Strategies for Reading Notes and Annotations: Literary Nonfiction and Memoir Book Clubs

We are a full week into our literary nonfiction and memoir book clubs, and I’m happy to report most students completed their first required reading goal for our first book club meeting on January 17.  This past Monday I introduced four options for taking reading notes and strategically annotating their books.  I built on strategies we learned last semester and folded in a few new approaches as well that tie into last week’s mini-lesson on themes, central ideas, and issues—I feel like all of these were doable for my 8th graders, and they loved the element of choice.  I also appreciated some students had some creative interpretations of the strategies and were engaged in their thinking with their notes.

You can see a tutorial video I created for my students who were absent for the mini-lesson or who needed to hear it again; I posted this video in our Canvas course LMS as well as our class blog.

The slideshow below is also available to students in both virtual learning spaces as I add student created work to showcase and highlight as the possibilities for notetaking.

I do provide different kinds of paper and a plethora of Post-It notes for my students to use.  Please enjoy the digital gallery of student work in progress below; overall, I feel like the quality of thinking and notes is much better than what I saw with my previous 8th graders.  However, I feel my instruction on annotating and closer reading has been stronger this academic year as well.

I’m excited to see what options they choose and the notes they create for our January 24 book club meeting!  In my next blog post, I’ll provide an update on our first book club meeting (held January 17) discussions and reflections on the book club meeting as well as their meeting prep work.

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Finding a Path into Poetry with Annotations, FSLL Charts, and Poetry Chats

Last week  (April 17) we began our exploration of poetry with an inquiry-oriented warm-up.  I presented students two documents:

  • An annotated copy of “Alone” by Maya Angelou (annotations by me)
  • A FSLL (Feelings, Story, Language, and Lines) that I had completed for “Alone” by Maya Angelou.

Students could work alone or with a partner to record their noticings about the annotation strategies evident on the poem; they also recorded their noticings about the kinds of elements discussed in the FSLL chart.   They also got to talk about any overalap they saw between the two.  Once students had recorded these noticings, we shared out to the whole class.

The next day, we engaged in a class reading of “Every Day” by Naomi Shihab Nye; this poem is part of a collection in her book A Maze Me:  Poems for Girls, a longtime favorite of mine.  Students practiced annotation the poem and working on their FSLL charts for the “Every Day”; students also had the opportunity to share their work with a partner.

My two “accelerated” classes also had the opportunity to complete a sticky note lit analysis jigsaw by finding two metaphors and one symbol in the poem.  Students had the opportunity to identify the literary element, draw a sketchnote to represent what they saw in their minds when they read those lines, and to write a short explanation of the literary element and how it contributed to the overall message or meaning of the poem.

This past week we engaged in poetry chats to generate conversation and share our thinking about the poem.  I did two variations of the poetry chat:  one version was set up like a timed station rotation, and the other was structured more like table talk with a large class share.

With the station rotation version, we did timed stations in which students wrote their responses on butcher paper.  This pretty much took the entire class period and is a great option when you have the luxury of time.  On Day 2, each group was assigned the task of reading over the responses and generating a 3-2-1 reflection to share with the whole class:

Students received a performance assessment grade for their poster presentation and a separate grade for the written poster (content, response to the writing/thinking directions).

A quicker version that is also meaningful is to assign a question prompt to each table group and let them brainstorm their responses on a large sticky note to to then share out to the whole class.  Though they don’t get the benefit of the silent “write around” and seeing the thinking of an entire class like the longer version,  this version still engages student in teamwork and critical though as well as an opportunity to speak to the entire class.  I used the same prompts for both variations of poetry chat, and I also provided supporting notes on any literary elements I felt might be helpful for students.  You will note my question prompts say “silent” because originally I had planned for each class to do the silent write-around part first, but as many of you know, time is at a premium right now, and I was not able to do it with three sections due to time constraints.

We are on the eve of state Milestones testing here, but we’ll continue to read poems and analyze them using the FSLL strategies/question prompts to annotate and think about poems.  Our next steps will be to take our charts to the next level with 11×17 posters, so stay tuned for a new post on that in May!

Scaffolding Student Thinking About Setting, Mood, and Diction

Update, January 1, 2019:  Hi! I have posted each resource as a free download in my new Teachers Pay Teachers store. I just uploaded the files, so they may not all be visible for a couple of hours, but they should all be visible within 24 hours. I hope you enjoy them!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I am terribly unhappy with the first unit of study our school has been working with—the Lucy Calkins Deep Study of Character.  Concerns I have include:

  • Lack of academic vocabulary that I know my students will be expected to know on state tests and in future high school courses.  I can’t fathom we are spending 7-8 weeks on a unit that has no mention of direct/indirect characterization, flat or round characters, or static/dynamic characters.
  • Limited number of learning structures that really do not provide much scaffolding for students who are either below grade level in reading and/or writing.
  • Too much unstructured “turn and talk” and emphasis on small group conferencing that is difficult at best for classes with wide gap in abilities.
  • The units are too long in general in terms of time for those on a 45-50 minute literacy period.
  • We’re investing a tremendous amount of precious instructional time on a limited number of standards.
  • I don’t have the time or energy to read 8-10 pages of small print for a single lesson.

