I brought 4 books with me for our trip to my brother’s. 4 different books, in different sizes, with different worlds, hoping that at least one of them entices me into its world so that I can have a new book to book talk on Monday. 4 hopes to read, 4 hopes of time spent sitting in another world than the one we currently reside in. It is now Saturday and I have yet to crack open a page, yet to fall into the pages of a book, despite knowing I need to. Despite knowing that I won’t regret it if I just start. Despite knowing that it really won’t take me that much time to read if I just do it.
The world continues to feel so heavy and the books still feel like work and so I push it off and think that perhaps a little later, I will take the time, make the space, find the energy. Perhaps if I just allow myself some rest then reading will not feel like such a chore.
I see this exhaustion in many of my students as well. That hope to read that just doesn’t happen. The knowing that they should read, that they will like it if they do, that if they just get started then it will not feel like such a huge obstacle. That the books look good but…
So they gravitate toward shorter books, fast-paced action books that take you to the edge of your seat right away. They grab our novels in verse telling me that this is what they need right now to feel transported. That the sparse words allow them to focus. The graphic novels and illustrated chapter books pass from hand to hand, children snuggling in with illustrations that call their names. From re-reading Dogman, to eagerly waiting for the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid, from finding old series they read before, to shorter books, fewer words, and not ones that feel so heavy, the kids are reading as best as they can.
And I get it. My own reading life has mainly consisted of the same diet of fast-paced, shorter books. Of incredible graphic novels. Of books without death. Of romance and “easy reads.” And the longer books sit on my shelf waiting for the day that I feel I have the space to take them on again. Who knows when that will happen?
I hear other educators lamenting the fact that kids are not reading as much as they used to. That the kids are reading books that are too easy. That the kids are not doing reading right, again, and that surely what is needed is more accountability, less choice, and more rigor. That if the kids are not reading what some have deemed as proper reading material then surely we just need to increase the demand so they can understand how serious we are. Remove the Diary of a Wimpy Kids. Stop booktalking graphic novels. Stop allowing free choice, when we know so much better. We have to get “back to normal” and in that normal, we take on serious topics and read long books. We grow up a bit and let go of the graphic novels. It is time to move, to get back to it, to challenge ourselves.
But perhaps the world is challenging enough. Perhaps the world doesn’t allow us much space to laugh? To sit with friendly pictures rather than frightening ones. Perhaps the world has not let up its relentless battering for so long that we barely can catch our breath. And perhaps those books we are so quick to push kids away from allow us to finally breathe. To rest. To find peace. To giggle. To fall slowly back into a routine of reading that seemed paused for so many of us.
And so I urge us all to consider the emotions attached to the act of reading. To the space we need in our life to take on reading. To the readiness we need to fall into the pages of a book and stay there. To honor the choices of the children we teach because as long as they are reading, they are reading.
We hoped for a return to familiar lands in this pandemic. We hoped for a reprieve, for the world to stop shifting below our feet, so have we considered how books that we choose ourselves provide us that beginning?
So let them read what they choose to, again. Let them fall into the pages they have read before, again. Let kids consider what they can make space for, again. And withhold your urgency to push for more, for harder, for longer, again. Kids know what they need, much like we do when we choose our own books. So honor their choices, even if they do not make sense to you, again.
For the past 6 years, I have done a Mock Caldecott unit with students as we come back to school in January. The year is quietly winding down which means the reflection begins on which illustrations took my breath away. And there were many. Last year, I didn’t get to do this unit with my students due to virtual teaching so I am so excited to bring it back to us. Over the years, I have made a few tweaks to make it more manageable and enjoyable for kids.
One, I am reading all of these books aloud during our unit. While the students will still read them in their group, they will have experienced the full text with us all first.
Two, I am limiting our choices to 11. That way we can leisurely work through the unit, savor the illustrations, and give it the time it needs rather than skim through pages in order to come up with a winner.
Three, each group will pick their winner. Every year we have had a vote for class pick, but I switched it two years by letting each group select and root for their individual winners. We will, however, vote for an overall winner in all of my English classes combined.
The lessons will not change much; I use previous winners to discuss the different components of the award and then students grab the books they will discuss that day and rank. Each group gets a packet with the titles and a voting sheet. The slides I use are here and are pretty straightforward. The voting packet will be modified this year to make it shorter, and students will still do a persuasive speech at the end to try to convince their classmates that their choice is, of course, the best one.
So which books have I chosen for the year? (Not that it matters because we almost never pick the winner, ha, but we did in 2020!)
