Breadcrumbs, Clubhouses and Dessert: Student-Centered, Project-Based Learning

By Kathryn Reese, Middle School Reading

What do breadcrumbs, clubhouses and dessert have in common? They are all an integral part of fifth and sixth grade reading class, of course! In this day of rapid fire stimulation and instant gratification, getting 11 and 12 year olds to savor well-constructed literature is a challenge to say the least. Thanks to a modified version of Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Student Voice and Choice, today’s reading students are as eager to read as they are to play Fortnite ... Well, almost!

Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circle paradigm is a student-centered approach in which students choose the books they read, lead discussions about the book, and even assign their own homework. The fifth and sixth grade reading program uses this model, but with a bit more teacher control than prescribed by Daniels. To kick off the unit, students pick one book from a choice of three to read. They are then placed in a group based on the book they chose. Each book presents a slightly different reading level, but shares a theme. For example, one literature circle unit is called “Sole Survivor.” The protagonist in each book uses survivalist tactics to solve an overarching external conflict, while also coming to terms with a variety of internal conflicts.

Students are required to annotate while they read, leaving a trail of “breadcrumbs” to follow should they need to search for textual evidence at a later date. While this is not always a popular assignment, students rise to the weekly breadcrumb challenges to be the first to pinpoint the page of dictated event in the story.
A highlight of the literature circle routine involves daily “clubhouse” chats. This is simply the group’s conversation about the pages they read for homework. In an effort to keep the noise level down, the students sit beneath their group’s table (the “clubhouse”) to discuss the novel. During the clubhouse chats the teacher plays the role of facilitator prompting discussion points and writing anecdotal records based on student comments.

During class time, three groups read silently in the classroom while the teacher takes one group in the hall to read aloud and discuss the book, noting student prosody and comprehension. A system put in place to help the students monitor their daily effort ensures the students in the classroom stay on target when reading independently.

Literature circle units wrap up with “vegetables” and “dessert.”  The vegetables include an open-book assessment of the students’ comprehension through written response. Of course, children must have their vegetables before dessert, so once the students finish the arduous open-book assessment, they get dessert! Dessert is the project-based culminating activity in which the students can share their book in any way they wish, as long as they fulfill the requirements specified on a rubric. Each project must be completed during school, with supplies found at school. These projects are the pinnacle of student-centered, project-based learning. The students’ creativity is boundless, and it is such a joy to hear their enthusiastic conversations about the book as their project ideas come to fruition. Past projects include a movie trailer, a “leather’ bound journal complete with entries, a wooden model of a castle built in the woodshop, a play complete with scripts, and the list goes on.

In this day of over-stimulation, middle school reading students are reminded of the power of the written word. The images students create while they read stimulate a range of textual interpretations providing a forum for lively discourse in which students evaluate and defend their views. As a result, students recognize the value of forming images in their minds instead of being fed images through visual media. And that is the true dessert!

Kathryn Reese
Middle School Reading