Ideas For How to Do Better Book Clubs in Middle School

In 2015, I wrote a post discussing how I was doing book clubs with my 7th graders and how their ideas had shaped our process to be more powerful.  Two years later, I look at some of those ideas and see how my thinking has changed and also how much more ownership the student shave taken.  I, therefore, decided to update that post with what it looks like now.

I knew when I moved to 7th grade that book clubs would be one of the things that moved with me.  That shared reading experience where students would get to just read and discuss is something I have loved having in the classroom the past few years.  I knew it would be a  different experience in the middle school classroom, after all , heir maturity would push their thinking, what I had not accounted for was also how my whole approach to the purpose of it would need to change to cater to a more critical mindset.  So what do book clubs in the middle school classroom need to be successful?

Then:

An honest conversation.  I would not have gotten student buy in if I had not had an honest conversation with them beforehand.  They needed a chance to vent all of their frustrations with book clubs in order to see how this time around they might be different.  They needed to know that their thoughts and yes, feelings, were validated and considered.  While most would have invested themselves in the process simply because it was expected, I didn’t want that type of buy-in, I wanted a genuine desire to use this for good, to enjoy the 4 weeks or so it would last.

Now:  

This is still how we start our book club explorations.  This one-day conversation is all about figuring out what they love, what they don’t, and how to make sure that they understand the bigger idea behind book clubs; having great conversations about a fascinating text.  This is, therefore, the first thing that happens as we embark on that adventure, after this, the kids start to figure out who they would like to have a book club with.

Then:

Choice in books.  I know it is easier to have a few pre-selected books for students to choose from so we can help facilitate the conversations, but with more than 100 students to cater to I knew I needed choice and lots of it.  With the help of my amazing library team, bonus points from Scholastic, and the phenomenal Books4school, I was able to present the students with more than 50 different choices for titles.  This way no group needed to share books and all students should be able to find something to agree on.  I also told them that if they couldn’t find anything, to let me know, we would find the right book for them.

Now:

This still holds true – the students all get to select their books and I now have more than 70 titles for them to choose from.  There is no overlaying theme between all of the books, although most, if not all, have a theme of perseverance.  This year, I have also added in some nonfiction titles and am thinking of adding more.  One thing that has helped me is by reading all of the books that I have as choices.  That way I know whether they actually have great things to discuss or not.    I also have this many books because I think it is important that the students can bring their books out of class, that way they can stay on track with the pages they need to read without worrying about access to the book.  Finally, one teacher shared the idea of having kids read individual books and then grouping by theme.  I find this to be a fascinating idea and may play with this next year.

Then:

Choice in who they read with.  Working with adolescents have made it crystal clear to me just how vulnerable they feel in these developing years and how much they value when their input is used to determine groupings.  So students are grouped together using some of their data, but also who they would like to read with and why.

Now:

I am adding an interview component to the process, as some kids do not realize how different their reading preferences, abilities, or ideas are from some of their closest friends.  This year they will, therefore, fill out this inventory and then interview potential people for their book clubs.  They will then hand in their sheet to me and I will group them together as best as I can to their preferences, but also including kids who may otherwise be left out.  For the first time ever, inspired by the idea of Kelly, one of our amazing special ed teachers, a few kids will also be given the choice of whether they want to do a book club with a chapter book or picture books that have to do with perseverance.

Then:

Choice of rules.  While I may have an idea for how a book club should function, I needed student ownership over the reading, as well as how their discussions would unfold.  All groups decided their own rules and posted them on the wall.  It has been powerful to see them guide their conversations, and yes, also dole out consequences to members within their groups that have not read or are not participating.

Students self-made rules hang as a reminder on our wall

Now:

I no longer have students post their rules, instead they just share them with me and I do periodical check ins.

Then:

Choice in speed.  All of my groups read at different paces, so they determine how many pages a night they need to read as well as when they would like to have the book finished by within our 4-week time frame.  One group, in fact, has already finished a book.

Now:

We now reserve three weeks for book club time, I ask them to pace it out so they finish with two or so days left of those three weeks.  They create a reading calendar and it gets glued into their reader’s notebooks.

Then:

Choice in conversation.  Book clubs should not function around the teacher, in fact, I have noticed that when I do listen in to an otherwise lively conversation the students immediately get timid in most cases.  I have learned to listen from a distance and only offer up solid small ideas to push their conversation further when they really needed it.  Too often our mere presence will hijack a group and students don’t learn to trust their own opinions and analysis.  Removing yourself from the process means students have to figure it out.  For those groups that struggle we talk about in our private mini-lesson.

