Use Digital Notebooks to Facilitate Book Clubs and Literature Circles at the Secondary Level

Different books appeal to different readers. Many students do not become readers until they encounter “the book.” It’s the book that grabs them and pulls them into the story. Once a person has had an immersive experience with a book, they usually become readers. Unfortunately, most secondary curriculum relies on a one-size-fits-all approach to reading. Instead of creating readers, this approach can alienate students who struggle to access books at a particular reading level or do not care for the genre of the books on their class reading list.

Embracing a book club and literature circle format can allow teachers the opportunity to shift from a whole class experience to a more personalized reading experience. Instead of being assigned a book they must read, students are given a menu of books to choose from and the teacher groups them according to their book selection. Allowing students a degree of agency in terms of the books they select can be a powerful motivator for even the most reluctant readers.

One challenge teachers face when students are reading different texts simultaneously is how to cover the standards if every student is reading a different book. While coaching a teacher in Palm Springs, I developed a digital notebook using Google Slides that teachers can use to facilitate a book club or literature circle unit. Since the books will be different lengths, I separated the digital notebook into four sections instead of by chapter. Each section prompts students to examine the characters, themes, and language of their texts. Even though the books are different, the skills they are developing are the same. So, teachers can provide whole group mini-lessons or small group instruction on the various skills and students can use their individual books to practice and apply those skills.

Here is the template you can copy:

I hope this secondary book club template provides teachers with a path for thinking about how they can develop grade-level skills while allowing students a degree of choice about what they read.

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Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This?

“If I don’t grade it, students won’t do it.” This reasoning leaves teachers with piles of work to grade, but I wonder how much of that time spent assigning points to student work results in improved student performance.

I fell into this trap at the start of my teaching career. I gave points for completing annotations, bringing books to class, and completing homework. By the end of the semester, I had over a hundred assignments in my grade book. I was exhausted by the neverending pile of paperwork that cast a shadow on my life beyond school.

A few years ago, I hit a breaking point. My grades didn’t feel like an accurate reflection of my students’ skills, and I was spending hours wading through paperwork instead of designing dynamic learning experiences for my students. Now, when I work with teachers, I encourage them to ask these questions: What is the purpose of this work? Why am I grading this?

Below is a simple flowchart to help teachers think about the purpose of student work.

Too often students are penalized for making mistakes on assignments that are designed to help them develop and refine their skills before an assessment. If teachers assign homework or in-class assignments with the goal of helping students to practice, I don’t think that work should receive a grade that goes into a grade book. Instead, the goal of that work should be to help the student learn the material. Mistakes during practice should be celebrated as part of the learning process. If we penalize students who make mistakes while practicing a skill, we create an environment where mistakes are scary. This negatively impacts student motivation and can cause students unnecessary anxiety.

When students are working toward a finished product that will be assessed for a grade, they need feedback and support. If teachers create time in class to provide feedback, they shift the focus from the product to the process. Too often, students do not receive feedback until they have submitted a finished product and receive a grade. Feedback on a finished product is not useful to students. I’d like to see more teachers design blended lessons that allow them the time and space to provide feedback as students work. This feedback pays dividends because the final products will be stronger.

Assessments and finished products need a grade, but many teachers either grade holistically so students are unsure why they received the grade they got or they use monster rubrics composed of so many criteria that grading a finished product takes weeks. I suggest teachers downsize and keep grading more manageable for themselves and their students. Use a simple rubric and select 2-3 specific skills to grade. For example, if students complete a research paper, teachers can limit their focus to three elements, 1) evidence, 2) analysis, and 3) organization. If teachers narrow their focus to a few elements and enter those as separate scores in the grade book, students and parents will have a better sense of what to work on in the future.

The longer I spend in education, the more I have come to embrace the mantra “less is more.” By grading less, we may actually give our students and ourselves more. The more time we spend grading work that doesn’t fall into the category of assessment or finished product, the less time we have to provide feedback, design engaging lessons, and recharge physically, mentally, and emotionally at home.

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Blended Learning: A Bridge to Personalization

Blended learning is the combination of active engaged learning online and active engaged learning offline with the goal of giving students more control over the time, place, pace, and path of their learning. Blended learning can take many different forms and the various models give students different degrees of control over their learning.

Some educators use blended learning and personalized learning synonymously. It’s important to make a distinction between the two. Blended learning models can serve as a bridge toward personalization, but it is not synonymous with personalized learning.

Personalized learning is a hot topic in education. Educators agree that each learner is different with unique interests, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Of course, it would be ideal if teachers could work with individual learners to identify learning goals, co-create learning experiences, and track progress. I honestly don’t know how realistic the idea of personalized learning is in the context of public education as it exists today.

As long as teachers are juggling large class sizes, seeing five classes a day for less than an hour each, and have limited access to resources, personalized learning or “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn” may feel unattainable (iNacol 2013).

Instead of talking about personalized learning, as if it is a destination I have reached. I use the verb personalizing a lot in my work with educators. It signals that personalization is a journey. Just because we cannot personalize learning for every child every day does not mean it is not a worthy goal to work toward.

This is why I am such a big advocate for blended learning. It provides teachers, even those of us at public schools with limited access to technology, with a path toward personalization. We can use the various models–Station Rotation Model, Flipped Classroom, Whole Group Rotation, and Playlist–to provide students with more opportunities to decide when, how, and what they learn.
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