Today on the podcast, I’ve got a great story for you. It’s the story of how one senior class stayed engaged right up to the end through an incredible book club unit on verse novels. The heroine of this story is English teacher Caitlin Lore.
She’s about to tell you how she captured her seniors’ attention and held it. Wait till you hear about her title selections, her book tasting, her pop-up poetry workshops, her book club meetings, and her poetry Palooza! I think you’re going to love this episode!
You can listen in to episode 196 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Caitlin Lore describes herself as an unconventional teacher, even a reluctant teacher. She loves stories, reading, and writing and comes to the classroom as a reader and writer first. She’s taught middle school, high school, and pre-service teachers in the college sphere. These days she’s focused on high school at a small-ish school in Central Illinois, and ends up seeing one hundred kids every day.
She’s always looking to share her love of story with her students, and today we’re exploring one wonderful way she did it this year – verse novel book clubs.
Introducing the Book Clubs that kept Seniors Paying Attention
As Caitlin approached the end of the year, she knew she had just 3 1/2 weeks available to devote to her usual focus in April, poetry. But this year she wanted to try something different. Her students had been exploring the variety of genre and style available in YA literature, and she wanted an inroad to making poetry feel more accessible to her students. She had done stand-alone poetry forms in the past, and she wanted something more.
She went looking for outstanding novels-in-verse in a variety of genres, so students would be able to find a book they were really interested in. She found six strong books.
Her final title set included:
- Moonrise, by Sarah Crossan (realistic)
- White Rose, by Kip Wilson (historical)
- The Truth Project, by Dante Medema (realistic, contemporary)
- Clap when you Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo (realistic, contemporary)
- Solo, by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess (realistic)
- Alone, by Megan E. Freeman (dystopian)
These books all gravitated around the theme of identity, with characters figuring out who they are and their place in the world – it felt like a perfect fit for seniors on the cusp of graduation.
Caitlin had three priorities for the unit – that students would read a book they chose, dig into it through their writing and conversation in book clubs, and write poetry themselves.
The Book Tasting
To launch the unit, Caitlin brought in her piles of books and spread them around the room, then gave every student a handout to guide them in “tasting” all the books and choosing their top three. You can see her handouts below, which she has generously shared (grab them here) for any teacher who would like to use them.
Once they had all chosen their top selections, Caitlin created groups in each of her four sections. She had to run a lottery in every class for Megan E. Freeman’s book, Alone, as it was so popular.
The Day-to-Day Plans
To create a comfortable structure for the unit, Caitlin set up clear expectations for every day.
For several reasons, she needed students to complete the reading in class. So on the first three days of each week, they set up a workshop-style routine. Students would engage in a timed reading sprint for 10-15 minutes, then pause to write and respond to what they had read, using prompts Caitlin adapted from The Lighthouse book club materials. Then they’d do that one more time.
Students were able to easily recall their reading as they approached their writing, since only seconds had passed. And kids who might struggle to read for a full class period were better able to focus through a reading sprint than with a totally free period.
Students who finished their books early moved on to other books, and everyone was able to work through the analysis questions Caitlin wanted them to have ready for book club meetings later in the week.
After a few days of reading workshop, Caitlin changed it up with a poetry writing workshop. On these days, she used the Lighthouse Living Poets resources (developed in collaboration with Teach Living Poets founder Melissa Alter Smith) to get students writing in unique forms. They’d talk about the form, look at some examples, and then dive into writing.
Then on Fridays, students would meet in their book clubs to talk about their books, share their analysis and questions from the workshop days, and even share their poetry from the workshops.
Caitlin soon discovered her end-of-year unit was producing the most engagement she’d had all year with literature. Many of her students realized that though they thought they didn’t like poetry, they loved novels-in-verse.
“I don’t think anyone read a book they didn’t like,” she said. Can we just pause on that for a moment? Wow!
The most popular book in the choosing process was Megan E. Freeman’s Alone, even though the protagonist is only twelve as the book opens. Caitlin wasn’t sure how kids would take such a young narrator, but they were drawn to the survival text in the dystopian genre. They had been really interested in the dystopian unit earlier in the year, so it made sense in that way.
Another popular book turned out to be Moonrise, by Sarah Crossan. Though not as many kids signed up for it, the groups that did read it did NOT want to put it down. They were singing its praises to the rest of the class and recruiting other readers – the dream!
Several kids who had worn the I’ve-never-read-a-whole-book-all-through-school “badge of honor” coming into the unit finished these books, and one even said, in a slightly embarrassed whisper, “I liked it.”
Tweaks for Next Time
If Caitlin was going to change one thing, it would be to give this outstanding unit more time. She’d like to be able to bring the whole class together for some more discussion – maybe a socratic circle on the theme of identity, with everyone able to share from their own books (and lives).
She’d also spend a little more time introducing verse, maybe looking at the first poem in each book before even diving into the book tasting.
The Final Event: Poetry Palooza
Once Caitlin’s students finished their book clubs and turned in their analysis/activity packets, their formal assessment was done. She took the opportunity at the end of the year to simply celebrate poetry and writing with a Poetry Palooza over two days. On the first day, students could choose from 11 stations with different poetry forms. The goal was to have fun, think about their own lives and the theme of identity, and say something to the world through poetry as they prepared to graduate.
Students could visit the Haiku table to play with “Haikubes” – poetry dice to help inspire their writing. They could play around with paint chips and try paint chip poetry. They could create blackout poems. They could write odes to contemporary topics, like TikTok and Airpods, instead of Grecian Urns.
And much more!
On the second day, they had a class poetry reading. Everyone shared at least one poem (no matter how short) from the poetry pop-up workshops and the Poetry Palooza stations, and many shared more than one. It was a celebration of verse, of the students, and of the year.
Top Tips for Trying it Out for Yourself
Caitlin has two top tips for you, if you want to try out verse novel book clubs for yourself.
First of all, have fun with it! Poetry can be scary for students and teachers alike, but verse novels make it so much more accessible… even when they have complex or difficult topics. Add balance to those big conversation with fun and silly writing workshops.
Don’t feel like you have to buy class sets of titles for every class to try this out. Caitlin worked with her school librarian to build book club sets through interlibrary loan, then had every class read in her room. That way she spent $0, instead of probably the $1000+ it would cost to buy four class sets of book clubs texts. She was able to get about ten copies of every book through her librarian’s efforts, and that meant there were even plenty of extras floating around for kids who wanted to read additional titles…. How great is that?!