Now:

While I still have students run their conversations, I do give them ideas of what to discuss in their book clubs so that they have a starting point.  They are also given an individual project to work on with their book (figuring out the theme and other literary elements) and so I tell them that they can use each other to help with finding the signposts (from Notice and Note) and what they mean.  This year, I will also be listening in to their discussion once a week and take some notes on what and how they are discussing hoping to work with them on their discussion skills.

Then:

Choice in abandonment.  I do not want students stuck with a book they hate, so some groups chose to abandon their books within a week and made a better choice.  Rather than think of it as lost reading time, I cheered over the fact that my students know themselves as readers.  All of my students are now reading a book that they at the very least like and that is an accomplishment in my eyes.

Now:

This still stands, except they now have to abandon it within three days.  I will also let students switch groups within the first week if they hate the book or the group dynamics do not work.  They, then, have to make up for lost time in the reading of their pages.

Then:

Choice in length and meeting time.  Students are allotted time every other day to meet in their book clubs and have 28 minutes to discuss and read some more.  While I have told student to try to push their conversations, I have also urged them to keep them under 10 minutes unless they are having a great discussion.  Students vary the length of their book clubs depending on what their self-chosen topic of discussion is and figure out how their group works best in the process.

Now:

Students are still given time every day to either read or discuss, they need to discuss every third day for sure and they can decide how long they want their discussions to last.  I do a quick check-in with them after their discussion to see how they did and how productive it was.

Then:

Choice in final product.  While our true purpose of having book clubs is to have a shared reading experience, I am also asking the students to do a book talk of some sort when they finish.  There are two reasons behind this; to assess the standards we are covering in the quarter but also for them to develop their critical thinking skills.  If the book they read is not suited for future book clubs then I need to know why.  I don’t want students to have a lengthy project because that is not what book clubs are about.

Now:

We no longer do the book talk, it didn’t work, it was too loose and the kids didn’t buy into it.  We now have two separate projects – an individual one and a group one.  The individual one is for the students to hand in a literary analysis of their book discussing the theme and the development of one of the main characters.  This is a typed paper, less than a page, that they hand in a week after book clubs end.  The group project is the 12-word book summary, detailed here.  They get two days in class to work on it.

While my method for integrating book clubs may seem loose at best, I have found incredible buy-in from the students.  They have been excited to read their books, they have been excited to share their thoughts, and the accountability that they feel toward one another is something I would not be able to produce through force.  Middle schoolers need a framework to grow within, they need our purposes to be authentic as much as possible, and they need to have a voice in how things function within our classroom.  Book clubs offer us a way to have these moments in reading that abound with deep reading conversations that I may not be able to have as a whole group, they allow even the quietest student to have a voice.  They allow students to feel validated in their thoughts and they allow them to share their knowledge with each other.  What have you done to create successful book clubs?

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Counting Down the Days

Do we really want to give students another reminder of how much they want to leave school

The other day I was asked, “What is the one thing you would tell teachers to stop doing as the end of the year nears?”  I needed no time to think because my answer is simple; the countdown.

I used to do the countdown with my students.  20, 19, 18 days left of school.  Each day the kids would get more excited.  “We are almost out of here, Mrs. Ripp!”  They got crazier as the countdown neared the end, energy barely contained, and I loosened the reins, had fun, did less curriculum and more community building.  Except the days dragged on.  The kids grew restless, and I even started looking at the clock, wishing the day to be over.  Was this what teaching the last few weeks of school would always be like?

Six years ago,  after a particularly trying week, I had an epiphany – one that many have had before me.  I was creating the excited mess unfolding every day in my classroom.  My choices in doing a countdown and stepping away from our routines were signaling to the kids that school no longer mattered.  That what we were doing no longer mattered.  That all they had to do was wait it out and then this, too, would finally be over.  As if our students needed any more reminders that school is not a great place to be.

So I stopped the countdown, I went back to teaching and have not looked back since.  Because while the countdown may be fun on the surface; another way to show off student accomplishment – you made it through 7th grade -it also sends a much deeper message; we are done with the year.  I am done with you.  I cannot wait to be done and finally get a break.   Is that really what we want to tell our students?

