Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Clubs & Strategies to Help Students Think More Deeply About Character

Helping my third graders think more deeply about fiction and go beyond retelling the plot has been a main focus and goal this year.  Through read alouds and class discussions my students have come along way. Getting my students to do this work independently is the challenge!

I have found using some of the signposts from Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst's book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading to be extremely helpful.  In addition, I love using ideas from the book, What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton.  I've wrote about this book here and here.  Both of these books are brilliant!

To get my students to start thinking beyond plot and focusing more on character I have found one strategy very useful.  I call it the FAST strategy. (It's nothing new and my apologies for not giving proper credit to the inventor!) FAST is an acronym.

  • F: Character's feelings
  • A: Character's actions
  • S: What the character says
  • T: What the character thinks
We spent a lot of time this past winter working with this strategy during read aloud.  Students use their reader's notebooks to collect notes.  A simple T-Chart labeled text and thinking works well. This was a great place to practice together.  Because not everything the character does or says is important to note, our class discussions gave students the opportunity to share and listen in on classmates' ideas.  When Ivan throws a "me ball" is that an important action, or is is just a funny part?  When Opal asks her dad to tell her about her mom, is this important? Does it reveal something important about the character?  It's not enough for students to note something from the text.  They have to connect their thinking to the text and explain why they chose this piece of text.  Rereading our notes each day was also an important part of helping my students begin looking for patterns and start forming theories. 

When my students are reading independently they use post-it notes to jot down their thinking.  When I would confer with students I was not surprised to see that most were not using the FAST strategy independently.  Most still clung to earlier strategies we had learned that focused on plot or predicting. Working with students in small strategy groups helped some, but I knew they could benefit from reading the same book together and having a conversation about that book.  So, I headed to the book room in search of multiple copies of books.  

When I go to the book room I'm generally looking for more than just a particular level of book.  In this case I wanted books that were more character driven.  I needed stories that didn't spell out everything for my students and they would need to make inferences.  I wanted books that my students might need to reread parts to really figure out things.  I wanted realistic fiction that my third graders could relate to the character and conflicts.  I wanted the character to have internal conflicts!  Yep!  In second and third grade this can be a challenge.  After weeding through all the Junie B. Jones and Box Car Mystery books (seriously, why do we need so many?) and reading some books that I ended up not liking, I was able to find a couple of books.  And then one of my trusty colleagues had another couple that fit my requirements. So, here are the books that I used during our "book clubs".

Class Clown by Johanna Hurwitz
Students enjoyed this book a lot.  Lucas is very naughty and fools around at school all the time.  They could relate to the story because they have all had a "Lucas" in their class at one time or another! The big question for my students centered around why Lucas was behaving so badly.  It was amazing one day when a student theorized that perhaps Lucas wanted attention?  With that theory in place, the book club looked for evidence to support this theory as they continued to read. In the end they were excited to share that they noticed Lucas changing and discussed their ideas as to why this was happening.

The F & P reading level is listed as either O or Q, depending where you look.  I feel it is more of an O.

Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli

Suds is starting fourth grade and is being pressured by his friend, Joey to be a "fourth grade rat".  Throughout the story Suds is conflicted about becoming a rat, which means basically being mean, tougher and not listening to your parents.  Of course students were highly interested! Maintaining focus on Joey's conflict was a challenge for some of the readers who tend to read to quickly or just like to talk about the funny parts.  Even when students pointed out that their notes were about events and not character, they often continued to focus on events alone! Several times they needed to reread sections because they were either confused or disagreed with one another. Students stood their ground and pushed others to prove their reasoning!

Champ by Maria Thornton Jones

What kid doesn't like a story with a dog?  But the key here is that the story is NOT about the dog, but about the main character, Riley.  This book is more complicated for several reasons.  First there are more characters and relationships to keep track of for the reader.  The dog is important to the story and the character's development, but readers have to understand this and stay focused on the character.  The conflict is also difficult to understand at first, so group discussion was very important, as was staying focused on the FAST strategy.  I was happy to see that most of the group began to realize that the main conflict wasn't the dog's injury, but Riley's conflict regarding baseball.  It was great when one student theorized that perhaps Riley stayed in baseball because he didn't want to let his dad down.  This is key to the story!  Riley's relationship with his dad.  Then they were able to discuss the role Champ plays in helping Riley face his fears.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

I selected this book for my students who are reading above grade level and were already using the FAST strategy independently.  It was a chance to really experience the person versus self conflict more deeply.  They pulled out quotes and favorite lines non-stop which became a focal point of discussion.  As they discussed Catherine's conflicts they began wondering how they would be resolved.  Catherine seems embarrassed by her autistic brother, she wants to have friends and fit it, she feels neglected by her father - these were some of their ideas.  One reader asked, how will Catherine solve her problems?  Her brother can't be fixed.  He has autism.  She wants him to be "normal" but that can't happen.  Through their discussion they realized that Catherine might need to change herself!  From then on they started focusing on this big idea or theory.  My favorite student quote: "Catherine says she wrote the rules for her brother, David, but I think she wrote those rules for herself.  Maybe not intentionally, but they were for her."

I know this type of work will continue in 4th grade and beyond.  This is just the beginning for these young readers.  How do you engage younger readers in thinking beyond plot? Do you have favorite books for book clubs?

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