Creating Book Reviews in Writers Workshop

As the final formal writing piece of the school year students wrote a book review on their book club book.  The school district I work for utilizes a curriculum that provides “boxed” reading and writing units that implement the workshop model of instruction, one of the units assigned to my grade level is a book review unit for the argumentative writing genre.  And in all honesty, this was my first year implementing this unit. I had always been worried about how I, as the teacher, would be able to help the students develop their writing and for the genre if I had not read the same book or remembered the same book. This year though, I had book clubs to help guide me; I had read all of the books that my students were reading because I narrowed down their genre focus and framed their reading choices.  Here are some of the successes and highlights within the writers workshop model of instruction to create a book review.

Immersion: I loved the immersion of this unit, sometimes, I feel like I go overboard or too little with immersion.  This unit offered Patricia Polacco’s picture book Pink and Say as a mentor text.  I ran with it; you may know I love a good picture book in the middle school classroom.  We analyzed the elements of the plot, the character development, the importance of setting, themes, conflict, on and on, until my students were mind blown by how much detail really can be included in a picture book.  To conclude our immersion we read and annotated a book review of Pink and Say.  

Collecting: Students were charged to go into their own book club groups to find all of the components in their own text that we had studied from our mentor text, Pink and Say.  This process of collecting information allowed time for me to be able to conference with individual students and small groups to help focus and develop the content that will be the crucial building block to the students’ argumentative writing piece.

Students utilized an outline to collect information with their book clubs before independently drafting. Note the small white board in the top right of the image – each drafting day had a small mini lesson to refocus the day. On this particular day, we discussed formal versus informal writing styles.

Drafting, drafting, drafting:  Most of the time I have found that not enough time is given to drafting.  Teachers expect that students ought to be able to draft quickly because they have an organizer and that the students thoughts will transfer to the written piece. However, I personally always appreciate a good amount of time to draft a written piece of my own. I find value in exploring with the written language and being intentional with what I want to say as I am drafting.  And, yes, I know there is additional time for this in revising and editing. However, I have found middle school students think the writing process is done once they have concluded drafting because they can see a tangible writing piece to turn in.  I allow my students to draft in peace. I do not interrupt their drafting time by asking to conference. I simply move around the room, glancing at their work, occasionally reading over their shoulders. I jot notes so that I can think back quickly to what I saw when we move into revision.

Students drafting their book review.

Revision: The key to revision is to make sure that we have others check our written works for the flow and language usage.  I used a mini-lesson to show students that sometimes we spend so much time producing our own written work that we think we are effectively communicating a point, but that sometimes a new reader does not understand what we are actually intending to communicate.  I also challenged students to change their language use. I requested that they limit the amount of personal pronouns that were being used. By the end of the school year, I am tired of reading, “I think….” or “I believe…” every other sentence. Our language is powerful and offers many different ways to communicate the same sentence. Students rose to the challenge!

Students met with a partner to revise. On this particular day we started class with a mini-lesson on word choice and using strong language options to develop our writing.

Editing: Consisted of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Most of my students are decent spellers, or at least their iPad supports proper spelling, and their grammar is in pretty decent shape, too.  However, comma usage! I could go on for days, but my biggest pet peeve is when students use parentheses instead of utilizing commas. For example, students would list a character and then in parentheses describe the attributes that they desired to convey to the reader.  Naturally, this led to a great quick mini-lesson about comma usage.

Students continued to work together throughout the revision and editing parts of the writing process. Each day, students had to meet with one partner had to have read the same book that was the topic of the book review and another partner had to have read a different book club book. This encouraged students to ask questions and ensure more collaboration throughout the revision and editing process.

Publishing: Celebrating our accomplishments of completing a formal writing piece is always fun to turn into an event.  This year, we were on a time crunch and celebrated with a simple round of applause as we turned our final drafts in to our pocket folders at the end of the class period.  Students shared their book reviews with their peers commemorated the end of book clubs by returning their copy of the text. Simple easy, but still something different for students than the boring collect, grade, return.

Standards Based Grading Rubric for the Book Review in the Argumentative Genre

Writers workshop is such a fun time for me as a teacher because I can watch the students develop their skills with guidance and support in a low risk, high reward structure.  Even my most reluctant writers impressed me with their increased depth of writing and willing try new skills within the genre of an argumentative book review. Maybe someday, we will find their writing critiquing the next best selling book!

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