birds of feather groups

Supporting Young Readers: Developing Reading Club Conversation Skills

In my last blog post, I outlined the prep work we did leading up to our “birds of feather” topics reading club meetings to help students dig more deeply into their readings and to come prepared for the reading club discussion.

Prior to our club meetings, students brainstormed meeting etiquette and expectations:

We also incorporated these qualities into a self-assessment tool students completed the day after the reading clubs met.

I learned last spring with my juniors and seniors that some structure to meetings is helpful for students, especially those with little to no reading or book club experience.  I planned for four rounds of discussion even though I expected we would probably only have time for three; I like to overplan just in case!

You can flip through the slideshow below to see how I helped “step” students through bursts of conversation that lasted about 10-12 minutes each.  I would review the discussion frame for each round and then keep time with my phone while walking around and making notes on ideas I heard in conversation while noting with a check each time I heard or saw a student participating (or not) in the club meeting.  I use a a blank roster spreadsheet from my gradebook in Infinite Campus and then use the columns to make notes and checks or minuses to help me remember what I’m seeing or hearing.  Last but not least, I recorded videos as I walked around so I could go back and watch/listen when evaluating students participation, listening, and interaction in the reading club meetings.

One other recommendation I have, especially for middle school or inexperienced reading club learners, is to appoint a “conversation round” leader.  This simply means you appoint someone from each club or group to lead each round of conversation; doing this prevents awkward pauses or lapses in getting a new round of discussion started.

One other new tool I used with the reading club was the conversation emoji talk stems from Ashley Bible.  These were super helpful for students in finding wording to enter the conversation or to interact in a meaningful way if they were struggling to find words.

I was incredibly impressed by how well my students did in their meetings!  Most groups had terrific energy and engagement in their meeting, and even those that may have struggled in the first round came on strong in the second and third rounds of conversation.   The reading club work and conversations in their club meeting are definitely two of the highlights of this academic year—the caliber of work and the soft skills as well as reading/listening/speaking skills inherent in the club conversations are huge steps forward for my students as learners and individuals.

When we finished three rounds of discussions, we then worked on our post-club reflections to capture our thinking while it was fresh.  The following two days, we did some self assessment and reflection using this tool I created based on student agreements on etiquette and expectations.   In addition, we used these awesome standards-based self-assessment forms for four standards that were embedded in our reading club conversation work.  The reflections and thinking students shared through these tools was quite revealing, and my fellow teachers and admin were quite impressed with the depth of student reflection as well.

Though I wish our instructional calendar would have permitted time for an additional club meeting, I am incredibly pleased with the quality of work my students completed and the quality of their reading club conversations.   I am excited to see how we can grow these skills when we shift to nonfiction book clubs later this spring!

Scaffolding Student Prep Work for Birds of Feather Reading Club Meetings

In my last post, I outlined how I organized a topic tasting, how birds of feather interest groups were formed, and the planning that student groups did collaboratively to divide and assign readings within their topic area from the text set.  In today’s post, I’ll share the prep work we did over four days to get ready for our reading club meetings we held today.

Prep Work by The Teacher

I began by crafting a reflection/noticing handout for each article.  The first two reflection/noticings handouts for Articles 1 and 2 were similar though there were some differences in the final reflection pieces.  You can view the handouts in this folder in Google Drive.  It took me awhile to get my groove, but I wound up organizing the prep packets with these materials:  the three article prep sheets, the roster of reading assignments I copied from the groups (green sheet 1), and a copy of the original planning work by each group.   You can also watch this short video explaining how I organized their work (my ultimate goal was to have a neat and consistent order to the packet  because it will eventually go in the students’ literacy portfolios (note:  I thought I had the phone in landscape view when I filmed, so I apologize for the vertical format).

Handing the Keys to the Students:  Steps to Success

We began by reviewing our reading assignments (in the packet) and our timeline:

This timeline was ambitious, but with only 10 “pure” instructional days from the time we returned from Thanksgiving break to our next holiday break, I had to push students a little to make these deadlines.  Thankfully, most students met the work plan for each day; some students came to the “War Time” academic makeup time last Thursday to catch up.  I collected student work–finished or not–each day so that students would not lose their work.  In addition, collecting their work made it easier to have their materials laid out at the beginning of class the following day and maximize class time.


I also incorporated some warm-ups into the activities for Days 2 and 3, including a think and write as well as a sharing of HOTS (higher order thinking skills) questions to create a gallery inquiry.

Yesterday students had the first half of the period to finish any incomplete work.  We then used the last half of the class to:

  • Highlight three questions/statements from each prep sheet (total of nine highlights) that we wanted to bring up for conversation today.
  • 1st and 4th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark a passage in each article that we might want to bring up for discussion.
  • 5th and 6th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark three passages in the third article only (the common read) for discussion.
  • Reviewed our reading club manners and etiquette as well as expectations for interacting and participating.  The list students brainstormed became the basis of their self-assessment they will complete tomorrow.
  • Reviewed their “emoji discussion cards” they could use if they got stuck on what to say or sentence starters for responding to peers.  As I will share in my next post, these worked like a charm!
  • We also reviewed the discussion structure to expect for the meeting.



