Literature circles AKA Book Club

I have just recently finished my first teaching block wherein each class for Stages 4 and 5 had a lesson each week for wider reading.  After observing these lessons in action for a few weeks, I have started to think on how I would incorporate wider reading into my classes (once I finally get my own classes).  Turning to more experienced teachers, I was pointed in the direction of Harvey Daniel’s Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups.  Daniel’s suggests 11 ‘key ingredients’ for successful literature circles.  I won’t go into all of them now, but a few have awakened memories of my own schooling:

1.    Students choose their own reading materials

6.    Discussion topics come from the students

7.    Group meetings aim to be open, natural conversations about books, so personal connections, digressions, and open-ended questions are welcome.

10.   A spirit of playfulness and fun pervades the room.


These 4 key ingredients put forward by Daniel’s has opened the floodgates of memory for me.  I look back on my year 9 English class.  One of our set texts was To Kill a Mockingbird which we totally pulled apart until there was nothing left in it for us.  But our reading groups.  They were fortnightly, but we could read whatever we wanted, so long as we discussed it and we finished it.  Our books of choice?  Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High novels.  Teenage girl romance novels – one step away from Mills and Boons.  But we loved them, and we devoured them.  By the end of year 9 we had read all of them.  We shared them, we discussed them, we questionned the actions of the characters: would we do the same? would we fall in love with a boy like that? could we look like that?  When looking back on the books, now as an adult I would say they are valueless, trashy novels.  But back then?  Loved them, like all other 14 year old girls.  We even started hanging out in the library to borrow more of these novels.  So, do we criticise the teacher for allowing us to read these books or do we praise her for encouraging a group of 14 year old girls to read some 30 novels in a year, give up their lunchtimes to borrow more books and to spend their days discussing texts?

I am in a book club now as an adult and the same key ingredients permeate our group.  Whoever is hosting picks the book and picks the book club questions for the night (it should be noted that we never quite get through all the questions).  The discussion starts with a personal response; simple question of who liked it, who didn’t and why/why not?  We then start discussing it in detail and usually digress onto other related subjects but that have wider implications.  Everyone has started recommending other books, and now, although we only meet every 6 weeks, we have gone from reading 1 book in that 6 weeks to everyone squeezing in quite a few more in that time.  Social media has allowed for the discussion to continue and some books are discussed for weeks on end.

This is what Daniel’s is getting at – it is the playfulness, the fun and the discussion.  Wider reading needs to be more than the students turning up to class to read for 45 minutes and then leave.  They need to be discussing the book, it doesn’t matter what the book is, so long as they are reading and responding, in an environment that is led by them. 

In the world of e-readers the options are wider, and not limited to what is in the school library or faculty bookroom.  BYOD schools that have connections with their local library are able to lend students e-books and several students are able to read the same text at the same time and students are able to rate their books.  Students can discuss via edmodo and other social media, they can even write their own reviews on Goodreads.

So now I am sitting here, planning just how I will incorporate literature circles into my classroom, perhaps even suggest a lunchtime book club if my future school doesn’t have one.  I’m set and ready to go.  Now I just need a class …




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10 questions every educator should take the time to answer

Excellent questions put forward by Bianca Hewes

Bianca Hewes

Please take some time to read the following ten questions and post your answers as a comment below. I’d love to know what answers my children’s teachers would give. In fact, I’d be pretty darn interested in the answers that our new Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, would give to these questions!

1. What skills and knowledge do you think are essential for students to have acquired before they graduate from high school?
2. Do you think that learning to program/code is as important for young people as learning to read and write?
3. How can schools (including public schools) reshape their physical environment to make it more suitable for students in the 21st century?
4. What really is ‘personalised learning’ and is it truly possible to achieve it in our schools as they are today?
5. If I came into a class you were teaching, what would I see?

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How to write? Read!

The best way to work on your creative writing and essay writing skills is to read; a lot.  The more you read, particularly when you read great authors, the more attuned you become to sentence and paragraph structure.  You learn what works and what doesn’t.  

As you read books you enjoy, ask yourself “why am I enjoying this book?”.  Is it just because of the story, or is it because of the way the story is told?  What makes this author stand out from the rest?

If you are in year 6 to year 10 you should be aiming to read 20 novels or short stories a year outside of what you read for class.  You could sign up for the NSW Premiere’s Reading Challenge next year as a goal.  You could also start a blog where you write book reviews on all the books you read, and share your blog with your friends.

Your first step towards improving your writing is reading.

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The real thing

You study hard with your eye on the prize. Then the prize arrives. The real deal. Walking into a classroom without a supervising teacher present who controls the class for you, without a lesson plan because you are a casual teacher and you only found out 20 minutes ago the classes that you are teaching for the day, with a one line post-it note saying “teach this”. You are unprepared, you are alone and you have to face them.

The thing they do not teach you at university is how to deal with teenagers that know you are unprepared, alone and fearful.

Within minutes you are no longer teaching students but zoo animals caught in a cage.

You realise that you have no control at all, and that they do not respect you. Of course they don’t, you’ve done nothing to earn that respect.

You try again when you have to face the same heads later in the day, but they know they’ve won. You try stay calm but you end up yelling, adding fuel to the fire. You re-iterate the classroom rules and that works for some, but for others it draws further mockery.

They are rude, offensive, cruel and they know they have the upper hand.

So whilst you hope that the school will be kind enough on a newbie and invite you back again (although in your heart you seriously doubt it), you start thinking and planning, planning and thinking, realising that uni really has no idea about the inside of the classroom when they say “if you do this, they will all listen”. No, if you do that it turns into a zoo.