Yet, this is not the only reason I hate the countdown.  One year, a child cried under his desk on the last day of school.  Inconsolable, I asked him what had happened.  Had someone said something to him that I had not caught?  Instead, he looked up at me, tears running down his face and said, “Don’t make me leave…I don’t want to go on vacation, I want to stay here.”  I cried with him and did the only thing I could, hug him and tell him I would always be here for him if he needed me.  Yet, his words have stayed with me all of these years.  This child did not look forward to summer.  This child faced a summer of unknowns, of food shortage, of not knowing who he would live with, of who would care for him.  Summer did not represent a break, but a punishment.  Our classroom was his safe space.  In our classroom, he felt loved.  By counting down the days, I was reminding him every day of what was ahead after that last day of school; uncertainty, fear, hunger.  None of those messages were what I hoped to convey to my students.

So It is not that we don’t know how many days are left.  I have 38 days left to be exact and so much still to teach.  It is just that we don’t advertise it. We don’t actively remind children how much better summer will be than what we are doing.  It undermines the entire mission we have had all year of instilling the importance of the work we do.  It undermines every single time we have said that school is important.  So now, when a child tells me that they are excited about summer, I tell them I am too, but also that I will miss them, that I will miss our learning, that I will miss our classroom.  That we have so much learning still to do.  That we will work to the very last day because our time is valuable.  Because we need every minute we can get.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Audience Wanted for Elephant & Piggie Performance Videos

The students have been hard at work figuring out how to be better speakers and they are now ready to show the world.  Next week, my students will be performing Elephant & Piggie stories to their peers while I record them. We are looking for other classrooms to view some of these recorded performances and rate them using a simple form.  Classroom audiences can be any grade as these are picture books being performed but we would especially love K-3.  While students appreciate the feedback I give them, they really need a bigger audience than just their classmates and me to grow as real speakers.

If you are interested in perhaps viewing a few, please fill out the form below.  You can view just one or as many as you want, what matters is the feedback!  You will have a few weeks turn around, so feedback will be due by the end of April or so.  I will email you further details once the videos go live.  Thank you so much for considering helping out these amazing 7th graders.

On Boys Will Be Boys

On Saturday, while at our park, my four-year-old daughter was asked to pull down her pants by a five-year-old boy.  I was 200 feet away and yet I didn’t see it until it was too late.  When I asked her what had happened, she told me he had told her to do it in exchange for the stick he had.  So she had, no big deal.  Even though, her father and I have told her numerous times that her private parts are just that; private.  Even though her father and I have told her that a request like that is not ok.  As I told my husband what had happened and how we needed to speak to the parents of the boy, he hesitated for a moment, “Isn’t that just what little boys do? Ask for stupid things?  Not think about the bigger picture.”  I thought of our own son and how this is not what I expect out of him.  That he better know better because that is how we raised him and so I carefully explained that perhaps that is just what some little boys do, but that does not make it ok.

Because those little boys grow up to be big boys.  And those big boys continue to make stupid comments that we, as girls, as women, have to just shrug off as if “boys will be boys.”  Because those little boys grow up to think that it is okay to say whatever they want, to ask for things they shouldn’t ask for, all because it doesn’t hurt to try.  No harm done.  Just kidding.

I see it with my students.  How our girls are continuously expected to just take the crude jokes.   To be told that they are not as strong as boys, to try so hard to be accepted by the boys they adore and forget about who they are in the process.  I see it when they don’t stand up for themselves.  I see it when otherwise wonderful boys push them out of the way, take their spot, take their things, eat their food, or make a comment about their looks. I see the acceptance when they don’t speak up, when they don’t fight back, when they roll their eyes and move on.  And it is not all of the boys either but only some, those who feel that this is the expected behavior if you are a strong boy.  Those who dole out harsh words when they view another boy as weak and shrug when I get upset that they just used my gender designation as a put-down.  Boys will be boys alright.

I see it my own life, still to this day.  I see it when I think of how many “innocent” comments I have endured.  How many times  I have been subjected to borderline behavior and I was too nice to point out my own discomfort.  I was too worried about how I would be seen.  I didn’t want to rock the boat, because I didn’t want to be seen as an overreacting female and perhaps get a reputation of not being nice.  How I have been told on numerous occasions that it is wonderful to see someone as pretty as me out speaking.  How it must be nice to be chosen because I am female.  How my message may not be that new but people love it because of the whole package I present, how well put together I look.  How big I smile.  How pretty my hair is.  How the work I do, how the truths my students tell me, get dismissed in one comment about how beautiful I am and yeah what I said was nice too.  And I smile, and I thank them for the compliment, rather than point out how dismissive those comments are of all the work I have done.  I hold my tongue because I don’t want to cause a ruckus when it was just one little comment, one little thing, and perhaps they didn’t think about it as much as I now do.

