Book Tasting

Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs: Organizing Groups and Resources for Success

We just started our literary nonfiction (my favorite genre!) and memoir book clubs yesterday!  In this post, I’ll outline the “legwork” I did to get the clubs formed and ready to go.

Book Sampling/Book Tasting

We began with a book sampling/tasting in early December; compared to years past, I kept this activity pretty low key.  I basically put 5 copies of each book selection at a table or seating area, and students rotated at their own pace.

Book Voting and Tallying/Sorting Votes

Once students completed the book tasting, they voted online in a Google Form their top three choices.  I downloaded each spreadsheet per class from Google Sheeets and sorted the spreadsheet by the first choice.  I tallied how many books got the “first choice” votes and calculated how many books I would need to meet the “first choice” requests if possible based on how many copies we owned from our bookroom (or didn’t own in several cases since I picked some newer titles for the activity).

Based on the needs, I created an Amazon wish list and shared widely through social media and my blog.  I am delighted and humbled to share that my list was pretty much completed, and I was able to give every child one of his/her top two choices.  I tweaked the working book club assignment list several times based on the incoming books purchased right up through the beginning of this week to make the clubs happen.  I actually finalized the list Wednesday night on the eve of issuing books!

I organized clubs either by book title or by related topics/genres.  You can see the clubs below by class period (I teach four sections of 8th Language Arts).

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Additional Support for Book Club Readers

The other important task I tackled prior to issuing the books and identifying the club members yesterday was to create a reading schedule for each book–all 15!  I created a master handout (you can access it here), ran copies, cut into strips, and stuffed them into the matching books.

We reviewed these schedules yesterday, and students are keeping them in the sheet protector with their overarching January course calendar.  I am also going to post these colorful versions in the room later today just in case someone loses his/her individual copy on plain paper.  This task was time consuming, but I felt it was an important one to help my students be successful in staying on track so that we can finish our books by January 31.  I am providing students two full days of class time to read and do their prep work (more on that coming next week!) with an optional third day; of course, they can also work at home on their book club reading and prep activities.

Next Steps

In my next blog post, I’ll share our first day of book club learning activities and how I re-organized my seating assignments to support my book club readers.  I’ll also share our first mini-lesson learning activities that got the students into their books to give them a “boost” with their reading and thinking!

Nonfiction Book Tasting + Google Forms

We are rapidly coming down the home stretch with only six weeks left in the school year!  We returned from our spring break last week with a two-day book tasting of six nonfiction books, selections we made as a grade level based on the Lucy Calkins nonfiction and literary nonfiction units of study:

  • March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine
  • I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives
  • Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
  • Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
  • Doable: The Girls’ Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything
  • Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts

My setup was relatively simple and straightforward:  I placed copies of book at each table group and treated the book tasting like a station rotation with 10 minute sampling segments and a couple of minutes for students to jot notes on the graphic organizer below.

On Day 2, we ended class with students completing a Google form filling in their top three book choices and a short explanation for their first choice book.  The Google form made it easy to compile the results in an Google Sheets/Excel spreadsheet to see how many books I needed for each class as I gave every student his/her first choice.   In addition, I ran a Mail Merge with a Word document I created and the Excel version of the Google Sheets to print the student responses for their literacy portfolios.

Because all Language Arts teachers in my building have a set of 10 Chromebooks with an in-classroom charging cabinet, I was able to have a set of 5 Chromebooks at each table area thanks to Mandy Briscoe (8th Language Arts) and Jamie Laster (7th Language Arts) loaning me their sets on Day 2 of the book tasting.  Thanks to an infusion of Title I money, we were able to purchase enough books earlier this year for all of my students to have a copy to take home and carry around at school so that they can annotate their own books.

Below is a breakdown of the votes from all four classes:

Students were extremely interested in the book selections, and several expressed they hope to read their top choices between now and the end of the school year.

Students will get at least two days a week to read, reflect, and discuss their books in class; on days where they may finish their poetry or EOC review work early, they may read their books on those days as well.  I have been impressed by the positive response to the books, and students are begging for any additional reading time whenever possible!  Over the years, I’m finding that a simple version of book tasting with strategic choices for genre study or book clubs is quite powerful.  In my next post, I’ll share how we began our first reading day with a review of Notice and Note signposts strategies for simple annotation that will be incorporated into written reflections as well as book club discussions.

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.

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?