At the end of the period, I collected all their work so that I could easily distribute it today for our reading club meetings.  In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about how I structured the reading club discussions and tips for helping students new to book or article discussions be confident and successful as well as our self-assessments we’ll complete and final products we’ll create.

Book Tasting: A Recipe for Designing Student Book Clubs in Language Arts Classes

I’ve done many variations of book tasting activities over the years, but this past Wednesday (February 21) I did one that did not involve as much planning and was structured differently.  However, as simple as this format was, I think it was one of the most effective variations I’ve tried.

I began by working on a wish list of nonfiction and fiction books available in our media center that I felt would be good choice for soon to be graduating seniors.  I originally had planned to do all nonfiction, but after reviewing numerous lists of books for “freshmen reads” or “one book, one campus” programs, I adjusted my original plan to include some fiction.  My media specialist, her assistant, and their student helpers graciously pulled my wish list and delivered them on a book truck to my classroom for our book tasting.

We began by reviewing the procedures for the book tasting form.

I projected a real-time clock (you can click the enlarge link to make the clock full screen) with my LCD projector on the screen so that students could track their time (phones were tucked away in our phone nursery).   This structure kept everyone moving along roughly at the same pace, but students could complete their reflections and select the next book without feeling rushed or having to stay lock-step with their peers as I’ve done in the past.  The result was a more relaxed feeling book tasting, and most students seemed deeply engaged in their selections.  I noticed some students quietly trading books or sharing a quick whisper about a book, so it was heartwarming to see some of them providing support and encouragement to a friend.  Overall, most students worked right at 60 minutes; some worked a little longer.

Once students had finished their 6 book tastings, they completed a book ranking form; I did not give this to students until they had finished the activity (see final page of the book tasting document for this final form).   Thankfully, our block schedule lends itself to this approach of book tasting.

After class ended, I used my planning period to type up students’ first choices.   Once I had completed this task, I could see how many students had picked the same first choice; in other instances, I could look at first choice selections by theme and group students into book clubs around books that shared a certain genre of writing and/or themes.  This took some time as I tried to avoid bumping any students to a second choice (though I told them this possibility was one that might happen).  I also did not want any groups smaller than four though I do have one group of three; the rest of the groups have 4-5 members.   After a bit of tinkering, I finalized the list Wednesday night.  As you can see, clubs are either organized by a common read OR by shared themes and genres.  I’m especially excited to see how the “cross pollinating” groups organized by theme/genre with different books work out.

Now students will get their book assignments on Friday, and we’ll head down to the media center to finalize our book checkouts plus return the cart of books that were not selected.  Once we return to the room, book clubs will meet to decide norms, expectations, and responsibilities; we’ll then do a large group share (a blog post on this activity will come soon).  I am thankful to Julie Swinehart for generously sharing her work and strategies in this area!  If you are not following her blog, do so NOW.  In addition, I am indebted to my friend and fellow English teacher at Norcross High, Sarah Rust, for her inspiration (please note many of the Vine videos that were in the post no longer work since Vine shut down–sadness!).

In my next blog post, I’ll share our norm setting activity as well information about  our book club meetings and activities that will begin the first Friday in March!  Are you doing book clubs with seniors or other middle/high school students?  What strategies do you use and like for forming book clubs?

Visualizing Our Research with Sticky Notes

My seniors, who have been researching  their self-selected topics under the umbrella of “The Future of Work,” have completed their first round of research.  We had roughly four days (we meet for 90 minute blocks) to delve into our research guide.   Students formed Birds of Feather groups by interest and designed their research questions as well as inquiry project jobs for each member.

This past Wednesday I felt students needed an opportunity to assess the information they had collected so that they could see what information they had (or didn’t have!) and what they still needed, especially since roughly 1/4 of the class has struggled to use class time given for taking notes. We have used a range of notetaking tools:  an assortment of graphic organizers and even Google Forms (I ran a mail merge and printed these out for students).  After returning all notes to students, we used this past Wednesday to look at our work and break out each note onto an individual sticky note.

Once students had completed compiling their notes onto the sticky notes, I asked them to look at their work and group “like” ideas together. They then were asked to come up with a label or category for the notes.   Students then received a large oversize poster sticky note and did the following steps:

  • Wrote their research question and name at the top.
  • Drew a t-square grid.
  • Wrote each category of notes.
  • Taped/stuck the notes into the appropriate square on the grid.

Once the posters were completed, we hung them together by groups; I created colorful placeholders for each group along with a copy of their research plan to anchor each gallery of work.

Once students finished this part of the activity, they completed a self-assessment of their progress on their inquiry so far:  Post Research Round 1 Reflect and Assess September 20 2017 Period 1B 12th ELA Honors .

