central topics

Next Steps for Thinking About Theme, Central Topics, and Social Issues: Pop-Up Book Club Meetings

In my last post, I shared how we used a Lucy Calkins learning structure to think about more deeply about theme, central ideas/topics, and social issues.  Yesterday, I did two variations on some “pop-up” book club meetings to help students think through these elements.

Variation #1, Periods 1 and 4

On Monday evening,  I compiled all student responses for theme, central topic, and social issue from all four classes; I did this by going through every single graphic organizer completed by students.  I crafted a chart for each book with the compiled responses and left space for students to reflect.  This task took some time on my part, but I really wanted to tap into their collective thinking and crowdsource their knowledge.

At the beginning of class on Tuesday, I organized into read alike or birds of a feather book clubs; students received the color-coded compiled responses.  We did three four “lightning” rounds of discussion:

  • Round 1:  students shared their original and revised responses on the theme/central topic/social issue graphic organizer.
  • Round 2:  students shared and discussed one of the signposts they noticed in their annotations.
  • Round 3:  students shared their reactions to the collaborative responses for their books.
  • Round 4:  students shared current questions or wonderings about their books.

After the meeting, I provided students 25 minutes of time to read in class.  During our reading time, students used large and “baby” sticky notes to annotate and track the the development of these elements in their reading:

  • We continued to annotate Notice and Note signposts using our #shortcut codes.  Students looked for at least three signposts.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a current theme they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new theme from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a central idea/ topic they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new central idea/topic from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a current social issue they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new social issue from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.

I provided the different colors and sizes of sticky notes for all six book club groups. At the end of the reading time, students filled in the blank area of their collaborative thinking handout for their book by sharing their responses to the day’s reading and book club discussion and their current thinking on theme, central ideas/topics, and social issues.  Students could also share how their thinking had changed based on the book club meeting and the day’s reading.  If students needed more time, they could finish at home or at the beginning of class today (Wednesday) before submitting their work.  They could also revise their white theme/central idea/topic/social issue white graphic organizer and “repair” any sections they felt needed revision by writing their new thinking on sticky notes and placing it over the original work just as we did Monday.

Variation #2, Periods 5 and 6

We essentially did the same activities, but the order was reversed.  With these classes, I organized students into their book club groups as they arrived, but we started by taking time to silently read the collaborative thinking list for their books; student placed check marks next to themes, central ideas/topics, and social issues they wanted to focus on in the reading the first 25 minutes of class.  They then wrote their responses to the day’s reading and we then shifted into book club mode using the same discussion structure  as 1st and 4th.  It was a bit tricky fitting it all in, but we made it work.  I did give these students the option of finishing their annotations and sticky note work at home if they needed more time; they could also add to their reading reflections and revise their original graphic organizer at home and return today if needed.

My Reflections

I’ve been reading their responses and revisions, and many students definitely are showing more growth in their thinking.  We’re juggling quite a bit right now with state testing strategic prep and poetry study, but overall, I am thrilled with engaged the students are with their books.   I am fascinated that the majority of my students seem way more “into” their nonfiction book club choices than their self-selected fiction independent reads from 1st and 2nd semester.

I am thinking about how we can squeeze in a few more “pop up” or casual book club meetings since our schedule doesn’t really permit full blown book club meetings, and I’ll share some new approaches I hope to take in a future post soon.

Looking for Seeds of Theme, Central Ideas, and Social Issues in Our Nonfiction Books: Scaffolding, Structure, and Strategy

This past Friday and Monday (April 12 and 15), I wanted my students to have an opportunity to think a little more deeply about their nonfiction books.  Using a focal point from one of our Lucy Calkins units of study, I crafted a graphic organizer to help students identify each of the following elements in their reading so far:

  • Theme (this is an important element, but I am continuing to stress it because so many of my students have struggled with this concept all year)
  • Central Topic/Idea
  • Social Issues

We reviewed what concepts of theme, central idea/topic, and social issues at the beginning of class on Friday; in addition, I used a resource from our Calkins resource guide as an “anchor chart” for reference on the back of a graphic organizer I provided students.   Even though all students are not reading literary nonfiction, I felt the concepts would translate to the regular nonfiction books students were reading.

I did not provide a list of possible themes or social issues to my students on the first day because I wanted to see what they could identify for themselves.  While I do believe in scaffolding, I also think it is important to give students opportunities to wrestle with ideas.  Using a graphic organizer I’ve used in the past, I modified it to fit the three element structure to help students identify their thinking and evidence from the text to support it.

I modeled my thinking for students using one of my favorite books, Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats.  I began by showing the book trailer video and then the beginnings of my work as I modeled a think aloud for each class.

After reading over my students’ work over the weekend, it was very clear that many were struggling to correctly identify a theme or social issue.   Instead, many of them were identifying central ideas and topics as themes and/or social issues.   Yesterday I provided them a working list of themes (not necessarily unique to our books, but a broad list) as well as a working list of common social issues.

After doing another review of the terms and the new lists, I asked students to place check marks next to themes and social issues they felt might be present in their books.  Students then had the opportunity to revise and/or add to any of the three sections that felt needed improvement or a complete rewrite.  Many students had an “aha!” moment in their thinking, but I was still worried last night when I read over their revisions and saw quite a few are still struggling even with the additional scaffolding.   I will continue a variety of strategies to triage this challenge in small groups and 1:1 over the next few weeks, but I am hopeful students will grow in these areas with continued support from me and their book groups as well as better understanding of their book as they get further into it,.

This work has definitely challenged my students and nudged their critical thinking.  In my next post, I’ll share how we are using this work in the student book clubs to grow everyone’s thinking and help students’ understanding of the concepts of theme, central topics/ideas, and social issues.  Until then, what strategies do you use to help students who are having difficulty grasping theme and/or understanding of social issues in a text?