One of the things we try to do at our school is to make our reading visible. From my own display of books I have read outside of our classroom, to the rotating book displays in our classroom and school library, to the “Just Read” posters outside staff doors, we want our students to see that there is a lot of reading that happens in our community. A few weeks ago the “Favorite reads…” bulletin board idea was shared in the Facebook Passionate Readers community and I knew I wanted to create it. So thank you Tracy C. for sharing the idea in the first place.
All I needed to do was make time (which is hard to do these days) and find some book spine templates since I knew I did not have the patience to create them myself. Monday-Tuesday before break I made it my mission to get this done as I figured this was another quick way for our scholars to show off their reading. After a lot of gluing, this is the finished product. (It looks more polished in pictures ha, but it works).
I asked students to grab a spine or two and share what their favorite book(s) had been so far this year. I also showed them pictures of other similar displays so they knew what we were going for. Then they got to work, it didn’t take long for most of them, I then just had to glue them up. I even got a compliment by a student I don’t teach as I put up titles and other teachers complimented it as well.
So why bother? It once again makes reading more visible in our school community, it also is a way for kids to recommend books, as well as for me to get ideas for my own reading. While we always share our best book of the year in a speech at the end of the year, I like adding in this component as a check-in a few months in. And if you are wondering what kids have loved so far, take a look. There is a wide range of books, many I have book talked, some I don’t even have in our collection as they are more mature, and some kids have found on their own.
Perhaps you hadn’t seen this idea either or perhaps you are just looking for the push to do your own, whatever your reason, I hope this post is helpful. I really don’t have a lot of time to give to bulletin boards but am excited for this one, also because we have room to grow; more titles can be added as kids finish books and find new favorites.
Once or twice a year, dependent on what the students feel like doing, we set out on our book clubs journeys in 7th grade. For 11 years I have been sharing ideas on this blog and so it feels natural to revisit past posts and update what we have been doing since my practice is always evolving, if only in small outward ways.
Last year, we did them virtually, as detailed in the post here. This year we are back together and the excitement is building for our first book clubs of the year, especially after the kids heard they were not writing a literary essay to go along with them.
Timeline and Time Spent
Where do book clubs fit in for us? This graph may help with our layout for the year. While I love doing book clubs, I will not do more than two of them in a year, our students ask us for moderation in everything we do and so two is enough in order for them to have other experiences with books as well. Of course, students may choose to run their own book clubs at any point, but they are not required to discuss their books like this except for these two times.
Having a gap in the book clubs allows us to continue our all-year focus on joyful independent reading, as well as see their growth. Since we start out the year by focusing on their independent reading and then slip into a read-aloud for the Global Read Aloud we have done a lot of work with establishing our overall reading community. This helps a lot when I need students to work independently either reading or discussion while I am coaching other students in our team area.
In our 88 minutes, our breakdown looks something like this (note this is the only time during the year that we do not start our class with independent reading):
10-20 minute mini-lesson, it becomes about 10 minutes once we have read aloud our anchor mentor text – For our Dystopian book clubs I lean heavily on the work shared by TCRWP and so we use the short story Ponies by Kij Johnson, in spring I use short story that I found in the brilliant book Unbroken – 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Marieke Nijkamp. Some of the mini-lessons are inspired by the work shared by TCRWP, but then we have put our own lessons as well.
Then 30-40 minutes is reading time for the groups. They can also choose to discuss in their group, I require they discuss in front of a teacher once a week.
Then we pull back together to discuss our inqury question and do more learning surrounding this as we add to our knowledgebase. We end the class with 15-20 minutes of creative writing.
The number one purpose of book clubs for us is for students to engage in meaningful discussions, that are rooted in their chosen books but not confined by them. We really want students to feel like they are honing their voices, continuing to carve out their ideas and thoughts on the world, and also finding others to share their thoughts with. We also want to make space for our continued ponderings about the world and so the dystopian book club is framed by the inquiry question; How close are we to living in a dystopian world? We want our kids to be able to be together, to explore facets of the world they are curious in, and to relish this time we are spending diving into beautiful books. This community piece is huge for us, which is why there is very limited written work associated with their time in book clubs.
We have a few guidelines in room 203:
The book club experience needs to protect their reading identity.
The book club experience needs to be worth their time.
The book club experience needs to give them opportunities for authentic, non-teacher directed conversations.
The book club experience needs to help them grow as readers, thinkers, and human beings.
The book club experience needs to be accessible to all types of readers. It is not just meant for the chosen few.
We want to make sure at all times that these guidelines are honored in order to protect the reading community we have painstakingly built together. This means that we check in with these guidelines before we implement anything.
