My most important job during book clubs is to know what my sixth-grade students are thinking. The point is to increase the rigor and accountability of each student through the choice and freedom of book clubs. I need to know that my students are going beyond the literal, that they are challenging themselves with difficult text (otherwise how do we become better readers?), and that they are enjoying good literature. I have created a variety of “thinking sheets” for my students that allow them to hold on to their thinking for book clubs and allow me to see their thought processes and inform my instruction. Some have questions that are very open ended, asking students to share what they are enjoying, what is confusing them, and what they are wondering, whereas others have questions that are aimed toward specific strategy work, lessons, or even book titles.
Thinking sheets are easy to come up with, and I find myself creating more and more each year to suit whatever I want to know about my students’ thinking and learning processes, and to nudge them a bit further. But a word of caution here: thinking sheets can quickly turn into just another assignment or “worksheet” that the students think they have to complete to get a good grade. Busywork. My goal is to understand what my students need and how they are accessing their own thinking, but I don’t want these readers to feel like they are jumping through hoops to get into good books. A balance of gathering information, providing scaffolds, and trusting students to read and think is crucial. Keeping this in mind brings about the most meaningful lessons and discussions between my students and me.
When we are just beginning book clubs, I like to start with a form I originally made for struggling clubs. Offering it to everyone at the start of this new process helps us all begin on the same page in terms of preparedness and accountability, and I can easily check up on the brain work my students are doing, which can help avoid a tenuous first round of book clubs. It eases my stress level to know that each student has some thinking written out to share. But it’s also important to recall that my students are used to talking about books. They have been expected to form opinions, back them up, and share them with the class since the first week of school.
Book Club Discussion Guide
What do you like BEST about this book so far and why?
Write a quote or bit of text that exemplifies this and the page on which it is written.
1. Share one connection that you have made with this book. Be specific: What/how are you connecting and why?
2. List two or three I wonder . . . statements that you are thinking about this book. Also list the page number on which you found yourself asking these questions.
3. Describe something that happened in your book that you really want to discuss during book club. Note the page number where this event/happening takes place.
I wanted this discussion guide to be a resource for students who were struggling to keep the conversation going, but it is useful as a first step for all of them. There is much that goes on in our minds when we read, and unless we make a conscious effort to hold on to that thinking, it can easily vanish. This discussion guide provides a scaffold for students to hold on to their thinking, but may also help guide them into thinking more deeply as they read. It focuses mostly on comprehension. Connections and questions often take comprehension to a new place. I always ask that students write down page numbers because I want them to become comfortable with referencing the text and citing textual evidence that supports their thinking. There is always the opportunity for open thought and free thinking as well; they aren’t simply answering literal comprehension questions. Students can share something they like or dislike and a bit of the story that has stuck with them that they want to bring up. The guide is meant to be a support; it is not meant to be the only thing students rely on to get the conversation moving.
We hold books during book clubs, jot down notes and fill them with stickies as we read at home, and make note of page numbers so that we can exclaim to each other, “Look on page 64! Did you notice that . . .” and thus debate the finer or trickier points of story. As one of my students, Jaeda, put it, “I asked a question and the people in my group helped me figure out what I got confused on!” Jaeda’s group was able to reread together the poem that confused her, and as a team they discussed and cleared up her confusion. It is the camaraderie and closeness of a book club, as well as deep thinking, that allow my students to experience authentic discourse aimed at continuous learning. Rereading pages and snippets of text almost always allows for new insights to be made. Citing textual evidence is not only a natural part of a book club meeting, but is a skill that is required and will continue to be required throughout my students’ academic careers. Because it so naturally fits into the boisterous discussions of these books, it can be as easy as saying, “What made you think that, Amy?” or, “Can you find the page you were on when you realized that to be true, Justin?” As book clubs progress, with or without discussion guides, I hear my students asking each other, “What page are you talking about?” or challenging a group-mate to show “proof” from the book to back up an assertion. It is always nice to hear students say, “Let’s reread page ____. I want to know what you guys think about that.”
The more adept at talking and thinking about text my students become, the less they need structured note sheets. They are always available as an optional resource for students, and stacks of them live on an open, easily accessible shelf in my classroom. If a student wants to use that tool to help him hold on to his thoughts or give him more specific access to his own thinking, the copies are there for the taking.
Often the thinking sheets I create can double as brief assessments of student knowledge. I can check for comprehension around a book or determine how well a student has been using a skill we are working on. I can quickly and easily make the questions refer to something specific about a book if we are using only a few texts. These are easily adapted to any text — simply change the book title and character names.
If we are practicing a specific comprehension strategy, I ask that students focus their thoughts on that one strategy so that I can assess their thinking.
- How are you connecting with this book, character, or plot?
- How are your connections helping to increase or alter your comprehension?
- What are you wondering about this book?
- How might your wonderings get answered?
- Are your questions really confusions that impeded comprehension or curiosities that you think will be answered as you read?
- What inferences can you make about the character or story?
- List the textual evidence and your schema that supports your inference.
- Describe a particular scene or character that you are able to visualize vividly in your mind.
- What did the author do to create that vivid image?
- As a reader, how does visualizing this character or scene help you?
- How can you, as a writer, create vivid images in your own writing?
Questioning, connecting, inferring, and visualizing are natural components of comprehending text. Actively thinking about these strategies while they read and discuss their book club books encourages my students to engage in critical analysis and higher-level thinking.
On other occasions I ask students to focus on characterization, plot, theme, or another literary element as they read. Through minilessons we learn about these literary devices and how they come together in literature. As my students analyze their books and engage in discussion, I always remind them to support their thinking with evidence.
These more focused questions always come alongside the expectation and understanding that book club members are free to discuss anything about the book. I don’t want to take away ownership, but I do have standards to meet. These questions can be a quick assessment to see how and what students are thinking as well as to determine if each one has grasped a specific concept. Any of these discussion guides and thinking sheets can be handed out to stimulate thinking before book clubs or as assessments after book clubs, or they can be done as homework a few days before book club meetings to ensure all students have some visible thinking to share. As long as my students have a way to hold on to their thinking as they are reading, and they are taking their reading of text deeper, the goals are being met.
This essay is an excerpt from Katie’s book Join the Club!