As part of the self-assessment, students were asked to reflect on what information they had and what they still needed after they had reviewed their visual poster of their notes.  This part of the activity was helpful because I was extremely impressed by students’ assessments of their progress and next steps for finding the information they still needed.  In addition to being a meaningful and reflective exercise, this activity  has generated interest from students and teachers traveling in our hallway!  How do you build in self-assessment opportunities into your inquiry projects?  How do you help students reflect on the information they are gathering and then determine what they still need and how to move forward?

Notebook Invitations, a Carousel Walk, and 3-2-1 Reflections: A Living KWL and Formative Assessment for Instructional Design

For roughly two and half weeks in August, my seniors have been mucking around and exploring topics related to the future of work through reading frenzies, reading rumbles, birds of feather groups formation with compass points discussion and question planning, and a philosophical chairs discussion.

The Writer’s Notebook Invitation

This past Wednesday, August 30, we began class by responding to these six questions in our writer’s notebooks (this was Writer’s Notebook Invitation 6).

From Individual Notebook Work to Group Sharing with Carousel Stations

After thinking and responding to these questions in our writer’s notebooks, students visited seven stations—six of them represented the six questions above, and we had a 7th “wildcard” question/reflection station.  Students could visit the stations in any order and share their responses.  The only restriction was that you could not replicate a previous response from another student.

We then formed groups of three and four; each group received a “question station” and was asked to analyze the range of responses they saw in front of them.  Students worked together to look at the range of responses for their station question and formulate a 3-2-1 response to share with the class:


After completing their small group work, each group shared out their findings, and we discussed their responses and how it might relate to our project we were starting. Each group discussed the responses and then formulated a 3-2-1 response that was eventually shared with the class and posted in our hallway gallery.  Here is a summary of their findings:

Why Are We Doing This?  Building a Collaborative KWL and Gathering Data for Formative Assessment

This activity was designed with a few purposes in mind.  First, the activity helped us think about what we already knew about research, what didn’t know, and what we wanted to know.  I think it was helpful for students to see patterns of response within our class from one station/question to another.  Secondly, the student work compiled individually (I scanned every poster created along with the 3-2-1 reflections)  and in small groups has provided me rich data for formative assessment that can inform future mini-lessons and better understand strengths as well as gaps in understanding.  Going through that data and compiling it helps me now think about what mini-lessons students will need as we move forward.  Finally, the activity also helped set the stage for our inquiry project and how we are going to rethink how we conceptualize research.  My instructional design is rooted partially in my previous experiences as a school librarian and English teacher, but this marvelous post from Moving Writers is also informing the design of this inquiry unit–not just the research aspect but the content creation and study of mentor texts for informational writing text structures.

The data I collected through this activity could easily be a blog post in and of itself; if time permits, I will try and compose a separate post with some observations and reflections on that data.

Next Steps:  Introducing the Project Framework, Our Research Guide, and First Mini-Lessons + Finalizing Our Birds of Feather Groups’ Lines of Inquiry and Jobs

Finally, I formally introduced and reviewed the “birds of feather” inquiry project; we then reviewed the project guidelines together. You can view our research guide in progress by clicking here.

Last, birds of feather topic groups met to finalize responsibilities and research questions they self-select; during the previous week, groups used the “Compass Points” talking points (adapted from Making Thinking Visible)  to tease out their ideas and thinking about their self-selected group topic as a springboard to developing questions and lines of inquiry to pursue in the first round of research.

I captured each group’s planning work with my ScannerPro app and saved each file as a PDF; I then uploaded these a shared folder in my Lanier Google Drive.  Each group has a copy of their planning sheet in a shared folder in Google; this folder is accessible only to them their school account, but here is a snapshot of the shared folder (the link to the shared folder is posted on the home page of our research guide):


Mini-Lessons to Prep Us for Our Initial Round of Research

On Friday, September 1, I did a series quick mini-lessons on the following skills in the first third of our ninety minute block class time:

  • Accessing our research guide and the resources available/how to navigate
  • How to sign up for EasyBib and create a project folder
  • How to export a citation from any EBSCO database (we get quite a few through GALILEO) to EasyBib
  • How to send a resource from EBSCO to your Google Drive
  • How to export a citation from any GALE database to EasyBib
  • How to send any article from a GALE database to your Google Drive
  • How to share your saved articles in Google Drive with your group members if you would like to do so
  • Web-based starting points for research, including Google News and TED Talks
  • The CRAAP test

We then used the remainder of the period to begin work on our first day of research; students were asked to save every article to EasyBib to begin building a working bibliography (even those articles they may eventually discard) and to send to their Google Drive when possible.  Students were also asked to complete the following graphic organizer with a goal of finding at least three articles; those who needed more time can finish over our long Labor Day weekend.

Looking Ahead to Our Work in September

We’ll move forward with more research next week before coming back together to evaluate our next steps and to inquire about how the information we’re finding will drive the types of informational text structures we may create and focal points for a 2nd round of research later in September.  I’ll be writing more about these learning structures and strategies later this month!