Implementing an inquiry question that goes beyond their individual books allows us a natural opportunity to dive into the history of this nation, to learn, with choice embedded, about the laws that govern us, as well as how different groups of people have been targeted differently throughout history. This also changes our experience from one that is focused on the future and “what if?” to the right now. This is an important shift that has taken more root in the last few years in our classroom and my thinking and implementation around us is still evolving. Right now, a lot of what we learn is through short documentaries that then build our knowledge base. It is important for me that I offer up the many different opportunities for our students to think deeply beyond just literary terms and book clubs offer us a way to do this. One of the explorations we will use is choosing videos to watch, reflect on, and discuss from these Supreme Court briefs.
Central to the experience is, of course, the choice of books. While our first book club of the year is centered around Dystopian Science Fiction (which the students loved), the second round is centered on the theme overcoming obstacles. Because this is a broad theme it has allowed us to bring in all types of formats of books, as well as honor many different reading accessibility points. We, therefore, have more than 40 books to choose from. These include many genres such as realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction. It also includes different formats beyond the regular chapter books such as free verse novels, graphic novels, and audiobooks.
While all students are offered the opportunity to read at least one book in the three or so week span that clubs last, we also have groups who choose to read an entire series or multiple stand-alone books in order to compare them. They then engage in across series comparison work. One trick then is to make sure that they slow down enough to think deeply across the books and not just skim through the pages.
I have also implanted a short story option for the kids who for whatever reason are not in a space to take on a full book right now. We then have 3 short stories, one for each week, where we provide scaffolded questions that they can prepare for and I then facilitate the conversation. This has worked really well for the few kids who have needed it.
To see our book club choices for dystopian, please view the slide show. This changes as new books are published, I am always specifically looking for dystopian books written by the global majority. For the spring book club, the book choices change a lot.
One thing, we are asked a lot is how do you have so many books? There are a few factors at play here. One, my district, Oregon School District, believes in the power of funding books. This is why we have a beautiful school library and classroom libraries. We have a well-curated book room that continues to grow and expand as we add more titles, we tend to add groups of 5 to 10 titles in order to have a lot of different books to offer rather than just a few. I also buy a lot of books, I wish it wasn’t that way, but I do. While I certainly buy many via traditional means, I also use Books4School and Scholastic to help supplement our collection.
Because our book clubs are central components every year, we have been adding to our collection year after year and I don’t think that will stop any time soon. We have a lot of different readers and need a lot of different books.
Making Groups and Choosing Books
Because choice and honoring who our students are as human beings is a central component, we knew we needed to offer students ways to be invested in who they are spending all of this time with, as well as the book(s) that they end up reading. This is why they have a central voice in who they are with.
This starts with the partner interviews. This is a way for all students to reflect on who they are as a reader and what they need others to be in their groups. While many students naturally gravitate toward interviewing their friends, they often find that their friends’ reading habits do not match their own. They use this sheet to interview each other and then hand it in. For this later round of book clubs, students were given the opportunity to totally group themselves. We did discuss that they needed to be welcoming to all students and to base this off their reading habits, not just who they were friends with. All classes did a really nice job setting up their groups. All groups are kept to 3 or 4 students, with a rare exception for a partnership or a group of 5. We like the 3 to 4 people groups because it means everyone has an active role.
We do not assign roles to members of the group because we see this as an artificial component of groups, that while it may be helpful when students first start out in book clubs in younger grades, really can end up changing the experience and not allowing them to fully express themselves they way we would like them to.
Once they have created a group, they then go through the slideshow to select their top 5 of the books. There are two rules, they have to follow:
No one in the group can have read the book or watched the movie.
Everyone has to agree to rank it.
For some of my voracious readers, they sometimes can’t find five great choices. We then enlist the help of our classroom library, school library, and our librarian in order to help them find something they want. This is also where I typically end up buying one or two other sets of books that then get added into our rotation.
Once their books have been selected, they turn their sheets into me and then wait a day while we puzzle out what they get. The very next day, they are then introduced to their book club choice. Students then create their own reading plan breakdown. This is once again to honor their busy lives and reading habits. They then sign up for one day a week to discuss in front of a teacher, who assesses their discussion skills. There are still a few choices here:
The group can choose to change their book before they even begin – we then show them what is left for them to choose from.
The group can choose to abandon the book together within the first 3 days of reading. This is in case they don’t love it as much as they should. We want this experience to be awesome, not awful so book choice is vital.
A student can choose to abandon their group within the first 3 days as well, if they really dislike the book or the dynamics are not working out for some reason. They then need to approach another group to ask if they can join them (with adult support) and then catch up to that group.
