Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs

By Brent Gilson with Guest Blogger Travis Crowder

#g2great 8/8/19

This week we had the awesome pleasure of chatting with Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen about their new book Breathing New Life into Book Clubs The Wakelet of the chat can be found here.

Travis Crowder has written a great blog response to the book that we would like to share with you. Travis is a passionate advocate for literacy work and is the co-author of the fantastic book Sparks in the Dark which had its own chat and the Wakelet for that is available here and the Literacy Lens post here. The G2Great team is so grateful that Travis was willing to share his words with us.

Travis Crowder response to Breathing New Life into Book Clubs

A Friday afternoon. I watched them grab their books and notebooks and gather on the rug around the coffee table. Conversations from other groups created lively streams of energy around the classroom, but in this group, something was different. When they were settled and facing one another, they opened their notebooks, almost in unison, and began writing. Curiosity got the best of me. What were these students up to? I walked to the edge of their group, trying to catch a glimpse of what they were writing, careful not to disrupt the flow of whatever was happening. I didn’t know, but clearly, they did. And that was all that mattered. I squinted to catch a line in Keila’s notebook, and that’s when I realized the significance of their writing. In their book club book, the mother of a character had died, and they were capturing emotional reactions inside their notebooks. Without any prompting, they had decided that spilling their emotions on the page first would help them make sense of their thinking. Discussions migrated from groups across the room, pressing against the quietude of this group, yet their activity was unimpeded. After several minutes, when everyone had finished writing, Karina looked around the group and said, “Who wants to read theirs first?” The book club was now ready for discussion.

Book clubs possess the power to transform readers and to elevate students’ thinking, reading, and writing. The story above captures a beautiful moment in my classroom, one that we dream of as teachers, yet one that may not happen as often as we’d like. For several years, I was hesitant to include any book clubs in my classes for fear that students wouldn’t read, conversations would flatline, and several weeks of valuable time would be sacrificed because of poor management— mine and theirs. At first, the attempts were wobbly, and often, I felt lost in despair. With time and quite a few mistakes, though, I created routines with my students that helped us develop effective book clubs. Looking back, I wish there had been a comprehensive professional text to help me understand the nuts and bolts of managing book clubs, while providing strategies for holding students accountable for reading and discussions. Now, that text exists. And it is nothing short of brilliant.

Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers, by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen, is a gift to our profession. It’s as though both Sonja and Dana are standing at the threshold of the book, asking readers to join them on a breathtaking journey of thought. They take us through systems and routines that make book clubs manageable and inviting, and ultimately, a way to help students fall in love with reading. Both writers denounce superficial assignments and activities that demean literacy and provide ideas that nudge kids to develop authentic reading habits. Philosophy is threaded into the tapestry of Chapter 1, letting us know that their thinking is grounded in creating a culture of reading and assuring us that this work is possible. But it goes beyond that.

I love the types of clubs— genre, identity, goal, theme, and series— that they delineate for us. Prior to reading this text, I hadn’t given much thought to the type of books students were reading, other than attempting to focus clubs around a big idea, such as war or relationships. This delineation breathed new life into my thinking. Identifying the type of club we feel is most beneficial for kids will determine their energy, engagement, and success, all of which nudge us to provide book clubs again and again for our students.

In addition to helping us understand the different types of book clubs, a curated list— of wide and varied titles— is available to help us select the books we want to offer our students. They give us ideas and mini-lessons to create book clubs beside students, coach them into effective conversations about texts, and lead them into a life of living with books. If you’re worried that clubs will lose their focus and energy, set your heart at rest— they have you covered. Writing, sketching, creating bookmarks, and recording videos are just a few of the strategies to help students lean in to deeper conversation. And what’s more? Sonja and Dana walk beside you through each mini-lesson, offering ideas that will lift your book clubs from where they are to an even higher plane. Kids aren’t reading with no direction. They’re reading to think, to learn, and to grow alongside their fellow club members and classmates. And fall in love with books.

