Introducing Book Clubs with Partner Reading and Noticings About Themes, Central Ideas, and Issues

Yesterday, I introduced book clubs by issuing students their books with their reading tickets/schedules (see previous blog post, please).  Students also got new seating/table assignments when they arrived; I projected these onto the board as students arrived.  Students are either seating with their entire book club OR in a “subgroup” of a larger book club since some groups are reading different texts around a similar theme or genre (memoir, specifically).

Once we reviewed our reading schedule/assignment for the first week, we did a quick mini-lesson on themes, central ideas, and issues and how we might begin to notice these elements of our literary nonfiction/memoir books.  I used one of my favorite texts, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen, to model my thinking.  My mini-lesson and subsequent activity are modifications of a mini-lesson from the Lucy Calkins Literary Nonfiction Unit of Study in reading.

Students then broke into small groups by book club/same books or partners for subgroups of book clubs for the read aloud portion of our activity.  I have blogged earlier this academic year about the power of partner read alouds, and yesterday only reinforced my belief in their value.  Most classes were able to get about 15-20 minutes of reading time in.  Students then jotted down any initial noticings about theme, central ideas, or issues they noticed in the day’s reading.  Students will be adding to this graphic organizer as we get deeper into our books.

Yesterday was hectic, so I apologize I don’t have video for you to see/hear the partner or small group read alouds, but you can see/hear this awesome energy in my previous posts on read alouds.

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?

Seeing the Big Picture with Theme: Collaborative Work + Learning Stations

In my last two posts, I wrote about some of the learning activities we did in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom to set the stage to do some collaborative work with theme.  Using the structure and materials from this “Discovering Theme” activity with learning stations as my framework, we spent roughly 4.5 days of class working through the stations and then putting our puzzle pieces together.  I did make some modifications for my 8th graders to support my learners, and I’ll share those adjustments in the blog post.

The Prep Work

The basis of our activity was “Thank You Ma’am” which we had been working on together and independently prior to the station work.  I provided a copy of the story to each group, and the copy included our original version of the story from CommonLit with the addition of paragraph numbers for each portion of the story.

I began the station setup by reorganizing my room and bringing in some additional smaller tables to accommodate the number of stations I needed.  I also tweaked the original template for the stations taking out point of view and replacing it with the “Contrasts and Contradictions” fiction signpost we had been practicing in class.  I also added additional instructions and created the station “signs” and instructions using pastel colored file folders that I had laminated by our media clerk.  Finally, for each station I included the appropriate/corresponding supplies.  While it seems deceptively simple, the process was pretty time-consuming and required my coming in early and staying late for a couple of hours after school to get it all together plus some additional work at home:

I also organized groups of 3 and did not go up to groups of 4 unless absolutely necessary; I tried very hard to create groups to bring in a variety of abilities and strengths so that everyone would participate and contribute.

Getting Started

The first day was the most chaotic since we had to get everyone situated, review the procedures, and get our feet wet with what we are doing at our stations.  It was also a little tricky doing timing for each station the first day, and I had to be a little flexible though by the second day we were able to roll with fixed time rotations.  Here is a sampler of our instructions that we reviewed together the first and second days:

I was pleasantly surprised that most groups had no problems and got right to work on the first day; sometimes some classes or students struggle with activities with multiple steps, but they all got the hang of what they were doing very quickly and set to work on their tasks.  Over the course of the next few days, I was fascinated by the group dynamics and found the most valuable part of their work was the depth and richness of conversations happening as students wrestled with their thinking together.  I wish I had found a better way to capture the academic talk they were engaging in because I honestly think that was the biggest benefit for them and more valuable than the final product/outcome they crafted together.

The students had a total of eight stations to work through and most stations took about 12-15 minutes to complete.

Final Steps

The two culminating activities included:

  • Students receiving puzzle pieces with each station element and writing summary statements for each literary element.
  • A culminating activity to help students identify the thematic concept of “Thank You Ma’am” and writing a thematic statement for the short story.  This activity was one I wrote as the original version that came with the activity, while good, did not provide enough scaffolding for younger/less experienced literacy learners.  I also created these sentence frames to help the students write their summary statements in a more complete and coherent way. 

Once students wrote the summary statements, they “put them together” and glued them onto 11×14 sheets of paper we taped together (and later had laminated).  Once they looked at their puzzle pieces again together, they moved onto the final act of writing about the theme using the guided writing handout I provided.

Our final products were then taken the media center for lamination, and now that everything has been cut and trimmed, I am planning on putting our work on display.  I also had their annotation work completed that they did at each station on the chart paper, and that will be part of their display with their final products.  Here is a sneak peek:

As we set up our new literacy portfolios this past week, students completed a self-assessment of their contributions to their group and their participation in their groups.

Final Reflections

Though the activity took a little longer than I anticipated, I think it was worth the investment of time.  I think the experience of working collaboratively and getting the opportunity to wrestle and struggle together with some challenging literary analysis tasks was invaluable for my 8th graders; this kind of learning experience was also a big step up for them academically and socially.  Overall, the students did a great job staying on track and very few needed redirection.  They did a terrific job of asking clarifying questions when needed and staying the course if they hit a rough patch with a more challenging station thinking/learning task.

