All year long, I have been working with teachers in various grade levels around the topic of book clubs. We are always looking for ways to deepen understandings of texts, and book clubs are a good way to support that.
Talking about texts forces students to clarify their own thinking and justify it in ways that make sense. Most of my work has been with older students. (You can read about the 5th grade clubs here, the 3rd grade clubs here or here, and the 2nd grade clubs here.) But I recently began working on this same topic with 1st grade teacher Melanie Brock. Ms. Brock knew she had students who were ready for book clubs, but she wasn’t sure how she wanted to launch them, so we jumped in together.
We knew right away that this would be the kind of book club where every student has a copy of the same text. But before choosing a book, Ms. Brock and I needed to determine some goals for the group. What would we expect that these students would know and be able to do at the end of this work? Perhaps the most important goal was related not to their reading, but to their independence and self-direction. Book clubs should be student-driven, so we knew that fostering that independence needed to be a top priority.
For the first week, I met with the group every day. Ms. Brock chose a book that was familiar to them so that we could move right to the discussion. She rounded up five copies of Night of the Veggie Monster by George McClements and we allowed the students to do a quick reread. Then I gave them a list of questions to help them discuss the book. This list was actually one that I made for a parent training earlier in the year, but the questions worked well for the kind of discussion we wanted to grow in this book club.
(Click on the image to download a PDF of these questions.)
I asked the quietest child in the group of five to be in charge of asking the questions to the group. Responses were no problem, as they were eager to share their thinking about this book that they love. They made connections to themselves and other books, they asked each other about predictions, and they giggled about the main character’s dramatic actions. As they talked, they tended to look at me, so I took every opportunity to remind them that in book clubs, they should talk to each other. I would even have them stop, turn to face the group, and repeat a statement. I knew that if we wanted them to be independent, I would have to get them to stop relying on me for affirmation.
As we wrapped up our first club meeting, I complimented the students on their ability to talk about this book for a long time. I pointed out their conversational strengths, which (to borrow terms from Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell) were “within the text” and “beyond the text.” This means that they excelled at skills like recalling details from the story and retelling in sequence (thinking within the text) and making connections and predicitions (thinking about the text). I told them that when we met again, I wanted to challenge them to think about the text, which involves critiquing the author’s and/or illustrator’s craft. They seemed excited about the challenge and left with their books.
When I met with this club the next day, I reminded them that I wanted them to think about the text. They began by discussing the illustrations, which are a hybrid of photographs and drawings. They all agreed that they liked this style and connected it to the work of Mo Willems in Knuffle Bunny. They also talked at length about the fact that the book alludes to a sequel at the end. There isn’t a sequel, so we discussed the concept of a cliffhanger, but they just weren’t satisfied. One student named Gabriel finally said, “I have an idea! We could write a sequel! We could write Night of the Veggie Monster 2!” This was met with extreme enthusiasm from the rest of the group, and we knew it was the next logical step.
More than anything, I loved the idea that this sequel-writing project was so organic. I didn’t assign it — the kids came up with the idea. They gave me a list of photographs they would need, as they intended to mimic the hybrid style of illustrations. In the original book, the food is all photographs, and the people are hand-drawn. I found photos of broccoli, bread, chicken, rice, and lemonade and printed them in various sizes.
When I met with the book club the following day, I told them that I wasn’t going to talk. I reminded them to plan their book first, which they did, and they got to work. They haven’t finished their sequel yet, but they have already asked me to track down George McClements so they can send the finished product to him. They’ve also already started brainstorming future installments in what could be a very long series. Gabriel even told me that he has already written “Morning of the Fruity Monster” in Writers’ Workshop!
Next week, Ms. Brock will choose another book for this group, and they will try to navigate a week-long book club on their own. She has agreed to let me spy on them as they talk, and I’m excited to see how their independence improves with the shift of responsibility. Based on what I’ve learned in other classrooms this year, all signs point to success!