And I look at my daughters and also at my son and I realize that perhaps our focus needs to be on the little things more than the big.  That perhaps female, or any child’s really, empowerment and self-validation are too often damaged in the small every day.  In the comments, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, where we are reminded of what our role should be; pretty, quiet, willing to give up whatever we have.  That all of our children look to us and so it is up to us to figure it out.  To find the courage to speak up, to speak back.  To claim our spot and not stand for being told that we got the spot because of our looks, our gender, or who we know.  Because while boys may be boys, we have to realize that right now, those boys are watching, as are our girls.  They learn from us.  So perhaps it is time we learn it for ourselves.

On Parent Assumptions and Fear of Change

“But how do parents react?”

Just this morning, I was asked again as my latest post about getting rid of homework was circulated.  I get the question a lot, I think we all do.  I think it marks a great educator when we ask, when we value what parents think.  And yet…often our assumptions about what parents will think of a change we implement are just that; assumptions.  Not based on actuality, not further pursued.  Not questioned, but instead assumed as true, because, perhaps, it happened to someone we know.  Or because there was that one time where it happened, so now it must be true for every time.

I think the fear of parent reaction holds us back as much as our own fear of change.  We assume they will protest.  We assume they will be upset.  We assume they will rebel against the changes we make because parents always want school to be like it was for them.  But it is not true, at least not always.  How do I know?  Because for the last seven years I have asked.

When I got rid of homework, most parents cheered.  They told me that they wanted their child to pursue other things outside of school and now could.  They told me how tired their child was after school, how much homework was a struggle between them, how it became one more point of contention in their relationship.  How they did not mind the learning, but the tediousness, the worksheets, the assignments that made little sense did nothing for their child.  Those who disagreed asked for resources and I gladly handed them to them, a list on a website sufficed.

When I got rid of rewards, parents told me that they were happy their child was not coming home with trinkets,  That their child did not need any more stickers, or pizza, or other things that had nothing to do with their accomplishment.  That they wanted them to feel proud of their learning, not to be handed anything.

When I got rid of behavior charts, parents told me of their relief, how their child had been anxious, how their child had not cared whether they moved their stick because they already knew they were a “bad” kid and the stick was just more proof of that.  They are still telling me in the comments on posts about Class Dojo and behavior charts.

When I changed the focus from letter grades to personal development, parents were still happy as long as they knew how their child was doing.  As long as it still made sense to them so they could understand their child’s journey, understand how to support.  Understand where they were still developing and where they had succeeded.

So if I have learned anything in these years of trying to be a better teacher,  in trying to create more student-centered classrooms, it is that we should not assume how a parent will react.  That we should not assume they will hate what we do because it is different, or new, or even a seemingly crazy idea.  They care that their child is happy.  They care that their child is challenged.  They care that their child is supported.  That that their child is accepted.  They care that their child likes school and does well.  It seems we perpetuate our own myths and create the barriers ourselves.

So when I asked parents how I could be a better teacher for their child, they told me when they had ideas, and I tried to act on it as best as I could, because it turns out that when we ask parents; they have a lot of great things to say.  They are not as set in their ways as we may think, they do not hate everything we propose.  So jump in, stop assuming, and start asking.  It will change the way you teach.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

On the Need for Getting Rid of Homework

I realize I have not written much about homework the last few years.  Not because it is not worth writing about, but because I do not really give it.  Yet, the other day, as I presented a workshop on passionate literacy, someone asked me how much homework my students have, when I told her they are asked to read 20 minutes and that is pretty much it, she was surprised.

After all, how can we cover everything there is to do when we only have 45 minutes without giving homework?  How can I provide enough practice for my students without telling them to work on something at home?  How can I make sure they are ready for 8th grade, for high school, for college, for real life if I don’t ask them to work on things outside of class?

Well, it turns out that there is a way to do this, where I am able to ask students to read outside of class but almost nothing else.  I have written extensively about my decision to limit homework; some of the many reasons include the research that tells us how little benefit homework has for kids, how much it drives stress, the research on how much teachers versus students speak, but most importantly; my students telling me how they really feel about our homework practices.  I realized that the kids who needed the extra practice, needed further teaching, not more work.  That the kids who did the homework diligently didn’t really need to do it.  That some things that were not meant to take a long time did.  So seven years ago or so, I decided that I would try to limit the amount of homework as much possible, here is how we have done it.

We make a commitment. 