I did have one class that needed to finish the final part of the activity independently as they were struggling to work together on their final station rotation day, but even this modification turned out to be helpful and meaningful for that particular class and was the best final pathway to learning for them.  The only other challenge I encountered was that some students chose to be destructive with the new Sharpies, and we had to put them away on our final station rotation today and finish with regular pens and pencils though students could bring/use their own supplies if they chose to do so.

While this activity is probably a little better geared toward advanced middle schoolers and all levels of high school students, I feel like my 8th graders rose to the challenge and overall did some outstanding work as teams and individually.  Their thinking skills were pushed, and they gained valuable experience in working with others.  I was especially proud of how many students showed leadership within their groups and did a great job working with their peers.  As I mentioned earlier, the academic talk and the debate about different questions and responses I heard within groups was probably a more valuable measure of their learning than the written work.  In the future, I might have students record their debate or do an audio recording of it and post to Seesaw as a way to capture this aspect of their learning.  The amount of prep work I had to do and some of the modifications I had to create as we moved through the activity was a little more than I expected, but I learned and grew from that as well.  Overall, I definitely recommend this activity to my fellow Language Arts teachers!   This group work was our springboard to individual theme analysis with our independent reading novels, and I will write more about that in my next blog post.

Days 2 and 3 of Inquiring Into Theme: Introducing Purposeful Annotations + The Note and Notice Contrasts and Contradictions Signpost

In my previous post, I outlined how we dipped our toe into deconstructing a piece of literature to take apart the “puzzle pieces” with a short text and then put them back together to see a big picture of theme.  On Day 2, we did a quick recap of the previous day’s activities and concepts about theme, thematic concepts, and thematic statements. I then gave students a copy of the short story “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes (I got my version from CommonLit) to mark up as we began our read aloud.   I had two goals in my mind:

  1.  To show students how we might highlight AND annotate with purpose to better notice the “puzzle pieces” of our text (i.e. literary elements).  Students copies these shortcut codes and notes into their notes as part of their warm-up.
  2.  To introduce the first Note and Notice signpost of Contrasts and Contradictions for close reading of fiction by doing a read aloud and interactive think aloud with “Thank You Ma’am” using the mini-lesson outlined in Lesson 1 of Note and Notice.  I was inspired to incorporate the fiction signposts into my work with students this past spring thanks to a blog post from the amazing Julie Swinehart.  I wish now I had incorporated these signposts into instruction from the very beginning of the year, but at the time, I was initially trying to follow the Calkins lessons closely, a mistake since there are virtually no real meaningful annotation strategies in the unit.

I did a brief overview of the signposts and their purpose to help us as readers and then a quick introduction to Contrasts and Contradictions (see notes below).  I told students to think about anything they noticed that was surprising or unexpected as we read the first part of the story together.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading aloud the first chunk of the story and getting into librarian mode as I read with gestures and expression for my kids!

After we read the first chunk together (I followed part of the lesson outlined in the Contrasts and Contradictions chapter), I gave students a copy of a page I had copied from the Note and Notice Literature Log, and I asked students to jot down:

  1.  A passage where a character acted in a way that was surprising or unexpected.  They were to identify the surprising moment and include the paragraph numbers.
  2. Explain why the moment was surprising or unexpected.
  3. What might have possibly motivated the character to act in this way?

I gave students about 8-10 minutes to think and write before we gathered to share aloud our noticings.  Students identified moments of contrast and contradiction both for Mrs. Jones and Roger, and we made sure to include our “what makes you say that” for each question about the moments they picked.

Based on the student responses, I felt they were ready to move forward into the story on their own and continue their work of noticing moments of contrast and contradiction as well as purposefully annotate with highlights and shortcut codes.  Our tasks included:

  1. Try to find at least one example of each of the literary elements in our list of possible elements we could notice and annotate.  Students were required to highlight and put the shortcut code; they had the option of making additional notes.

2.  Students were to find at least ONE more additional contrast and contradiction moment; they were to find more if possible.  I provided students sentence starters to help them get at the question of “what is causing the character to act this way?”

3.  The final step was for students were to choose from their highlighted and coded annotations and transfer one of each to the chart pictured below.  I incorporated this chart and the purposeful annotating to set up the “discovering theme” station rotation activity that students would begin on Friday, September 21.

My learners had half the class on Wednesday and all of Thursday to complete their work; they could also work on the assignment at home if they chose to do so.

On both days, I circulated around the room to answer questions and to serve as a sounding board when students got stuck with their thinking.  On Thursday, we warmed up with a quick “ticket in the door” review; students who finished the work from Wednesday early could work ahead to finding their own contrast and contradiction moments in their independent reading books.

All of the work for Days 1, 2, and 3 were designed to scaffold students for the “discovering theme” station rotation work that we started this past Friday, September 21, and that we are continuing into next week.  I will blog that learning experience later next week, but so far, my 8th graders are off to an amazing start with that work!

If you haven’t used the Note and Notice signposts, I highly recommend them based on my experience this past spring.  There is a super helpful Facebook group for the fiction signposts; you can also join the conversation with the nonfiction signposts here.

Tonight Kylene Beers and Bob Probst will be part of a Twitter chat about the signposts strategies as well as the Book, Head, and Heart strategy from Disrupting Thinking.   The chat begins at 7PM EST, and you can follow along at the Reading Recovery hashtag.