I want you to listen to this gorgeous section from the first chapter:

Book clubs are where students fall in love with reading, but we value book clubs because it is in these spaces that we witness humanity at its best. Through the process of reading and responding to texts, students come to understand each other better. They reflect on who they are, where they hope to be, and the ties that bind them together. The attitudes, traditions, values, and goals established in book clubs often become the principles that guide the way students live their lives. As such, we can invite students to record the story of their book club in a journal or on a blog— the laughs, the struggles, the triumphs, and the lessons learned that will stay with them (pg. 8).

So often, joy and community seem to be a missing pieces of language arts classrooms.  Book clubs, which can be full of life, love, and joy, can help kids prepare for a lifetime of reading, especially when created with teachers who want to see them develop into readers who can sustain volume and independence. The emphasis on understanding each other is a beautiful ode to empathy, and something we need more of in our world. When I work with kids to establish books clubs this school year, I will look for those places where students are maturing into better human beings. Book clubs help create that story— for us and for our kids.

Sonja’s and Dana’s incredible humanity glimmers on each page. Children are at the heart of this work, and with their brilliant thinking, both writers show us how we can move kids to engage with books and their world. Democracy demands a literate populace. It’s teachers like you and me, ones who are committed to this critical literacy work, who will shape the minds of tomorrow. We live in a world of uncertainty and pain, and each day, hateful rhetoric pierces the heart of humanity, eroding the integrity and decency we try to uphold. Sonja and Dana have given us a book that does not waver in its devotion to students, teachers, and books. With them, we can go into our classrooms and create a literate atmosphere based on empathy and respect. Let us not forget that we are fierce educators. And we have the capacity to show kids the indomitable power of story. 

Thank you, Sonja and Dana, for an unwavering allegiance to our profession and for helping me better understand the qualities and virtues of effective book clubs. I salute you and am honored to work beside you in literacy education.

Q and A with Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen

1.  What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world? As educators, we’ve yearned for a book that pulls together the research and best practices that could help us have the “best book clubs ever.” And although we found pieces of the puzzle, in various places, we couldn’t help but notice an important gap: There simply wasn’t a book that exclusively addressed the nuts and bolts of book clubs- how to create, maintain, and sustain them. We decided to create this resource for ourselves and other educators. 

2.  What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices? We must be unyielding in the goal of cultivating lifelong readers. This can be accomplished by staying true to three mantras: 1) Be Brave! Let Go! Pull Back! Students must have choice and ownership over their reading and their clubs. 2) Embrace Authentic Discussions! Students’ discussions will ebb and flow; trust that they will become stronger over time. 3) Joy! Joy! Joy! Build joyful reading communities by providing high-interest texts, helping clubs form strong identities, and encouraging students to read together. 

3.  What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind? We have the power to provide pathways that nurture a love of reading in our students. We hope educators will take part in a reading revolution that makes joyful reading and book clubs central.

We at G2Great would like to thank Sonja and Dana for their beautiful book and for joining us to discuss it. We would also like to thank Travis Crowder for providing the blog post for this week. If you are looking for more discussion around the book please check out Clare Landrigan’s post and video on her blog which is linked here .

Additional Links

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DIY Literacy with Kate and Maggie

By Amy Brennan

Quote kate and maggie

May 19, 2016 was an especially exciting week for me at #G2Great.  Maggie Beattie Roberts and Kate Roberts were the guest hosts on the #G2Great Twitter chat.  Yes, they have a new book, DIY Literacy and yes they are amazing.  I was especially excited because I can remember the days that Maggie would come to my office as we prepared for a day of staff development at my former school where I was the literacy coach and she was the TCRWP Staff Developer.  The brilliance in Maggie’s methods comes through in this amazing book and I am honored and in awe that I was fortunate to learn from Maggie for many years as I developed as a literacy coach.  

Often I watched as Maggie took each Sharpie, and carefully chose the color and drafted what to me looked like perfection as she taught us how to create what later developed into DIY Literacy Tools.  Teachers followed her lead as she always shared the why behind the work. Teachers felt safe in the struggle and messiness of learning as she led us from meeting to labsites and debriefs.  Teachers left with tools they created, practiced in a labsite and then went back to their own classrooms to use these tools with their own students.  

