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November 9, 2017

Thinking About Themes in Literature Through Book Clubs

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5

    In our current reading unit of study, my classes are working in book clubs and spending a lot of time examining themes. They are not only thinking about themes in one book, but also how multiple books can have a common theme. We are paying attention to how the same theme can be carried out quite differently by two different authors. This work is not new to me or to them — helping children think through big themes in the books they read has always been a passion of mine, and my students came to me with a lot of background knowledge around this work. What made this year different, however, was the increased amount of time and energy I put into setting students up to be able to do this work really well and step gradually toward independence.

    I knew that I wanted my kids to start in traditional book clubs, where all members of the group are reading the same book. I feel very strongly about the importance of choice in reading, so I am generally hesitant to ask any number of kids to all read the same book. In this case, however, having a shared text would be an important scaffold for book club conversations.

    I set out to find novels that had relatively clear themes and main characters that represented a variety of ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, family groupings, and genders. (Note: I was only choosing four books to begin with, so I knew this wouldn’t be a perfect array of choices. Any time I’m selecting books for my students, however, I think it’s important for kids to be able to decide whether they wanted to read a book that is a mirror of their own life or a window into someone else’s. Both are valuable, but I want kids to have the choice.)

    Round One

    For my first four novels, I chose Rules by Cynthia Lord, Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, and Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles. I then did my best to come up with engaging pitches for each of these books. I pitched all four to each of my classes, and I could tell they were already hooked, although they did want to know why they were all so sad. (That wasn’t a factor in my initial audit for book selection. Oops.)

    I asked the students to rank the books in order of preference. Their rankings are what I used to form my clubs. There are a lot of ways to form book clubs, and I know reading level is often the first choice. For these clubs, I already knew that the readability was appropriate for anyone in my classes, so I was eager to let go of level and go off of their choices. I lucked out in that they didn’t all have the same favorite, so everyone got either their first or second choice.

    I gave them a sheet of dates and class times they needed to have that book complete, and they worked together to determine when they would meet and how much they needed to read between each meeting. (I originally did this because the books varied in length, so assigning pages per night didn’t make sense, but it turned out to be a powerful lesson in study skills, as they had to work together and plan around their own extracurricular activities.)

    In these initial club meetings, students often relied on the plot to drive their conversations, which I fully expected. Our mini-lessons in reading workshop were designed to stretch their thinking about how their clubs could work together and grow ideas, and I was very impressed with how they were able to decide what they could apply right away and what they needed more guidance on before trying. Every lesson touched on theme, as I knew that would cause them to pull away from the specific events of the plot and think about the bigger lesson in the book.

    Once students finished their first book together, which took about two weeks, I wanted to engage them in some deeper theme work. I asked them to hold a meeting to determine one big theme that was presented throughout the novel and to think through some supporting evidence for that theme. After a fair amount of discussion time, I also had them create mini-posters to share their thinking. They wrote the theme in the middle and supporting evidence around it.

    I teach two classes so I ended up with two posters for each book. One interesting thing that came out of this work is that, while I hadn’t intended to use them together, once I hung both posters, the kids wanted to further discuss their books to understand why the other class may have come up with a slightly different theme. This was a perfect next step for them, as themes are certainly subjective, and if I repeat this work, I will make sure that I display them in a similar fashion so that they can learn from each other in this way.

    Round Two

    The next step of our theme work in book clubs involved choosing new books to read. For this round, I wanted students to be reading books with common themes, but not necessarily the same title as the rest of their club. To prepare, I chose ten chapter books and two picture books that shared a theme with each of the original four titles. There was no magic to this number — I just wanted to have plenty of titles for the kids to choose from without feeling like they got stuck with the last book left in the bucket. If you’re interested in seeing which books I chose, click here to download the list.

    *Organization tip: I set up a tub in the front of the room for each of the four clubs, and both classes use that tub. In round one, they were small tubs that held only the single titles. For round two, I moved them to a bigger tub and added the new titles.

    Because I saw how excited my students got when I pitched each of the first four novels, I decided to do short pitches for these new books as well. This took time — there were 48 titles to pitch, after all — but it was so worth it. They were able to make much more informed choices, and no one was upset with their choice because they’d heard me “bless” each of the books.

    Students are still reading their round two choices, and their club discussions have taken a great turn. Because they are each reading a different title, they can’t rely on plot for their conversation points. This means that theme is largely driving their conversations, and they are growing some big ideas!

    Along the way, students are writing in their reading notebooks, and I have let go of a lot of control with these entries. As long as they are writing about their book or their discussions, they can choose the angle they take. I’m so pleased with the writing they are doing! I can see improvement happening because of the way their thinking is growing in club conversations.

    Thinking about themes in reading workshop has had so many benefits in our classroom. It has lifted the level of our daily read-aloud, and students are even thinking about what theme they want to present in their narratives during writing workshop. Overall, we are talking, thinking, and writing deeply about books together, and I couldn’t ask for more.

