Back in March, Doug Noon wrote about his free and voluntary classroom reading program. After trying to get my own literature circle program up and running late last year and still unsure of the best approach with this current bunch of students, his post painted a picture that I want for my classroom.
This year, everyone in the class reads what they want to read, and they read without interruption for 30-40 minutes each day. They tell me about their books when I go around the room asking how it’s going. I write down what we talk about. They read short passages quietly to me. They write in journals about their books. They meet with partners or in small groups, and they give oral “book reports” written on sticky notes. They make book recommendations to each other. They read at home and before school without being told to, and they tell me they love to read. I even saw one of my students reading a book walking down the hall the other day. It’s going viral.
I emailed the link to our teacher-librarian and she agreed that this had all the qualities of a switched on reading program. This week, Doug put the icing on the cake with feedback from his kids about their reading and writing program. Being able to reflect on one's own learning is the mark of a successful learner who values what they are doing and the kids' comments certainly do that well. It's a skill that my teaching partners and I want our own students to have as well.
But what I struggled with was the connection with Doug's switched on atmosphere and the much touted literature circles approach. I'm certainly not the only edublogger out there trying to get it right. So, a whole stack of teachers at my school headed off to an after school workshop on "Literature Circles" to get our heads around this concept. The facilitators talked a bit about lit circles but soon switched focus, talking about their modified approach which stripped some of the formalities away but kept the basic premise of a group of kids reading a common text and coming together to discuss the text through making connections and exploring questions. They called this approach "Book Clubs" and it had many of the things that Doug identified as being desirable outcomes for students when reading - engagement, increased appetite for more books, improved comprehension. This approach is one I think I can handle and while I wouldn't adopt everything mentioned by the facilitators (snacking and guzzling while book clubbing is another time for feeding some of our kids don't need, and carrot and celery treats are not that appealing to many kids), I reckon that I can see this being a successful way of re-engaging middle school readers. Perhaps the major problem will be having enough quality texts in bundles of five or six to form the groups. I really liked the suggested way to form groups - you pass the book bundles around the classroom and everyone views them and then ranks the choices from first until last, then the groups form around who has chosen what book. When a group fills, students then drop to their second choice and so on. I'm feeling enthusiastic about getting the Book Club approach which combines the goals and shared experiences of the literature circle approach with Doug's less formal and peer-enthusing approach.
Graham, I don’t have a solid approach for making literature circles work. In fact, the reason why I didn’t go with them this year is because my past experiences with them were minor league disasters that recreated all the problems of a teacher-centered approach coupled with new layers of management headaches, passed off to students. But I see that some students might benefit from additional support, so I’ll have another go at it next year. (It’s a beautiful thing, this ability to start over, again and again.)
Getting the books is the easy part. I go to a used book store that gives credit for old books, and sells used books at a big discount. They have a young adult section that I pick through. Unfortunately, most of the titles that were popular with my group this year are not there. So I have to be a bit of a salesman for some of the classics. Even two or three copies of a title will do.
In order to preserve the benefits of free choice and to minimize the management problems, I’m not going to set up any elaborate structures for the book clubs. No roles or discussion formats to follow. I’ll simply provide sets of books, available to any group of kids who want to read them. I’m also going to make the book clubs, themselves, voluntary. Kids who have their own reading agenda can ignore the club business. I’ll teach all the kids about how we talk about books, whether they’re in a book group or not.
I’m thinking of this as an add-on feature to my reading program. As with everything else I try, this plan is open to modification or abandonment for any number of reasons. If it’s not simple, I won’t do it.
I’m interested in what other teachers are doing, and I look forward to hearing from you and others who have anything to report.
I have a new E/LA director this year, one who is super-supportive of independent reading. I’m reading Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle, the Bible of independent reading and writing. I also have tenure this year. It’s the perfect storm…
That being said, I’m not sure I will want to give up entirely the benefits and pleasures of book clubs/literature circles…but just how to do this while also running most/all of the class based on independent reading is befuddling. Maybe choosing a five-week period –maybe right at the end of the year?– to call “Book Club Month”? The other option is to teach the kids a procedure and format for a Book Club sometime towards the middle of the year, and then have them run and develop Book Clubs as they choose. Any other ideas?
@Doug. The facilitators of this workshop (both were practicing teachers, one at the school where the workshop was being held) said that there was no set magic formula or template that ensured success. Roy, whose class we saw in a video at the end, said that a lot depended on the group dynamics of the class and what worked last year might bomb this year and you just had to experiment to get what that particular group of kids will run with. My bunch this year are a very different bunch as a group compared to the last two years, so the only part of what you’ve done that I’m really keen to replicate is the end result of kids switched onto free choice reading. Any structures, procedures or frameworks have to be tailored to the local clientele – what your kids may find motivating could be viewed as a turn off for mine and vice versa. And yeah, the constant re-starting year by year is a good thing. The teacher who doesn’t seek to constantly re-invent themselves and what they do is ready to give the game away.
@Dina. Thanks for dropping by – I hope that the pingback on your blog that led you here and consequently to Doug was worthwhile. I think your ideas are all viable – it depends on the group of kids involved. I think that like myself, you have to start with one idea and be prepared to modify/tweak on the run whilst pulse checking your class engagement along the way. I don’t really have any great brainwaves of my own yet – except I do need to negotiate whatever my class does with Kim, my tandem partner. I can’t impose anything without making sure she can work with it too!