As I read through the storify for the chat in preparing to write this blog, some ideas around tools emerged.  Many of these ideas came together from the collective thinking that happens weekly at #G2Great while ideas coming from all that I’ve learned over the years from Maggie and the TCRWP community.  It was then that the culmination of Maggie and Kate’s new book, DIY Literacy fit so well.  They answer the call when we bring forth common problems in our classrooms and provide us with solutions.  In our chat Maggie and Kate asked us to join with them to identify the struggles we faced but also charged us with sharing solutions.  The solutions are found in the form of the DIY Literacy tools.  Throughout the chat these three ideas emerged:

1) Tools help learners to understand the WHY behind what they are learning

2) Tools support students and help them to feel safe in the messy struggle of learning

3) There is true power in a Sharpie

Knowing the Why

Learners in any situation fair much better when they understand the why behind what they are learning.  DIY tools such as a bookmark can give students a personal path to strategies that they can reach for easily to do the thinking and reading work that is in their Zone of Proximal Development.  Other tools you’ll find in this amazing book are examples of demonstration notebooks. Demonstration notebooks are a powerhouse teaching tool, teachers can use these in small group or conferences.  Micro progressions are a DIY tool that creates a learning opportunity where students can find where they are in the learning process and reach for the next available step in learning all while being able to see what is next and why each increment in learning is significant.  There is real beauty in the ability to see the progression of learning through these tools as it helps the learner to understand the why behind each increment of learning.  

julieanne WHY

leslie demon nb student work

Jenn conferring binder, index cards colored pen

Feeling Safe in the Messy Struggle of Learning

  Just as the Google Maps app on my phone provides me with a feeling of safety and security when I am on an unknown road and heading to never before seen sights, DIY Literacy tools can help students stay on the correct route while making them feel safe.  The stretch that takes place when we learn can be uncomfortable and feel like a struggle, but the tools we help to co-author with students can reduce that struggle, support the stretch and advance the learning.  These tools helps to organize the messiness in learning.   We should embrace the mess in learning, however if there are tools that can help to organize our learning it makes sense to welcome the mess, bid it goodbye and embrace the tools.

Kym Harjes A3

Julieanne Bit by Bit

susie run from messiness of learning

mindi what they can do

Tina goals and next steps

keith risk, messy, not perfection

The Power of a Sharpie

    During the chat Kate tweeted, “It really is all about the Sharpies.”  There is something about those brightly colored markers, once in my hand scribbling on a blank white sheet of paper that helps me to think things through.  The thinking that comes from this simple act fosters creativity for me. The process of planning out how a strategy is best demonstrated and learned becomes clear in the context of that learning in action.  Working through the process allows for revisions before the teaching and learning happens, making those later opportunities successful.  Planning for charts or demonstration notebook pages are perfect opportunities to take out those brightly colored markers. This makes me realize that for teachers and students alike engaging in this process helps students become metacognitive and own the process they are using when thinking.  Students co-creating tools like these not only leave them with a tool to refer back to, but take them through the process and the thinking.  This metacognition around process helps to make learning stick.  This is how learners are able to hold onto the process in order to hold onto the learning.  

leslie kid making own demo nb

Kate Sharpies

meredith growth talk

Mrs. Aliotta independece

Through DIY Literacy, Maggie and Kate support our efforts to identify common problems and explore solutions. The solutions are found in the pages of DIY Literacy… and teachers everywhere are answering their call.

Kate Demo Notebook image

Kate microprogression image

Maggie Tool reading a play

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Strategy Instruction with Students at the Center

by Mary Howard


On May 5, 2016, #G2Great continued a four-part series, Teaching with Intention: Maximizing Our Instructional POWER POTENTIAL. This week we put a spotlight on strategy instruction and set out to explore how to approach this work in ways that keep ‘students at the center’ of our efforts. Question 1 set the stage for our exploration: How can we more intentionally frame strategy instruction to increase student engagement in ways that maximize our instructional POWER POTENTIAL?

