Everyone Else is Reading It: Creating a Reading Classroom Through Self-Selected Book Groups
What happens when you let students take the lead in suggesting and selecting books for literature circles based on individual interest? Dina Moskowitz, a middle school teacher at Creative Arts Charter School in San Francisco, CA, set out to investigate this in her fourth year as a Mills Teacher Scholar.
When I began teaching middle school humanities, I read Nancy Allison’s book, Middle School Readers (Heinemann, 2009). Her model of an independent reading program to engage students in enjoyable books sounded amazing, so I spent a year creating a culture of reading (see my previous blog here). I did everything from doing a graphic novel unit, to pumping up book talks, to conversing with kids more about their books. I built up trust with my more resistant kids.
Great, right? Well, no, not exactly. Even though it was better than what I had traditionally done with reading instruction, I found that as a teacher I couldn’t adequately give personal support to each of the variety of learners in my class. Many kids didn’t complete their books. They didn’t have sufficient ways of getting support when they were confused and they might not even know what they didn’t know, because they rarely had conversations with others reading the same book. I was able to conference with a few students each day, and then I had to trust that the rest of them we’re on-task and developing as readers.
In early spring 2013, I introduced the idea of Book Clubs with student choice in an attempt to address some of these issues. I decided to combine the model of students selecting their own books with group book clubs, hoping that through this, students would be more engaged with their books, complete their books, and develop stronger reading comprehension.
Rather than simply using the books I had in class, I allowed students to make recommendations for book clubs. To encourage students to make good choices for their text:
- I allowed a day of “book shopping” (Allison, 2009) so students could peruse the books and get excited
- I talked up the books
- I let students write a first, second third choice.
- I put in rules: you couldn’t have read the book before, the books should be appropriate for school, and we needed to be able to get the book relatively cheaply.
And it was wonderful! Students brought in fun, contemporary books that got the class excited. The books suggested by the students themselves got far more requests than the books that had been on my shelf.
As the book groups took form, I began looking closely at my focal students’ attitudes and interactions during the process and learned some important things about how best to support student learning in this context.
I. READING SHOULD BE FUN: LET THEM READ HIGH INTEREST CONTEMPORARY NOVELS
When the books came in, there were literally shrieks of joy in ways that I had not seen in my classroom ever before. While it seems simple to say, ‘let them choose their books,’ it’s not the prevailing theory in schools. Many classrooms have kids reading “classics” (which can be great, but often are dated), and do not allow other texts. Often, teachers and parents don’t think books that have contemporary covers are “good literature,” but students are often able to connect and engage with contemporary fiction more easily and thus persevere to finish their books more often.
My first sticky situation came when Zaire (pseudonym), wanted to read a book that I deemed above his level. I’m pretty certain that he made that choice because a) his friend suggested it and his other friends wanted to read it and b) the subject matter was high interest to him (a football star who gets told he has a year to live). Drama and sports in one? Golden. But I knew the text would be very challenging for him and struggled with what to do.
Although we had discussed appropriate book levels and the idea of the “Just Right Book,” I hadn’t planned on limiting students’ choices. My colleagues told me to limit the selections for Zaire, that he wouldn’t enjoy a book that was so hard for him.
I went back to him and talked to him privately. The look on his face was enough to break my heart. “I want to read this book,” he said with a clenched jaw and puppy eyes. Here was a kid who hadn’t wanted to read any book all year using the phrase, ‘I want to read this book.’ That was enough for me.
I had him read the first chapter and tell me about it. He decided to write copious notes and asked his book group questions as he was reading. Here is an image of what he chose to write on his own volition.
He was reading! And understanding! He was motivated! And even more specifically, he was using the reading strategies– checking for meaning, asking questions, making predictions and synthesizing.
II. MIXED-LEVEL GROUPS CAN HELP EACH OTHER, BUT CAN ALSO LEAD EACH OTHER ASTRAY
The groups had a lot of autonomy from the very beginning. They made their calendar for reading assignments for the whole book, chose what the consequence would be if members didn’t do their reading and made a contract for how they would behave in the group. I was amazed at how on-task the groups were each day.
I decided I would watch Zaire’s group very closely and put my efforts into understanding how and why this particular group was (or wasn’t) working. There were two very strong readers in the group, two medium readers and Zaire, who was about two years below grade level.
Since he really wanted to be with his friends, Zaire put a lot of focus on doing his reading and took on a leadership role in the group. He would begin the conversations and administer their decided-upon consequence of writing lines if someone didn’t do their work. He demonstrated a high level of involvement that I had not seen from him in Humanities.
His mixed ability group was often able to support each other with basic comprehension. I heard students ask clarifying questions and group members quickly respond. I also witnessed many surface level conversations and discussions about the way that the group thought this book would go, but didn’t.
There were not, however, many conversations in which students referenced the texts in deeper ways such as talking about the book’s theme, analyzing why a character was acting a certain way or why an author made the choices he/she made.
And sometimes they could lead each other astray. I recorded a conversation where Zaire made a statement about the therapist in the book doing drugs, which he had heard from another member of the group who really only meant it as a flippant comment. This lead the group down the path of talking about why the therapist was doing drugs, when that was not even part of the text!
I was left with questions about how to get students to a deeper and more text-based conversation without constant adult support.
III. JUST THE BEGINNING…
In climbing the mountain of student reading comprehension, I managed to reach the first plateau of generating student excitement around books. I now realize that there are many more levels to climb toward the peak of helping students to develop deep comprehension.
While I am still uncertain about exactly would produce the level of conversation I would like to hear, one idea I have is to create more group discussion structures to focus students on the text. I would still like to keep the autonomous feeling of the book clubs, but will provide more guidance for students that they can lean on when an adult is not present.
What have other teachers found are effective ways to bring group conversation to the next level and support students’ deep comprehension?