March Madness Reading Already?

Wow! The ALA Awards were incredible yesterday! Congratulations to all the authors and illustrators who won. My students and I were on the edge of our chairs cheering and applauding as the book winners were announced. Wow, what a morning! A great day for celebrating reading, writing, and art!

Now we’re moving forward– and can you believe it, I’m thinking about our March Madness-style book club bracket already. This year I’ve created a bracket in the fifth grade hallway that features realistic fiction and fantasy fiction novels. My hope is that the bracket can be used to guide my students’ book clubs. I realize that many teachers use the bracket in March, but my school’s vacation is in March so I’m hoping to start now and end in early March. Hopefully, the clubs can read, read, read and have two novels face off in the end. In order to read all of these books our book clubs need to get started ASAP. Here’s the bracket:

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 7.08.45 PM

To set up this bracket, we selected 8 realistic fiction novels and 8 fantasy fiction novels. We’re also reading 4 graphic novels (Bake Sale, Smile, El Deafo, and Amulet Book 1.)

Our realistic fiction books are: Wonder, Close to Famous, Rain Reign, Heartbeat, Absolutely Almost, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Fish in a Tree, Out of My Mind.

Our fantasy fiction books are: Joshua Dread, Percy Jackson, Wings of Fire, The Unwanteds, The Fourteenth Goldfish, Matilda, Powerless, and The School of Good and Evil.

Each club will read two books, vote for their winner and then read another club’s winner. My hope is that the bracket will be completed by early March. Fingers crossed! That means that each student will read 12 books each (4 graphic novels, 4 realistic fiction books and 4 fantasy fiction books.) Woah, that’s a lot of reading!

We’ve also got our clubhouses set to go! We made them in October and pulled them out of the closet for our January book clubs. Thank goodness they’re fully collapsible! For more information about how to build clubhouses, see my post “Book Clubs Need Clubhouses.”

Well, we are off and running and ready for some more good reading this school year! Onward!




Originally from Pennsylvania, Dana Johansen is hoping that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow on Feb. 2nd and there will be an early spring. In the meantime, she spends her time teaching fifth grade in wintery Connecticut, sitting with her yellow lab on the couch reading YA Lit, and watching the tv show, The Big Bang Theory. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She is the co-author of the books Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 


Accountable Talk Fuels Book Discussions

Think about the experience of sitting at dinner with friends and family on Thanksgiving. If your dining experience is like mine, conversations are spirited. Charged, in fact! Raised voices, laughter, many people talking at once, and probably a few sidebar conversations surround you. All of this occurs simultaneously. Certainly, this image in its entirety isn’t exactly what we envision happening with our students during book discussions. But, there are aspects of this Thanksgiving dinner analogy that we can use in our classrooms to help students engage in lively, meaningful, and memorable discussions.


Accountable Talk is an approach to whole and small group classroom discussions where students, not teachers, assume responsibility for their talk time. Breaking away from the traditional structure in school where students raise their hands and wait to be called on in order to participate in conversations, talk time is self- initiated, fluid, and dynamic–similar to the Thanksgiving dinner experience. This instructional strategy shifts the student-teacher power dynamic as students take agency and ownership of their conversations. What students discuss and how the conversation evolves is completely up to them. These discussions can be centered on a shared reading experience such as an article, picture book, or novel. Students learn to build upon the responses of their peers, ask each other questions, elaborate to bring clarity to an issue, and generate new ideas sparked by the multiple perspectives of their classmates and the ways this influences thinking.

Of course, there are specific instructional strategies we’ll need to teach. I like to think of it as being the “conversation coach” who prepares students, prior to the discussion, with the tools they’ll need for success. Here’s where classroom rubrics and discussion guidelines come in! In order to cultivate the “Thanksgiving dinner energy” during discussions without the chaos, setting simple guidelines that can be extended as students become more proficient at this is helpful.

For example, novice discussants might begin with two or three expectations such as:

  • We spoke without raising our hands.
  •  We looked at the speaker and watched the conversation.

Discussion Starters

Charts or handouts that feature sentence starters like, “I agree/disagree because…” and “Why do you think that?” are helpful, particularly for students who have quieter voices in the classroom and need extra support to participate.  Students who have louder voices will needed coaching to learn how to pull back in order to create spaces for others to get in the conversation. A quick tip such as, “Wait until at least 5 peers have spoken before speaking again,” can help students avoid dominating behaviors.

In addition to these expectations, advanced conversationalists might have two or three more such as:

  • We responded to each other’s ideas, rather than simply laying out our own.
  • We used text-evidence to support ideas.

The criteria for discussions can evolve across the year as students get better and better at group conversations.

Feeling like your students need more direction? Identify a small group of students who seem to have the hang of this. Ask them to model a discussion for the class. Create an outer circle with the rest of the class that surrounds the focus group. Using clipboards and paper, students in the outer circle can jot down their observations of what the focus group is doing that can be helpful in their own small group discussions. Also, if you can videotape a group of students who become proficient at Accountable Talk you’ll have a model that can be used each year.

Evaluating the talk time is an important step that helps students mark their successes as well as set goals for future discussions. Students can decide upon a simple rubric that they can use to assess their work each time they have small group discussions.

When you’re launching Accountable Talk in your classroom, it may feel look and feel like you’re back at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But with continued practice and reflection, students blossom into focused, powerful discussants.

Book Clubs Need Clubhouses


Build Student Engagement in Book Clubs with Clubhouses

I find that my students are more engaged and excited to participate in book club meetings when they sit in clubhouses. These cardboard clubhouses are ideal settings for club meetings because they allow each club to feel special in their own space, away from the noise of other club meetings. The house itself can also serve as a book club management tool and large graphic organizer. Since students relish opportunities to be in their clubhouses, they must follow the rules for book club or else this privilege may be revoked.

The clubhouse can serve as a management tool: “Today’s Topics,” “Topics for Next Time,” “Next Club Meeting Time,” “Calendar,” “Pages We’re Reading,” “Book Club Rules,” and “Club Talk Rules.”

It can also serve as an engagement tool: “Mailbox,” “Growing Ideas About Our Books (with flower garden),” “Quote Wall,” and “Book Advertisements.”

For accountable talk: “Ways to Stretch Conversations,” “Conversation Starters,” “Club Discussion Leader of the Day,” and “Elements of Fiction and/or Nonfiction,” can be added to the interior of the house.

5 Steps to Make a Clubhouse Using 3 Boxes

In order to make cozy spaces for book club meetings, your students can make a cardboard clubhouse out of 3 large boxes. These clubhouses are quick and simple to build, and the best part about them is that they are collapsible and can be stored in a closet when you are not teaching with book clubs.

Step 1) Get 3 large cardboard boxes- all the same size. (If you want to buy the boxes, I recommend Walmart, Target, or Uhaul. They’re approx. $2 or $3 each).

Step 2) Cut 2 of the boxes on one side only. See picture below. Lay flat. These will be the walls of the clubhouse.


Step 3) Cut 3rd box in half, creating two equal parts. See picture below. Lay flat. These will be the two roof pieces.


Step 4) Set up box pieces as shown and secure roof pieces to the sides by cutting slits.


Step 5) Decorate! I like to cover the boxes in butcher block or colored paper so they are sturdy and colorful.


Best Part: Clubhouses are collapsible and can be stored easily! When you’re not using the clubhouses, fold them up and store. Simple!