Each year, idealistically, I like my students to independently read one classic (or contemporary novel with literary value) per quarter. Some students graciously accept this challenge, but many don't. During first semester, when I noticed how few students were reading classics, I decided I needed to actively pursue a solution to this problem. One student in my 7th period class, Iliana, simply asked me to recommend a classic to her. Our conversation went like this:
Iliana: Ms. Deahl, I know you want us to read classics, but I don't know which one to read. Can you recommend one to me?
Me: Did you take a look at the list I gave you? Do you have anything in mind?
Iliana: Yeah, I picked out a few titles. The one that sounds the most interesting is The Catcher in the Rye. Do you have a copy?
Me: I love The Catcher in the Rye! Holden is the ultimate sarcastic pessimist. I think you'll like it. Let's check my shelves of classics... Looks like I do.
Iliana: Okay, I'll check it out then.
Me: You do realize you will have to do extra work with this book, right?
Iliana: I know, but I also know that I need to push myself to read something more challenging. I think I'm ready for that challenge.
Me: I do, too. Here's what I'd like you to do while you're reading...
Illiana read The Catcher and the Rye in a little over two weeks. At times, she struggled but I asked her to agree to talk to me each time something was confusing. I also had her write journal entries in her reading journal for every 20 pages she read. We had some great conversations about Holden, and as we did, I found my solution to the classics problem: I needed to adopt Literature Circles into my classroom instruction.
Compiling Classics and Delivering Book Talks
Because my honors freshmen read anywhere between 5th and 10th grade levels, I needed to choose a variety of classics (and a few contemporary titles with literary value) to cover this range, but I also didn't want to use any adapted classics. Since it was late in the semester, my students had spent enough time handling challenging texts with the literature we'd studied and our Articles of the Week. I knew they were up for a challenge.
I also knew with our district's full-scale implementation around The Common Core Standards, I might be able to hit multiple standards within one unit.
I solicited some help from our school librarian requesting 8-10 titles of each copy (I have 2 honors sections and needed at least 10 different titles so that each group would have a different title). Here's what we came up with:
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck
- Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Call of the Wild by Jack London
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Once I had enough copies for both classes to choose from, I introduced the projects to my students by simply saying:
Earlier in the semester, I requested that you each read one classic per quarter. I've noticed that many of you haven't read a classic yet and that is a problem. I'm going to give a Book Talk on 10 different titles for you to choose from, and by the end of the class period today, you need to choose one title to read and check out. Choose wisely, this is going to be your most challenging project of the semester. Once you have your book picked out, I'll let you know what our next step is.
I then gave a Book Talk for each book that I'd read based on my experiences with it. I talked about what I liked about the story without giving anything major away. For the books I hadn't read, I simply read the back of the book to my students.
After my Book Talks, students had a chance to walk around and read the back of the books, talk to the their classmates about which ones sounded worthwhile and then they checked them out. I then grouped students by title (at least 2 students in each group and no more than 4 in a group). Students moved into their respective groups and we moved onto our next step.
Setting Some Ground Rules
As a class, we talked about what Book Clubs are and we created some procedures for working within them. Here are those guidelines:
- Stay on topic by only discussing things relevant to the book.
- Ask questions
- Seek clarification
- Offer help
- If you read ahead, don't spoil major things.
- If you fall way behind, expect to have something spoiled for you.
- Set goals (like how many pages your group will read each night).
By having these procedures in place, my students and I were able to make the most use of our time together and were able to complete our study of these novels within a 3.5 week time frame. Once we established our Book Club Procedures, I gave them 15 minutes of free reading time.
Research to Build Context
Given the vast array of settings and time periods within these classics (and contemporary titles), I knew that my students would need some context for these novels. On Day Two, I modeled how to find the copyright date for my students by showing them the copyright symbol on the back of the title page in the book. I advised them to look for the oldest date as many titles have newer editions. Once we had those dates, I had my students write them down in their reading journals along with the title and author of the book. Then, I began asking them questions like:
- What was happening in 1903 in Alaska? (to the Call of the Wild group)
- What do you know about Russia in 1938? (to the Anthem group)
- Do you know what an internment camp is? (to The Farewell of Manzanar group)
I asked the other groups with different titles similar questions. Some students were able to provide background information for their peers who were reading books different than the title they'd chosen, but very few students had much prior knowledge about the historical context of their own novels. Many students had also never heard of the authors of these books and only a few had heard of the titles or had read them.
Our next step involved a trip to the library where our librarian showed us how to research the following databases:
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online
- Biography Reference (EBSCO)
- History Reference Center (EBSCO)
- Literary Reference Center (EBSCO)
- information about the author (where the author was from, political viewpoints, race, class, etc.)
- events taking place during the time period the novel was written
- information about the type of government within the novel (if applicable)
In the library, students were seated next to their Book Club members. We spent 2-3 days researching this information. I asked that my students have at least 1 pages of research notes with citations (1/2 page for author and 1/2 page for historical context and anything else they found interesting). By the time we finished our research, many students had more than 1 page of notes and had improved their background knowledge for reading their books.
Back in the Classroom
With their research in hand, a copy of the classic (or contemporary title), and their reading journals, my students were now ready to begin discussing the books they'd chosen to read within their Book Clubs. We reviewed our Procedures for discussing these books, and I gave them 10-15 minutes to discuss what they'd read so far. Most groups jumped right into their discussions with enthusiasm and curiuosity while others needed a little prompting from me. So I reminded them to discuss their questions and confusion first, then any comments they'd written about their reading. They could also discuss their findings in their research. As they did, I walked around to each group listening in to their conversations and asking them questions like:
- What's going on in your book right now?
- What's confusing?
- How did you figure that out?
- What do you think of what's happening?
- Why is this character/person in this situation?
And so on. Since many students had read less than 20 pages in these books, I kept my questions general and helped guide them to finding the answers by having them re-read, discuss and conduct more research as needed.
Why Inquiry Matters
As I reflect back on my conversation with Iliana, showing students how to find copyright dates and the research component of this unit, I realize that this is exactly the type of teaching and learning required by the Common Core Standards. Rather than teaching one whole class novel that may not be a realistic choice given the varied reading levels in my classroom, Book Clubs provide the opportunity for me to teach literary terms, research, analysis and literary criticism through a more general approach. This allows me to differentiate my instruction to best meet my students at their levels and challenge them to push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of.
A key component of approaching classic and contemporary literature in this way is the process of self-discovery. Allowing students the opportunity to question these authors, these particular books and the worlds within them provided my students an opportunity to be inquisitive. Implementing Book Clubs for the first time within my instruction allowed me the opportunity to be vulnerable with my students (we were both trying something for the first time). Initially, my students were a bit reluctant in accepting this challenge, but as we continue through the unit, they begin to embrace literature for the first time in their lives.