It’s not often that a single tweet to one question can capture the very essence of a chat, but Eric Davis managed to do exactly that with three words that still linger days later. His message is what strategy work with a heart is all about.

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In Teaching Reading in Small Groups, Jennifer Serravallo describes strategies as “deliberate, effortful, intentional and purposeful actions a reader takes to accomplish a specific task or skill” (2010, 11-12). As I viewed this definition in light of Eric’s three words, I was struck by the idea that we will never make our students more deliberate, effortful, intentional, and purposeful if strategies are simply doled out dutifully like a thoughtless ‘to do list.’  Strategy work from the heart is about respecting the students.

As I pondered these words more deeply, thinking about how we can give our strategy work more heart in ways that focus on respecting the students, four interrelated R’s began to emerge:

Be Resolute

Respectful strategy work with a heart allows us to approach students with a sense of awe, secure in the belief that each child can and will become a strategic reader. We view students through a success lens, refusing to allow labels and misconceptions to cloud our view of the immense possibilities that reside within each of them. We recognize and honor their strengths and use them as a stepping-stone from where they are to where they could be. We recognize that there is no substitute for books that give them reasons to use strategies. As we teach strategies, we avoid jumping to the ‘rescue’ when they falter to make room for productive struggle as confidence and competence merge. We trust them to take the strategy reigns and then offer just right instructional support while noticing when to fade that support as we step away.

Be Responsive

Respectful strategy work with a heart reminds us that we cannot do this work unless we know the child in front of us and thoughtfully ponder how to best meet that child’s needs at that moment. We teach strategies based on day-to-day assessment rather than numerical data that leads to strategy groups more akin to instructional cattle calls. We make kidwatching a high priority practice, opting to trust our noticings and wonderings captured on anecdotal references rather than nameless spreadsheets that lose the child in the translation. We rely on strategies that rise from authentic learning with a focus on  process over product as we build strategic knowledge and promote independent problem solving in the context of meaningful literacy. We acknowledge that respectful strategy work with a heart only occurs when a book, a reader and a knowledgeable teacher cross paths.

Be Responsible

Respectful strategy work with a heart draws from this knowledge as it affords us opportunities to select just right strategies at just right moments. We honor what the child brings to the learning table at that point and time and fine-tune our strategy work in ways that will accommodate those needs. We avoid instructional quick fixes and one-size-fits-all strategies as we recognize that we must choose strategies purposefully based on each child. We know that hyper-fidelity to scripts can cloud our view and lead to lock step teaching far removed from child. We steadfastly insist on maintaining control for professional decision-making and make choices based on our knowledge of students and refuse to make any excuses why we can’t.

Be Relentless

Respectful strategy work with a heart requires unwavering commitment to what may well be most critical in a time in education where distractions and questionable suggestions abound. We keep our WHY in mind as we pursue a reader-centered classroom with a vengeance by making a commitment to actively engage students in joyful daily self-selected reading regardless of the other demands in our day. We use strategies within and beyond those experiences, making sure to put books in their hands that give our strategy instruction wings. We do this because we know that strategy work is not the end goal but a means to an end as described by Jennifer Serravallo:

You could be the most eloquent teacher, the best strategy group facilitator, the most insightful conferrer. But if you send your kids back for independent reading and they don’t read, then they won’t make the progress you are hoping and working for. Jennifer Serravallo

When we are committed to respectful strategy work with a heart we teach within a spirit of Resolute, Responsive, Responsible and Relentless teaching. In short, we are “respecting the students.” Through all of this work, we hold tight to our deep belief that we must celebrate the children in front of us and do all we can to set them down a path to becoming lifelong readers within and beyond the school day.

Sharon Murphy makes this point stating, When pleasure and reading are companions…children become engaged readers and are likely to continue to read throughout their lives.”

If our goal is respectful strategy work with a heart, pleasure and reading will be companions for every child. After all, isn’t that why we do this wonderful work?