It seems simple: get students to sit in a small group and discuss the plot, characters and themes of a book.
But for teachers, a lot goes into helping students develop the skills and habits to participate in constructive conversations about the literary elements of a book.
"How do we get kids to talk about books, so they are deeply engaged — so they are going to a deeper level," said Linda Doud, a reading specialist at Central Park Middle School. "We need to teach kids to do that; we can't expect them to know how to do that on day one."
Doud and around 60 of her colleagues in Schenectady fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms spent last week at Union College trying to answer those kinds of questions as part of the school district's second summer literacy institute for teachers. Another group of 160 teachers and school leaders went through a training for kindergarten through third-grade classes at Schenectady County Community College.
Working in small groups, a room of sixth-grade teachers and reading specialists plotted out how to gradually build up students' capacity to discuss books in small groups. In the fall, teachers can introduce the students to the book clubs and model what a good discussion looks like, with videos. The teachers can work closely with groups and guide them through a productive discussion. As the students settle in, the teachers can start to pull back and let the students lead more and more.
After coming back together as a group, the teachers brainstormed other ideas: revisit best practices with students after the holiday break to catch them up quickly; let a particularly strong book group model how to do it for the rest of the class; build toward an end-of-the-year, districtwide common read and author visit.
"We can have groups model for other groups; it can help with accountability," said Jennifer Marciniak, also a reading specialist at Central Park Middle School. "Hey, we are going to have to show our class what we've been working on."
Gerrit Jones-Rooy, a consultant with Teachers College at Columbia University and a facilitator during the week's literacy institute, said it would also work to take a group that was struggling and let them serve as the model for the rest of the class, giving strong students a chance to rise to the occasion.
"We aren't the only teachers in the room," said Jones-Rooy, who spent around a dozen days working with teachers in Schenectady schools last year and plans to do the same this year. "We are going to say some powerful things, but how powerful is it when they learn something from a classmate?"
The training institute started last summer with teachers in kindergarten through third grade. This year, it was expanded to fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Organizers also added a section for special education teachers and a separate one for school leaders. Union and Schenectady County Community colleges donated space for the sessions.
The summer training is part of a broader effort to boost literacy and reading skills in the district, where students in all grades fall well below state and national averages. The summer institutes followed the roll-out of new district literacy plans, which aim to establish consistent literacy practices across all schools and expand the amount of classroom time devoted to reading and writing each day.
By the final day of the institute, rooms were covered in large white sheets of paper filled with notes and ideas, and the teachers were still discussing new ideas. Part of the institute's budget was devoted to giveaways of books and other classroom supplies.
The training will also continue throughout the year, as Jones-Rooy and other consultants return to Schenectady to work with teachers directly in the classroom.
"It's not a one-off," said Matt Berkshire, an instructional supervisor at Woodlawn Elementary School and the institute's Union site coordinator. "There will be continuous learning throughout the school year."