In the past, I have tried a variety of techniques and strategies to support student book clubs as an important medium for learning in my classroom.   Even if students may have initially struggled with discussion and/or preparation, I always found a way to scaffold students for success.

Like many things in this academic year, my book clubs have not been like those in the past.  Some things I did very similarly to the past, including book tasting.  However, I changed my format to ensure we were safe and not handling all the books with multiple hands/germs daily.  Inspired by Abby of Write on with Miss G, I created a virtual book tasting board; I felt like this method worked extremely well!

In the end, I formed groups around these seven book club texts; our essential question was “How do people cope with adversity, and how do they overcome difficult challenges?”

  • The Poet X
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham
  • House Arrest
  • Forget Me Not
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • The Distance Between Us (Young Readers’ Edition)
  • Farewell to Manzanar

Students then established their own reading calendars; I created a “copy” link for students to use, appointed a scribe from each group, and then had students share their calendars with me.  In addition, I printed a hard copy of each calendar on neon paper and gave to students to keep in the front of their binders.

Even though we were juggling the reading schedule around state Milestones testing, it worked out well to give students class time to read; for those who were fast readers or ahead, I kept rolling deadlines for students with literary analysis activities in Google Classroom, so those who were “accelerating” could work ahead while those who might need more time were not penalized if they needed an extra day or so to complete the Google Classroom activities.  Some tasks I adapted from Building Book Love’s Novels in Verse Vault; others I created on my own.  I tried to either focus on literary elements like characterization and conflict, or I provided more open-ended reading journals with choices.  Students actually did a fairly good job of keeping up with their self-determined reading schedules; however, those who struggled to complete work all year long continued to struggle to finish the Google Classroom assignments.

I also decided try Abby’s concept of roles in book clubs (a little different than what I’ve done before); unfortunately, this didn’t quite work out for my students.  I think in the future I might fine tune this a bit for 8th graders, especially those who come with little to no experience in book clubs or who struggle to complete even short written tasks in class. I also started to use her concept of letting students establish norms for their clubs, but after seeing my 4th period take a ridiculous amount of time to do this, I did not attempt this with my other classes.  I love the concept, but during testing, class time was precious because some days we didn’t get a full class period; in addition, I think it didn’t quite work for my 8th graders this year because they lacked book club experience and maturity to make those decisions in a reasonable sort of way.

I felt optimistic students would be ready for the first book club meeting because they had class time every day to read and work on developing questions.  In addition, I used Abby’s Socratic Seminar question template and modeled and explained numerous examples, including this one; in addition, students had access to the examples daily on our class Canvas pages.  In spite of 3 days of class time plus an extension on the weekend, half the students did not generate six questions to bring to the discussion.  Obviously, it’s hard to have a discussion when students are not prepared with questions, so I wound up having to punt and provide an alternative assignment for those not prepared.  This also meant shuffling groups so that there would be enough people to actually have a discussion.  I was extremely disappointed and frankly shocked because students had every opportunity to develop six high quality questions for discussion.  In addition, while my 4th, 5th, and 6th period classes did a great job interacting in their book club discussions, my first period struggled; this was not a surprise because this has been the pattern with these classes all year regarding any kind of small group discussion.

In 28.5 years of teaching, I’ve learned you have to squeeze the lemonade from the lemons when a learning activity or unit does not go the way you hoped or planned.  Since time was continuing to be at a premium with testing, I made a few modifications:

  • We continued with our reading calendars/schedule and planned activities, but I reduced the meetings from three to two because of a change in our testing schedule.
  • Students continued to have class time to read and work on reflection activities; students were also given time to develop questions for the next meeting with the same resources and additional examples.

Unfortunately, the quality of the questions was just as bad as the second time as the first, and at this point, it was obvious many students were plagiarizing questions from the internet.   Although I did get some good question submissions, I unfortunately wound up developing a menu of questions myself.  I combined these and set up discussion boards in Parlay, an online discussion tool.  After reminding students our upcoming virtual book club meeting would be a performance assessment, I announced to students our second book club meeting would be in Parlay and would take place over two days:

Day 1:  Choose any two questions from the menu of questions for your book club and answers ( see below).

Day 2:  Respond to at least three people  (see below).

If students were absent, they could catch up from home or the following Monday/Tuesday in class.  Students could also go into their discussion forum and respond to comments from others.

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To evaluate participation, I simply scrolled through student responses.  I first evaluated student responses to the questions; I then evaluated student interactions/responses to peers.  For this part of the assessment, I created blank grade reports in Infinite Campus, printed, and then used my own coding system to evaluate the quality of the peer response by each student while tallying they had attempted at least three interactions.

It easy to set up the discussion boards using a template from Parlay and then modifying for it my needs.  I also love that Parlay allows me to anonymize student names so they feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas; this is especially important for 8th grade learners.  I can see the actual names, but students cannot!  In addition, this method of book club discussion forced students to be more “present” in the moment and to participate.  I also love that with the Parlay book club discussions, students could interact with readers from all my class sections, not just their own.  Parlay also provided response stems to help students engage in appropriate or relevant feedback to their peers.

Did I mention with the paid version of Parlay you can also pull data on discussions? (see slide show above) Yes!  I am currently on the free plan, but I plan to upgrade to the paid subscription for the 2021-22 academic year.

I polled students to see if they preferred the virtual discussions to the face to face; many students indicated they preferred Parlay or they liked Parlay just as much as a regular face to face discussion.  I will definitely be incorporating Parlay into my toolbox of discussion strategies this fall while continuing to refine my strategies for helping students formulate solid questions independently.

Many thanks to Amanda of Mud and Ink Teaching for turning me onto Parlay!  I am excited to further integrate this into my classroom come August 2021!