    In our current reading unit of study, my classes are working in book clubs and spending a lot of time examining themes. They are not only thinking about themes in one book, but also how multiple books can have a common theme. We are paying attention to how the same theme can be carried out quite differently by two different authors. This work is not new to me or to them — helping children think through big themes in the books they read has always been a passion of mine, and my students came to me with a lot of background knowledge around this work. What made this year different, however, was the increased amount of time and energy I put into setting students up to be able to do this work really well and step gradually toward independence.

    I knew that I wanted my kids to start in traditional book clubs, where all members of the group are reading the same book. I feel very strongly about the importance of choice in reading, so I am generally hesitant to ask any number of kids to all read the same book. In this case, however, having a shared text would be an important scaffold for book club conversations.

    I set out to find novels that had relatively clear themes and main characters that represented a variety of ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, family groupings, and genders. (Note: I was only choosing four books to begin with, so I knew this wouldn’t be a perfect array of choices. Any time I’m selecting books for my students, however, I think it’s important for kids to be able to decide whether they wanted to read a book that is a mirror of their own life or a window into someone else’s. Both are valuable, but I want kids to have the choice.)

    Round One

    For my first four novels, I chose Rules by Cynthia Lord, Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, and Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles. I then did my best to come up with engaging pitches for each of these books. I pitched all four to each of my classes, and I could tell they were already hooked, although they did want to know why they were all so sad. (That wasn’t a factor in my initial audit for book selection. Oops.)

    I asked the students to rank the books in order of preference. Their rankings are what I used to form my clubs. There are a lot of ways to form book clubs, and I know reading level is often the first choice. For these clubs, I already knew that the readability was appropriate for anyone in my classes, so I was eager to let go of level and go off of their choices. I lucked out in that they didn’t all have the same favorite, so everyone got either their first or second choice.

    I gave them a sheet of dates and class times they needed to have that book complete, and they worked together to determine when they would meet and how much they needed to read between each meeting. (I originally did this because the books varied in length, so assigning pages per night didn’t make sense, but it turned out to be a powerful lesson in study skills, as they had to work together and plan around their own extracurricular activities.)

    In these initial club meetings, students often relied on the plot to drive their conversations, which I fully expected. Our mini-lessons in reading workshop were designed to stretch their thinking about how their clubs could work together and grow ideas, and I was very impressed with how they were able to decide what they could apply right away and what they needed more guidance on before trying. Every lesson touched on theme, as I knew that would cause them to pull away from the specific events of the plot and think about the bigger lesson in the book.

    Once students finished their first book together, which took about two weeks, I wanted to engage them in some deeper theme work. I asked them to hold a meeting to determine one big theme that was presented throughout the novel and to think through some supporting evidence for that theme. After a fair amount of discussion time, I also had them create mini-posters to share their thinking. They wrote the theme in the middle and supporting evidence around it.

    I teach two classes so I ended up with two posters for each book. One interesting thing that came out of this work is that, while I hadn’t intended to use them together, once I hung both posters, the kids wanted to further discuss their books to understand why the other class may have come up with a slightly different theme. This was a perfect next step for them, as themes are certainly subjective, and if I repeat this work, I will make sure that I display them in a similar fashion so that they can learn from each other in this way.

    Round Two

    The next step of our theme work in book clubs involved choosing new books to read. For this round, I wanted students to be reading books with common themes, but not necessarily the same title as the rest of their club. To prepare, I chose ten chapter books and two picture books that shared a theme with each of the original four titles. There was no magic to this number — I just wanted to have plenty of titles for the kids to choose from without feeling like they got stuck with the last book left in the bucket. If you’re interested in seeing which books I chose, click here to download the list.

    *Organization tip: I set up a tub in the front of the room for each of the four clubs, and both classes use that tub. In round one, they were small tubs that held only the single titles. For round two, I moved them to a bigger tub and added the new titles.

    Because I saw how excited my students got when I pitched each of the first four novels, I decided to do short pitches for these new books as well. This took time — there were 48 titles to pitch, after all — but it was so worth it. They were able to make much more informed choices, and no one was upset with their choice because they’d heard me “bless” each of the books.

    Students are still reading their round two choices, and their club discussions have taken a great turn. Because they are each reading a different title, they can’t rely on plot for their conversation points. This means that theme is largely driving their conversations, and they are growing some big ideas!

    Along the way, students are writing in their reading notebooks, and I have let go of a lot of control with these entries. As long as they are writing about their book or their discussions, they can choose the angle they take. I’m so pleased with the writing they are doing! I can see improvement happening because of the way their thinking is growing in club conversations.

    Thinking about themes in reading workshop has had so many benefits in our classroom. It has lifted the level of our daily read-aloud, and students are even thinking about what theme they want to present in their narratives during writing workshop. Overall, we are talking, thinking, and writing deeply about books together, and I couldn’t ask for more.

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