If a group needs access to the audio version of the book in order for all kids to be successful, we then add the book to our Audible account. We don’t ever want the decoding of the words to stand in the way for a child to truly participate since the decoding is not what is being assessed. This also allows our kiddos who need extra support to be a part of these clubs without barriers that may harm their reading identity. Many groups also end up using Audible as a way to read together, thus enhancing the reading experience.
And now they read and we start our mini-lessons. We always give them a few days to get into their book, during this time we do reminders of what we are looking for in powerful discussions, as well as have them do a main character baseline.
Other “tools” we introduce to help our students find success are…
Creating an anchor chart following our mini-lessons of what they can pay attention to when they are reading.
Handing them a bookmark that also gives them things to discuss. They tape their reading plan to the back of it. I also pull small groups that need extra support with their discussions in order to help them find success.
Have kids create their own rules for how they want their clubs to function. Kids used to post these but now they just share them with me, it is not even so much the rules I am interested in but rather the discussion itself. How will they help each other find success and how can they also hold each other accountable?
I stop discussions if they are not going well. If it is clear that a group is not prepared to discuss, I would rather pause them than keep them going. This means they get a chance to come back the following day once they have prepared. If it happens again, then they do their discussion ad we discuss what needs to happen the following week.
Lots of post-its or note cards. This is the only time during the year where we require students take notes as they read. I do mini-lessons on what you can put on a post-it note or what you can annotate for so that there is a deeper meaning to their notes and not just “…the teacher said I had to do it…” some students need more help than others. They cannot discuss if they do not have evidence pulled to support their thoughts.
Discussion prep sheets. We have found that if we have students pick things they want to pay attention to and discuss the following week, their discussions are so much better. This graphic organizer changes as we see fit. Before they then discuss in front of us, we ask them what they are focused on this week and then hold them accountable for that. Two of the three things they are asked to focus on are items we have discussed in class, such as power structure, unspoken rules to live by, or character change.
After the first week, I pull them to discuss in front of me and then continue to do so every week. The first discussion is a formative discussion and then the following two are summative.
What do I assess?
We start with a pre-assessment using a choice of a short film or text in order for students to show us what they already know. This also lets me know what I should focus heavily on or not. We have purposefully included a short film so that decoding does not stand in the way of kids expressing their thoughts. Again, we really want all kids to be able to show off their knowledge without some of their usual obstacles.
The skills they are assessed on are directly tied into their discussions and not to any written work unless they choose to do written work. The rubric for their discussions can be viewed here. If a student does not do well in discussion or would rather be assessed through writing, we give them the option to do this one-pager created by my fantastic colleague, Liz. We also have a few kids where they are doing the one-pager and discussing with an adult instead of with a group because of extenuating circumstances. However, we try our very best to give ALL kids the same experience, even if we provide more support for some of them in order to be successful. Often, kids who are labeled as below grade level readers will not be exposed to the same reading experiences and opportunities as their peers, because we worry that they will not be able to do it, however, when we remove even the opportunity for them to try then we may end up limiting their future growth. How can you ever be successful in discussions if you have never been expected to do one?
As they are discussing, I am marking down what I hear and also thinking of what supports they need in order to continue their growth. One of the big areas of growth is always how to explain how their chosen evidence ties in with their ideas beyond the obvious and to help them go deeper in their reasoning, this is major work we are continually working on all year, not just in book clubs. Their discussion tends to last 10-15 minutes, at the end I ask them to tell me what they think went well and then what they need to work on. Only after they have spoken, do I offer my feedback as well as a plan forward. We then discuss the idea and what they need to grow, then they are released. We do three discussions in the three weeks, the first one is formative, the next two are summative. If a child is out on a day they are scheduled for discussion, we either wait until they are back if we can or they do a minor written discussion for me.
As a fun way to wrap up the unit, I have all groups do 12-word book summary, detailed here. They get two days in class to work on it and then they present in front of each with motions. Then we end with watching The Hunger Games or Wall-E as a way to wrap up the unit.
I have been meaning to check in on here, to write out words that do not carry the weight of the world within them, and yet every night, as I fall asleep before 9 PM, I am left with no words, no energy, no reason to share what we are doing because all of my energy seems to be centered in merely existing as this year unfolds.
We thought that last year would be hard, and yet this year, with its intangible difficulties, with its ever-present pressure to continue to just figure it out, has snuck up on me and my family in a way I could have not imagined. How do you maintain a sense of family when you barely see each other beyond the dining room table and guiltily still put your own children to bed around 8 PM just so that you can try to catch up on the sleep that seems to never be caught?