With these challenges in mind, I’ve been working overtime to take the concepts in the required unit of study I must use and make it more accessible to my 8th grade learners.  The activities I’m outlining below took approximately 7-8 days of instructional time with classes that meet roughly 45-50ish minutes depending on our bell schedules for specific days.

The second “bend” of the unit focuses on setting, how word choices create mood, and how the setting/mood of a story may impact a character.  After one pass at the mini-lesson using an excerpt from First French Kiss that did not resonate one bit with my 1st period, I used a passage of my own from the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby for our guided analysis of the setting, word choices, and mood; I was delighted with my students’ response to this modification and our guided “think aloud” in my 4th, 5th, and 6th period classes.

After our read aloud session and think aloud mini-lessons (it’s pretty much impossible to limit complex concepts to 10 minutes, ugh), I initially thought it would not be difficult for my students to find two passages in their current independent reading book to find and analyze.

Students had half the period to work on this learning task and the entire weekend to complete their work.  Unfortunately, about only a quarter of my students attempted to finish the assignment and those who did seemed to struggle with accuracy in identifying the setting, mood, and word choices that created that mood.

I decided to punt and let students take another pass at the skills by working on some guided practice independently in class.  This learning activity also gave students a chance to practice using the dictionary and thesaurus in an authentic context as they encountered unfamiliar vocabulary.

The next day I organized students into small teams of four.  Two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 1 from our independent practice as a team, two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 2 from our independent practice as a team, and two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 3 from our independent practice as a team.  After reviewing the “steps to success” for creating a template on chart paper and instructions for analysis, teams worked for about 1.5 class periods to craft their posters.  I feel it is important to provide students the opportunity to engage in this learning structure of focused academic talk and collaborative conversations.


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Once students completed the posters, I hung them on the walls outside my classroom and organized by cluster (Passage 1, 2, and 3).  No names were on the front so that students could participate in a gallery walk and do a blind peer review to vote on their top choices in each category as well as their overall top choice.  The assessment gallery walk was one of our station activities we did over two days, and students used a paper rubric and clipboard to do their evaluations before entering their choices online in a Google form I created.


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Some of you on Twitter asked what chart paper did I use for the posters; thankfully, I had a stash of these leftover from last year.  Right now, they are at $9.00 a tablet, but if you watch for a sale, you can buy them for half of that price.

If you like this activity, you can access the materials from this Google Folder.  Some of you have asked if I have a TPT store, and I don’t at this time (though I am finally considering it thanks to the encouragement of many people!).  You will also need to install these fonts for the files to format properly for you:

In this folder, you will also find a “task card walk” that I designed for students to do once they finished their group work early to nudge them back to some independent applied practice.  They wrote their answers down on a sheet of paper I provided and then entered them into a Google Form for grading.  We are not 1:1 at this time, so that is why I did not have students record their responses directly into the Google Form.

Last not but not least, our culminating learning activity was one that I purchased from The Daring English Teacher over at TPT.  I slightly tweaked the activity to have the students do their sketches in the boxes at the top of the page for the setting activity and their written responses ON the sticky notes I provided them to put on top.  I also created a model for them that I used as a think aloud to introduce the activity.  I then shared it with my students as a projected PDF and printed copies that I put in my ever-present neon pouches for them to have handy at their table work spaces for a frame of reference.  Not only did this assignment help students to think through the significance of the setting, but it also gave students a meaningful opportunity to practice the RACE strategy in context, one that is emphasized in all grade levels and subject areas in my school.

I gave students a day and a half of class time to finish this assignment, and I was quite impressed with the quality of their work.  I believe the independent guided practice that we did and then the conversations that happened in the group version of that assignment helped students grow their thinking.  All of these assignments will become part of their literacy portfolios we are keeping in folders in the classroom.  Here is a sampler of their work:

What strategies and learning activities do you like for teaching setting, mood, and diction?  If you are in a school that is required to use the Calkins units of study and have latitude to go off script, what modifications are you making?  What common texts do you like to use to help students have a common mentor text or frame of reference for having discussions to contextualize specific literary elements?

In my next post, I’ll share how I introduced the analysis of theme using:

  • A guided/interactive practice activity taking apart literary elements and putting them back together to think about theme
  • Purposeful highlighting with annotations
  • Note and Notice “Contrasts and Contradictions”
  • Station Rotation work to analyze the “puzzle pieces” of a story we tackled independently and then in groups to discover possible themes

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.