Gearing Up For Book Clubs

17 Mar

We’re in the middle of book clubs right now, with students meeting in groups of four to discuss their books.  This year, Jenny and I decided to run a first round of book clubs in a more structured and scaffolded manner than we ever had before.  The goal was to provide heavy support in the management of clubs (what book to read, how much to read, where to meet, roles) so that students could focus primarily on how to talk and grow ideas.

Love_That_DogWe chose to use Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, as a class read-aloud, but also as a the novel for every book club.  Using a read-aloud as our first book club text allowed us a few advantages:

  • we all read the book together, avoiding the issues of students reading too far or not far enough
  • we scaffold thinking during the read-aloud through prompts and think-alouds, which helps students to be prepared for discussion
  • we know the book extremely well, so we can help support groups who might struggle
  • the extra support in comprehension allows us to work on procedural issues for this first round of clubs

We noticed in previous years that book clubs had two major pitfalls.  Some students struggled with the procedural aspect of clubs.  These might include reading an appropriate chunk of pages between meetings, coming prepared for conversations with sticky notes, speaking up, or letting others speak.  Some students struggled with the academic aspect of book clubs, like knowing how to build off of another person’s ideas, noticing moments in the book that were “conversation worthy” etc.

We’ve been working on both of these set of skills throughout the year, in read-alouds, grand-conversations, and partner discussions, but it’s a brand new level of complexity when we ask students to work in a groups of four without a teacher guiding them.  Since there are 7 or 8 groups in clubs at one time, I often struggled with one or two groups that sucked up most of my time with managerial issues.  I wanted to listen in, and help push student conversation.  Instead I was putting out fires or struggling with a group that seemed lost.

The new, introductory book club unit has been very successful.  I’d like to go into the details of some particular lessons later, but for now, here are a few innovations that helped.

1. Video examples of a successful group

We pulled four 5th graders who had been strong participants in book clubs the previous year, and asked them to help us model some great meetings.  We asked them to model having a conversation where they showed what great book clubs looked like and sounded like.  They modeled making eye contact, leaning in, quiet bodies, sitting knee-to-knee, sharing, and listening.  The clip was about 2 minutes long.  I shared the clip with my class, and then we talked about what we noticed the group doing that helped them to be successful.  Then my class had a first conversation.  Gosh darn it if they didn’t model themselves exactly after the group they had just watched.  Modeling is really a powerful thing :).

We followed up that video clip with later lessons where we watched the group demonstrate having a first conversation about the book (things to notice included referencing the text, making predictions, discussing first impressions of characters) and book club roles.  Each clip was between 1-2 minutes long, so very quick.

2. Roles

I’ve never used the official roles from Literature Circles, because they always felt like they compartmentalized the discussion a little too much.  Summarizer, discussion director, illustrator, word wizard…I wasn’t sure I wanted students to focus on just one skill.  However, the purpose of this round of book clubs was to teach students how to sustain a conversation and work together, so Jenny and I created some new roles for that purpose.  I’ll go more into the roles in a later post, but I’ve been fairly pleased with them.  They’ve helped students to maintain their discussion but they haven’t felt limiting or restricting.

We did a lesson where we taught students the roles, and we also provided small sentence frame cards for each role, so that students had a very clear idea of how to fulfill their job.  The cards have been extremely helpful.  When discussions begin to falter, I see students pull out their cards and think of what they can do, and then say, “Can you tell me more about ____?”

3.  Communal Meeting Spot

I used to have students all pick a spot they wanted their club to meet in, so that it felt special and so they had some ownership.  I still think that’s a great idea–eventually.  For this round, the clubs are all meeting on the carpet.  With them all in one place, I can see everyone at once,  I can listen in to multiple conversations at once, and I can jot down who needs more support and who is being very successful.  It’s both a management strategy (harder for students to be off task with their teacher 10 steps away) and an assessment strategy–I can actually tell what’s going on in almost all the groups each day.

Twice, I’ve noticed clubs having a lot of difficulty–more difficulty than a quick teach-in or redirect would fix.  Each time, I asked the clubs to stay on the carpet when the rest of the class was dismissed to independent work.  Each time, we were able to problem solve, and the next session was much improved.  Everyone meeting in one place has helped keep the hiccups to a minimum.

Those are my tips thus far!  More to come on the unit.  In the meantime, what have you done to make book clubs successful?  I’d love to know!

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