniors have been working hard between their prep work for our first American lit book club meeting tomorrow (for A day classes) and Friday (for B day classes) and our state End of Course testing.  About 10 days ago, we revisited two sets of annotation strategies we have used all year:

I also introduced fiction signposts from Bob Probst and Kylene Beers; I am using this beautiful interpretation/version crafted by the amazing Julie Swinehart.  We came up with shortcut codes of CC, Aha!, TQ, WW, AA, and MM.  I also modeled sample annotations for students in all classes.

For our American Lit book club project (blog post way overdue and coming soon!), my juniors participated in a book tasting of five texts:  Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Raisin in the Sun, and Our Town.  I’ll write more about the book selection process, but in a nutshell, nearly everyone got his/her first choice, and I developed reading schedules for each text around our testing calendar to balance testing days with in-class time for reading and prep work for the first book club meetings.

One of the requirements for the first round of reading is for students to craft at least 10 high quality annotations; students can do more for bonus points, but 10 is the minimum for this first reading round.  Students must do the following with their annotations:

  1.  Include a shortcut code or text symbol
  2. Write at least one complete sentence
  3. Use any combination of the three strategy sets (and students could also craft their own additional codes if needed).
  4. Craft meaningful annotations to help them be reflective and active readers.

I provided a multitude of Post-It notes in a diverse range of colors, sizes, and styles to meet everyone’s needs (yes, I bought these with my own money, but monitor Amazon for great sales on Post-It notes!).  With our mini-lesson and supplies at hand, students jumped right into their work:

This week I have been conferencing with students 1:1 about their annotation work.  The procedure is very simple:  I have a chair next to my desk, students come over for a conference when ready (and sign up on the board if we get busy with a waiting list), we sit side by side, and we spend 7-10 minutes chatting about their annotations.  These conferences are reveal much about students’ thinking and questions about the text, and the annotations provide us some quick talking points for me to get an idea about the student and how he/she is progressing with engagement and understanding of the book.  The concept sounds so simple, but I have learned so much about my juniors as readers, thinkers, and individuals this week in a short time; these conferences, though brief, are incredibly insightful much like a writing conference.

Though the conferences do take up time, I highly encourage you to try them with your students!  Here is a sampler of work from all levels of 11th English–I have been impressed by the intellectual and emotional investment my students have put into their work.  The effort and quality of work is even more impressive considering the high stakes testing that is happening on any given day right now!  I know this work is helping them with their book club meeting prep graphic organizer (I’ll share in my next blog post) and will be the fuel for rich book club discussions tomorrow and Friday.