Perhaps, you find yourself in a similar situation. Unable to quite explain to others why this year is harder than the last and yet wish that you could so that perhaps someone could you give you an answer of what to do instead? Because you have tried to change the way you teach, you have adapted, differentiated, cut back, raised up, and lessened the load. You have sought out the experts that graciously share their knowledge, eager to give as much as they can even as they don’t have to navigate the everyday realities of teaching during an ongoing pandemic and you wonder how much they really can know. Perhaps, like me, you have read books, listened to podcasts, browsed social media, and stared in awe as others seem to be functioning just fine, and wondered what is wrong with you and this exhaustion that creeps itself into everything you don’t do. Perhaps, like me, you have tried to make space for self-care but realized that even there you run out of time. And so the guilt intensifies because now you cannot even care for yourself well so how are you ever to be trusted with the care of others?
And perhaps like me, you stand in your classroom, surrounded by incredible children, and realize that this is not the root of the exhaustion but everything that waits outside of the door is. That these kids, these brilliant, resilient, vivacious kids, are not the reason for the despair but one of the only things that combat it. That if you are feeling this way then how do the kids feel? And you see it in the dragged footsteps of your own children as you get them out of bed, in their short responses when you ask what homework they have, in their pleas to please stay home just so we can be together. The world changed and yet we are expected to go on as if it hasn’t because we have so much to do.
And the tiredness is pervasive. It shows up when you check your email and see one more helpful tip or additional thing to do. It shows up when you are told of the professional development that must still be completed even though you know that you have developed yourself more in the last 20 months than you ever had before in your teaching career and no official recognition happened for that. It shows up when you are expected to be evaluated this year and it makes you want to laugh because you are certain this year is not the year to think of the future because you can barely keep up with the growth you have already been forced through. And how are administrators supposed to find time for that anyway? It shows up when your community is at odds with schools at the center because of what they say you do or don’t do to indoctrinate children
Yet the world keeps spinning and we are told to not only continue to do the near-impossible; catch them up, fill the gap, change your teaching, change the world, but also to take care of ourselves, to rest, meditate, and go for walks. To consider how every action we do charts our course for the future. And you try, and you fail, and you feel like it will never be enough, and yet you show up the next day and try again. Because that’s what we do. We try again, even if we no longer know what to try or how we can find the energy for again.
And we will do so until we break because that is what the system has trained us to do.
So in this quiet moment of this Saturday without plans, I urge us all to also recognize that the new normal is being shaped right now and that unless we collectively raise our voices and push back on the increased workload, the increased pressure to get back to what was a broken before, this will be the norm. That this feeling that so many of us carry of not being enough, of exhaustion, will be the feelings that shape the teaching professions even more so for years to come. And it wasn’t like teaching was an easy profession to begin with.
So perhaps, like me, you don’t need more to do but less. For someone to remind you that we are doing hard things every day. That the kids in our care are doing hard things every day. Of how we inch by inch are building a new normal and how we need to be in charge of what that normal looks like alongside the kids in our care. That if we do not continually remember how broken the system was to begin with then surely we will try to glue back together the pieces even as the cracks show.
And so I remember how important boundaries are, of how it cannot all be placed on the shoulders of educators because that was never what our job was supposed to be. Of the power of saying no, guilt-free. Of the power of raising your voice and pushing back. Of saying enough. Of recognizing that there is only so much you can do and that does not make you a bad educator but instead a realistic one. Of knowing that every day the biggest gift we can give to the kids in our care is to be fully rested, to be fully present in order to recognize that no, the problem is not just you, it is the very system we reside in, one that we have a chance to shape into something better than it was before but not if we don’t push back on the things being forced upon us now. So rest up and raise your voice when you can. I know I will.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may know that I recommend a lot of books on there, in fact, it is the number one thing I use my account for. Perhaps you follow me there? If you don’t, or if you missed some, I figured a blog post to pull them all together would be helpful. That way you can see what I have read and loved, see what age groups they may work and order some books yourself. I don’t post all of the books I read, just the ones I love so much that I want to share them with others. I use the hashtag #pernillerecommends and they get cross-posted to Twitter as well if you want more than 1,000 book recommendations. Either way, here are the books I loved and shared from May until today!
Which books have you read and loved? I am already excited to share all of the October reads I am loving over on Instagram. Happy reading!
As always, I am also curating lists on Bookshop.org – a website who partners with independent bookstores to funnel book purchases through them, if you use my link, I get a small affiliate payout.