By Adrin Fisher

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory.  I especially love the episodes featuring Beverly Hofstadter, Leonard’s mother, who is a persnickety and emotionally distant neuroscientist.  In Season 2, Episode 15, Leonard, an experimental physicist, has invited his mother to visit his lab at Cal Tech.

Leonard: I think you’ll find my work pretty interesting.  I’m attempting to replicate the dark matter signal found in sodium iodide crystals by the Italians.

Beverly:  So, no original research?

Leonard:  No.

Beverly:  Well, what’s the point of my seeing it?  I could just read the paper the Italians wrote.

Christine Baranski as Beverly Hofstadter <bigbangtheory.fandom.com>

Of course, the short answer to Beverly’s snarky question is that replication is the way scientists check their work:  it proves validity, allows for the examination of variables, and inspires new research (AllPsych.com).  The same can be said in a classroom.  When a working teacher carves out the time to write a professional book, she must draw from years of experience—boots-on-the-ground research—to analyze and translate strategies, methods, content-based approaches, etc., into a digestible schema. 

For the past several years, I have facilitated a Professional Learning Community for my English department.  Recently, we’ve been focused on the work of Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle: Readicide, Book Love, and 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents.  Though I find the schema put forward in the most recent book particularly daunting in the sheer relentlessness demanded from its adherents, I—like Leonard—am interested in replicating results on my own terms.  After all, what’s the point of reading books about education unless it’s to be moved to personal change?

One of the ideas in the Kittle/Gallagher text is to use “book clubs” as a vehicle to expedite independent reading.  Now, when I was in high school, these were called literature circles, and they were guided by the teacher.  Kittle and Gallagher, however, advocate self-grouping and self-led discussions.  Students are expected to read independently, to record their thoughts, and to discuss with their book clubs. 

For my first attempt at the book club model, I followed many of their recommendations for my three sections of 10th grade Honors English.  I put the kids into groups and created a meeting schedule with assigned sets of chapters due each week for a month.  I provided a “thought log” guide called “Track Your Thinking” (found in Chapter 3 of 180 Days) that includes basic question prompts and sentence stems. I asked the students to write one page per about 25 pages of text.  I collected the logs, and showed students strong written responses from their class under the document camera:  consequently, the logs improved on the second round.  I walked the whole meeting period, listening to each group—answering and asking questions.  Twice, I asked students to reflect on the book club process in writing.

Here’s what I varied from the guidelines in Chapter 3 of 180 Days:  I chose a whole-class independent read and I created blended high-medium-low groups.  In addition, I did not take the time to do recommended mini-lessons on how to build on what someone has said in a conversation.

And here’s what I found:

Observation:  Many groups rushed through a retelling of the plot and didn’t get any deeper.

Student comments: “My group needed more prompting for the discussion.” Z.B.  “This process is good, but it can be hard to find things to discuss…The responses didn’t help.” S.K.  “What I wrote was never relevant to the conversation we had in class.” Z.B.

Analysis:  Most of the conversations that I overheard during the first two weeks were boring.  This tells me that some students didn’t connect with this novel on a deeper level; and it may also speak to a lack of preparation.  Some groups didn’t use their thought logs to guide their discussion.

But also: On the other hand, one group fixated on the color red in the novel, and worked together to analyze color symbolism.  That’s pretty good, and it was organic.

Observation:  The social aspect was positive…until it wasn’t.

Student comments: “It helped me understand the book more.  It helped to explain concepts I missed while reading.” J.M.  “Everyone had sort of different interpretations of the passage and it was fun to get a look at someone else’s thoughts.” C.G. “Talking/listening…helps me process.” E.B.

Analysis:  Bottom line, kids like to talk to each other.  Lots of research has shown that the social aspect of learning in a classroom is valuable.  But the supervision of discussions in five different groups at once is a challenge, especially when kids “finish” their academic conversations and switch to other topics. 

But also:  My main instructional mode is whole group discussion, which is a whole lot easier to manage.

Our first Book Club meeting, 2nd period

Observation: The groups with slackers—both in reading and in conversing—suffered.

Student comments: “I was one of the select few in my group that did anything.” C.D. “We must better disburse the extroverts!” E.H. “It’s not as effective if not everyone in the group did the work.” K.M.

Analysis: This is obviously a problem across teaching. Kittle is adamantly opposed to quizzes as a motivation to have students read, but Gallagher says quizzes are good—so even the experts are divided.  Maybe a self-selected title would improve student participation, but there are limits.  I have to provide books for my students that I’ve read and they have to have value and literary merit and relate to a theme and bolster skills and be useful for future AP tests, and I need to organize groups of kids reading the same book—it can’t be a free-for-all.

But also: When I solve this one, I’ll write my own teacher book.

Overall, I’d say my first experience trying the Kittle/Gallagher book club model was a mixed bag.  It wasn’t a loss, but my experiment certainly didn’t live up to the hype in 180 Days.  My kids did not shake the earth’s foundations with keen analysis and sparkling conversation; in fact, a couple of them didn’t even read the whole novel.

Perhaps it was because I adjusted the variables in my trial run.  Perhaps it was because I run my school’s after-school Book Club and, well, it’s the same name but different expectations.  Perhaps the book wasn’t hard enough, easy enough, engaging enough, funny enough, controversial enough, modern enough. Perhaps I expect too much.

Regardless, I’m already planning the second round, slated to begin in two weeks.  We’ll self-select.  We’ll try a little more direction in discussion prompts.  We’ll spot check the thinking logs instead of trying to read all 60 of them word-for-word four times. 

Regardless, I’ll be up all night every weekend re-reading all five novels for this one prep. 

Regardless, this is the way we check our work.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What’s your experience with student-directed book clubs?  What’s your most recent professional read?  Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not stressing about her planning calendars, encouraging and supporting her colleagues or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, ogling spring blossoms, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin


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