This past fall one of our fabulous learning support teachers and I were sitting on the carpet after school trying to think of a way to get a student we worked with interested even remotely in readers’ workshop. We had a pretend reader on our hands. Elijah had amazing stamina for being quiet in a cozy spot in the classroom and holding a book while staring at the same page or two for approximately 35 minutes.
But what he didn’t know is that my colleague and I were super sleuth teachers and we were onto him. It was only September and we had already picked up on his clever avoidance tactics. We sat on the dusty blue carpet with the contents of Elijah’s book box spread out before us, scratching our heads.
“We just need to find a great motivating text for him,” I said, feeling the first tinges of autumn stupor that come when I am in overload mode.
“We need to find some way to get him socially connected to reading,” my colleague thought aloud.
I sat thinking about a similarly reluctant reader I had worked with the year before, who became the spokesperson for nonfiction reading after being included in a nonfiction book club. Every day this child wanted to research (and read!), and every day he grew as a reader. Maybe this was the angle we needed to take with our friend Elijah.
“How about a book club?”
“That would be absolutely great,” she responded, which reminded me of why I loved co-teaching with her.
The challenge for Elijah was that he was a very literal thinker who struggled to connect with stories, so we needed to take an approach to readers’ workshop that heavily emphasized nonfiction texts.
Finally, it came to me. “How about a research club?”
Since I was working with a new class of student and had some very specific goals in mind, this first research club was an invitation-only group. My co-teacher and I scouted out two students we thought would be great mentor readers, but also needed to be pushed to read more nonfiction. We also selected a quiet student who just needed a confidence boost. I had a loaded agenda with this club.
Beginning the Club
We got together during readers’ workshop and discussed possible research topics. Sharks, spiders, piranhas, frogs, and lions were all ideas on the table. There was little progress in agreeing on a focus, so we decided to put the topic ideas in a hat to choose. Lions it was. Unfortunately, this was not Elijah’s first choice, but the excitement of his fellow club members seemed to pull him along.
The Lion Club, as it was called, created a list of agreements and then got to work clearing our school library shelves of all books about lions. Each member got their own research kit — a folder with a research checklist, a page for research questions, a space to keep sticky notes of collected research, and a Ziploc bag with a highlighter, sticky notes, and a pen. During the first session, we came up with agreements for our research club. Each student chose a good-fit lion book for the week, and we modeled how to use the sticky notes to record new information in their own words.
The next Tuesday when we met our group had grown from four to six students. Two other readers from the class just showed up and joined. One happened to be the most reluctant reader in our class. The funny thing was neither said anything or asked to join. My co-teacher and I exchanged sideways smirks and jumped into our work mentoring nonfiction readers.
The Lion Club started a movement in our room. We were a room of researchers. Research was no longer relegated to social studies or science time; research could happen every day about topics students were interested in during readers’ workshop. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be in a research club and the members of the club were stars. Elijah was officially invested now.
One of the best things about forming these clubs is that reading levels do not need to dictate who is involved. Interest is the leader in research clubs. As our class branched out beyond the Lion Club, students formed clubs based on stacks of books I found at the library or a topic that caused quite a stir in a class meeting. The texts we pooled together about particular topics range from very beginning reading levels to high school reading level texts. Here is our list for the Lion Club:
National Geographic: Face to Face with Lions
Beverly and Dereck Jouebert
Grade Level: 2-5
Pebble Plus: African Animals: Lions
Catherine Ipcizade and Gail Saunders-Smith
Grade Level: K-2
Pull Ahead Books: African Lions
Grade Level: K-2
National Geographic Readers: Deadliest Animals
Grade Level: 2-4
Aubrey Lang and Dr. Wayne Lynch
Grade Level: K-2
Wildlife Survival: Lions in Danger
Grade Level: 2-4
Christian the Lion
Anthony Bourke and John Rendall
Grade Level: 3-6
National Geographic Kids: Everything Big Cats
Grade Level: 3-6
Students were able to pick and choose which books they wanted to research each week. Often some of our most advanced readers chose easier texts because they knew the book had the information they were looking for, allowing readers like Elijah to feel very comfortable picking up that same book the next week.
An interesting observation that has come out of research clubs is that many of the readers in our class who struggle the most with decoding or comprehending fiction texts are often scientifically driven. They are curious and come up with some of the most intriguing questions to guide our research. Research clubs allow children an opportunity to engage in reading through conversations first and then through texts.
Extending the Clubs Throughout the Year: Learning from Jamar
Jamar was another hesitant reader I journeyed with this year. He is a born scientist and an exceptional speaker. He joined two research clubs over the course of the school year. I learned so much about him in this forum that I couldn’t learn through our sometimes difficult individual conferences. We spent our conferring time in a power struggle about his focus on commitment to books, when what he really needed was a way into reading.
As we gathered for The Unlikely Animal Friendship research club toward the end of the year, I listened to Jamar lead a discussion about the famous polar bear, Knut. He discussed his findings from the book he read, and also had a cordial disagreement with a fellow club member, citing some information he had gleaned from the Discovery Channel. I watched him and realized that this below grade level reader was engaging in a highly intelligent chat with a student who was reading well past an eighth grade reading level. Their decoding skills had very little to do with their discussion or their intelligence. It was about the content, and boy could Jamar ever talk content.
I’ve found that research clubs became the great equalizer in readers’ workshop. They created a safe place for readers of all shapes and sizes to gather and discuss what they learned from their reading without everyone having to all read the same book.
Quick Tips for Launching Research Clubs
1. Allow students to choose the topics for their research clubs through a collaborative process or bring in books that might stir interest in a new club based on classroom discussions.
2. Create a tub of books specifically for that research club, include books about the topic that cover a variety of angles at different reading levels. These books create a “buzz” as research clubs are forming. Continue to add to the bins as research continues, include articles, photographs, and videos that relate to the study.
3. Allow research club members to establish norms and expectations together around how much they expect each other to read, record, and share each week. Write these plans down and encourage the club to review them at the beginning of each meeting.
4. Help researchers set up research folders with designated sections for questions, research content, and a place to store photos and articles.
5. During the first several meetings club members might need some help facilitating discussions, but after a few sessions researchers should be the ones doing most of the sharing. This allows the teacher to listen for areas each member might need help with during individual conferences.
6. Encourage the research club to share their learning with the rest of the class community as they conclude their club. This can be done through a synthesis project or just a simple sharing session at the end of readers’ workshop one day.