I start every year by telling students that in our classroom I will make them a promise; if they promise to work hard, then I promise to not assign homework beyond the 20 minutes of reading I expect every day outside of English.  One of the big reasons often touted for assigning homework is that it builds time-management and resilience in children, but so does hard work in class.  I make sure my students have enough work time in class to practice what they are learning.  If they decide to not work hard, then the natural consequence is that they still have work to finish once the class is over.  This approach has motivated many students to use their class time better, and it has definitely clued me into which kids are working super hard and still having a hard time understanding the work, then leading to further teaching.

We slow down.

Rather than doing many small projects, I have the luxury in English of focusing on several large projects, we call this being a part of the slow learning movement.  It is, therefore, rare that we have an assignment that requires being turned in the very next day.  We don’t have quizzes or tests either, and so the bulk of what we do takes a week or longer, therefore allowing the students that need extra help or practice to get it in class.

We work hard.

I used to take a more leisurely pace when I had the luxury of more time, but now a sense of urgency often drives us forward.  This doesn’t mean we rush, it just means that time is precious in our classroom.  At the beginning of the year, we discuss how to be more effective with our time and students quickly set up routines for this to happen.   Instruction/exploration time starts the moment the bell rings and ends when the bell rings again.  We don’t have a lot of transitions or downtime as students manipulate the learning environment as needed, most of the time, not waiting for me to tell them to get ready for something, find supplies, or any other small things that can end up taking a lot of time.  This means that most days, though not all, we get the most out of the precious instructional minutes give to us; 45 minutes to be exact.

We look at deadlines together.

The team I am on have a shared Google calendar that I try to keep updated with big project/tests deadlines.  This allows us to see at a glance where big things may collide and then gives us a way to avoid that.  While not all deadlines can be moved, many can, and I have no problem adding an extra day if it means students will not experience the unnecessary burden of multiple things do, thus being able to produce higher quality work.

We do bigger projects.

Another part of our slow learning movement is that most projects cover multiple standards.  That way I don’t have to constantly invent a project or an assessment and students are working on long-term goals, rather than short ones.  It also means that many students can find success within a project even parts of it are still difficult for them.

We have venues for extra practice.

In the seven years since I have severely reduced homework, I have had one parent complain about it.  Yet this is an assumption that runs rampant; how parents, other teachers, or even administration will react.  I certainly do encourage you to partner with your administration, a great way to get permission is to ask to pilot limiting homework, and also discussing with your colleagues.  Some may see it as a knock on their own practices, although it is not.  In regard to the one parent complaint, I have had, this parent wanted more educational experiences for their child and I gladly provided them.  I created a list of additional resources they could use with their child if they wanted to further practice their skills, in turn, I told them that I did not need further proof of their understanding and so all extra work could stay at home.

We spiral our curriculum.

Because I am dictated by a standards-based curriculum, I have the luxury of spiraling our standards.  That means that all seven of our standards are taught in more than one quarter.  Why does this matter?  Because it means that even if a child does not achieve proficiency in a standard the first time it is explored, that standard will come back again, allowing me to assess them once more.

I limit my speaking.

I really try to monitor and actively limit how much time I spend giving direct instruction to students, instead of thinking of various ways I can scaffold the instruction I need to provide.  Tools such as Google Classroom, anchor charts, and even extra handouts or other visuals (one of these years I will make videos as extra reference points) help students work through the progress rather than frontload all of the information.  Because the students I teach are at so many different stages it simply does not make sense for me to deliver most of my instruction orally.

We continually commit to it.

Limiting homework has been such a natural part of our every day, and yet, it is also a commitment I make.  It is not that all of my students “get” something the first time around, it is that I try to help them practice with the content in class, rather than outside of it. It is that I want to honor the commitment that kids bring to the work we do in class.  It is that it is my job to figure out how to do the work we do within the time we are given.  It doesn’t always happen, but most of the time it does.

It, therefore, sounds incredibly simplistic, and I do not mean it as condescending, but limiting or completely getting rid of homework really does come to down to us; to how we spend our time in class, to how much we stop talking, to how we do not waste any time, to how we look at our curriculum as learning explorations and not stand-alone projects.  To how we tell the kids that, in here, we will challenge them, but that means that they will get the reward of no work after if they rise to the occasion.  That it is on them to use their time, to ask the questions they need answering, to reach out if somehow they are missed.

Seven years ago I told myself that all of the extra work I assigned was not really worth the time of my students, and I was right.  It turns out they don’t need the extra work to learn deeply.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.