When I teach a whole class novel, one of my favorite ways to get students to chat about that book is through a book chat notebook. Through this notebook, students will conduct silent discussions with students from my other class periods.
Similar to the friendship notebooks of our youth (where you wrote physical notes to your friends and passed this notebook to said friend during passing time,) these notebooks will be passed from a student in first hour to a student in second hour. This can continue through all of the similar class periods… any that are reading the same text.
To Set up These Notebooks
I purchase a class set of composition notebooks, preferably during those back-to-school sales! Then, I number these notebooks so students in each class are working out of the same notebook each day. You can assign students a number in a couple of different ways:
1. Go down your class list to create a heterogeneous group.
2. Similar ability grouping so you can differentiate the writing prompts, or even the text that students are reading.
3. Purposeful mixed ability grouping. Since these notebooks are anonymous students can freely share questions and help each other answer them. Students can truly learn from one another throughout the novel.
I glue (or ask students to glue) on a cover page that I have created. I created one for the cover of the notebook, and another for the inside of the cover. You can grab this for free in my freebie library.
What Will Students Discuss?
Sometimes students will respond to prompts I assign in class based on certain skills or certain chapters within the text. Other times, however, I leave this open for students so they can have a true discussion experience. I ask students to start their discussion time by responding to their peer’s posts. They can then ask questions of their peers, share connections with the text, debate issues within the text, etc. I want this to truly be a conversation between these students. I do ask students to keep their identity anonymous throughout the book chat on a given text, so students truly feel open to share, ask questions, ask for help, etc. After we finish the text, I let students share their true identity to their book chat group IF they wish to.
Keeping Track of Student Work
With this many students adding to one notebook, it can be tricky to keep track of students’ responses. I have done this a couple of ways. I have asked students to pick one pen color for the entire novel so I can track student responses. This worked effectively as long as I had a LARGE selection of colored pens when students forgot their own. I did lose quite a few of these pens in the process, though! I have also asked students to label their responses with the hour they are in. This was a cheaper method, just the normal pencil loss, but a bit harder to see when going through the notebook. Both do work in tracking those student responses!
I will start by reassuring you that I DO NOT grade every discussion response. I usually grade 4-5 responses throughout the course of a novel. I ask students to put a flag/tab next to the response they would like me to assess from that period. I take a peek through the remaining responses to ensure that students are working together and participating outside of these graded responses, but I do not grade everything!
Pitfall #1: Students not participating. One method that I use to effectively encourage all students to participate is to invite those students who are not as engaged in their responses to have a discussion luncheon. I bring them in for lunch to support them with finishing their responses. I have also used after school time to curb this behavior, which proves to be enormously effective, but this is somewhat taxing on me. If this does not work for you or within your school systems, you could also assign a passage as homework and students could staple their responses into the book the next day.
Pitfall #2: Students fall behind in the text. I personally do not have a lot of success with homework completion in my school/district. I do provide a good amount of time in class for both the reading of the text and these response journals (book chat logs). This does help with this. I also meet in small groups with my struggling learners to support them in their reading process as much as I am able throughout this process. I enlist the support of Special Education teachers so they can help students with these book chat logs. I also create meaningful extension opportunities for my gifted learners so that instead of simply progress through a novel more quickly, I will teach, in small groups, standards beyond their current grade level. For example, I might teach allusions or allegory to my gifted 8th graders and ask them to think about this within the novel (as the skills apply.) This helps to keep students engaged while staying on the same pace with the rest of the class. When all of this fails, I fall back on my tried and true lunch or after school support time. I know that giving up a lunch, or precious after school time, isn’t an option for every teacher. I find that I use this method much more in the fall than I do in the winter or spring. Students learn pretty quickly to keep up in my class! Another option is to illicit parent support or involvement if you find students are struggling to keep up.
Pitfall #3: Bullying behavior within responses. Sadly, I have seen this take place in my groups. I have long conversations about the types of responses I expect from my students. I model how to disagree with a response respectfully both in conversation and in a written response. I give them sentence stems to help them disagree respectfully as well.
I disagree because…
I’m not sure if that’s right since…
That’s not quite how I see it. I think…
Actually, might it true that…
Another way to look at it is…
Is it fair to say that you believe…
I hear you saying that…
I agree that… , but we also have to consider that…
We then discuss that this written document will be evidence of their poor choice should they choose to bully within their response. I remind them of the school policy before beginning the assignment.
Since I added these steps to the start of our Book Chat unit, I rarely see instances of this type of issue. Generally, I find that students bond together through the process, helping each other to understand the text and prepare for other assignments associated with the text. It is really beautiful to see all types of students working together in true support of one another.
Pitfall #4: Students simply write their own post; they don’t interact/discuss with one another. To combat this pitfall, I make sure to allow time at the beginning of our discussion time to encourage students to respond to one another. I have, given certain classes that struggled with this, set a timer for responding to peers, and a second timer for crafting their own responses. This helped this issue significantly!
I personally really enjoy these notebooks as a discussion tool. Give these a try in your classrooms! Download the freebie in my freebie library to get you started.