But just as you think you will give up you get a class who are beautiful. They are different to the others – they really want to be there. You relax the rules because they want to learn and you change the furniture so everyone is sitting in a circle for open discussion and when the bell goes they ask if they can stay and keep learning from you.

In the staffroom some kindly, experienced teachers offer words of wisdom, whilst others tell you it just isn’t acceptable.

So you hope for that phone to ring whilst, you think and plan, plan and think, because the reality is, most of the students don’t want to be there, don’t want to learn from you and you have to find ways to ignite that, but you will only get 15-20 minutes to prepare for that moment. So you think and plan, plan and think …

After writing this, I purchased a book (as all newbies do) to help me think and plan, and it says posting the classroom rules is the biggest mistake you can make. No wonder it went from bad to worse …

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Return to School – Tip # 5

Tip # 5? Where is Tip # 4?  Tip # 4 is on our facebook page!/assistSME.  It was, quite simply, clean your room.  A cluttered working space = a cluttered mind.  You need a clean and organised study space.

Tip # 5

Create a word bank for yourself for each of your subjects.  For instance, if number stories are something you want to improve on in maths, create a word bank for number stories.

1. Draw vertical columns on a piece of A4 paper.

2. Give each column a heading.  For instance, if your word bank is for number stories you would have headings “addition”, “subtraction”, “division”, “multiplication”.

3.  In each column start writing words or phrases that a synonomous with the heading word.  For example, in your addition column you would have words/phrases, such as “plus”, “altogether”, “sum”, “total” and in your subtraction column you would have “how many more”, “how much more”, “how many left” and so on.

4. Stick this in your book for that subject.  You may even with to put a coloured sticker on it that matches your colour system from Tip # 1.

5. Use your word banks whenever you are doing work in that subject.  You could have word banks to build on your vocabulary for persuasive texts, narratives and essays, for improving your knowledge of scientific language, for maths, history and other subjects.

You may wish to add visual cues such as pictures or colour to your words to help you remember the words.

The year that you are in at school will determine the vocabulary you would use.  Eventually, you won’t need to rely on the word bank anymore.

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Return to School – Tip # 3

Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. It is one of the best methods for study that I have seen.

You can find out more by visiting

You will need a kitchen timer or Pomodoro Timer.  You can also buy the Pomodoro book, and I would recommend you read this over the school holidays to get yourself ready for the new school year.

On the Pomodoro website there is a video clip that explains the Pomodoro Technique in detail.

So, for this tip, I am not going to tell you anything, other than to visit, get yourself a kitchen timer or Pomodoro Timer, read the book and start enjoying your Pomodoros.  Practice a few times in the holidays, set yourself times to do some reading, writing and maths practice.  If you are in Year 12, you can start using it straight away to get study time each day of your break and still have time for your friends, the beach/pool and relaxing.

It works perfectly with the chart you created in Tip # 2.  As the Pomodoro team says, make time your ally.


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Return to School Tip # 2

Return to School – Tip # 2

January 3, 2013

Tip # 2

This tip is the be all and end all.  You can start this in primary school to get in the habit.  This method has successfully seen me complete my HSC whilst working full-time (yes I left school and completed my HSC at TAFE at night whilst I worked full-time to earn money) and 2 university degrees, whilst working and raising a family.  It really works.

Before you can start you need to find out from your teacher just how much study you should be doing at night and on the weekend.  Some schools give homework to help you structure your study.  If your school doesn’t set homework, you will need to find out just how much self-directed study you need to be doing.  By year 6 you should be doing 1 hour of extra work a night and build from there, working towards your HSC.  At school we learn, at home we practice what we learned so that we master it.

You will need:

1 large piece of cardboard

1 small piece of cardboard

1 pack of velcro dots (double-sided)

1 roll of double-sided tape, if dots do not have adhesive backing




1. Draw a table spreadsheet on your cardboard and label with days of the week and hours of the day.  Start with the time that you wake and end with the time you go to bed each day.  It will look something like this.


2. Put a velcro dot in each blank square – eg


3. Using your extra sheet of cardboard, rule it into squares that fit the size of the blank squares on your large sheet of cardboard.  Cut the squares out.  On each square, write all your activities that you do in the week, eg if you play team sport you will need a square for training and a square for the game.  Each square is worth 1 hour, so if you train for two hours, have two squares for training.  If your teacher says you need to do 1 hour of maths each week night, make sure you have 5 squares that say “maths”.  Do this for each subject, and each activity.  Make sure you have squares for leisure time, family time, sport, other activities you do, part-time job and social time.

4. Colour in subject squares to match your colour coded folders from Tip # 1.

4. Put the other half of each velcro dot on the squares.

5. Organise the squares on the large chart, and organise your week.

6. Stick your chart on your wall.

How it works

If you have been told you need to do, say, 4 hours of maths work at home each week, 4 hours of English, 1 hour of science, 2 hours of history (this is just an example), you need to make sure you have those 11 squares on your chart.

If you get a call from a friend asking you to go out Friday night but you have allocated a study square to that time, you can move the square, but it has to stay on the chart.  You can’t remove it entirely.  You need to find another spot in your week to complete that hour.

This system works better than a normal planner, as it helps you juggle the increasing demands of the week, making sure you get all your study done, but still achieve down-time.  It is important in your studies to have breaks and have leisure time with family and friends.


Have fun with making this one!


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