Book Clubs Save Lives (and Sanity)

I don’t know that I would survive the end of the year without book clubs. While this might sound hyperbolic, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that book clubs are the very best way I have found to round out the school year with meaning and enthusiasm for all parties involved.

In the past, I might’ve said that the end of the year was a time to push through and cover material for a final exam. In the past, I might have suggested that the end of the bookclub4year was a time to have students start summarizing work that we had done in order to demonstrate cumulative knowledge, as if a project could encompass all we’d learned together. In the past, I believe I was missing the point.

I have since come to see the end of the year as the perfect opportunity to allow my students to dive once again into high interest texts in a way that promotes choice, challenge, meaningful talk, reflection, collaboration, exploration of weighty topics, and (ideally) momentum to continue reading over the summer.

Where previous final projects and speeches felt…well, final, book clubs feel like both a continuation and extension. We are honoring what we’ve been striving for all year – to be active, engaged, authentic readers.


This is not some sort of educational utopia. These are, after all, seniors who graduate in three weeks. For some, it’s rough. It’s been rough for awhile. But I keep at it. 

I have a group of gentlemen, smart (though resistant) lads, who’ve spent precious little time reading and an irritating amount of time complaining during discussions. Perhaps, if they had more carefully looked over the extensive list of options, and/or read the descriptions of the books, I wouldn’t have been compelled to give my “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” talk after their last discussion. 

Three. Weeks. To. Go. 

Overwhelmingly, though, I’ve been blown away by the discussions I’m listening to and participating in.

Top nonfiction texts in my post-AP test book clubs this year include:

  • Evicted by Matthew Desmond
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • Columbine by Dave Cullen
  • Missoula by John Krakauer
  • Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  • Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
  • American Sniper by Chris Kyle
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  by Robert M. Pirsig

A discussion on When Breath Becomes Air recorded with Screencastify

Discussions take place each class period and I’m having my kids occasionally use Screencastify (a plugin that took my kids 2 minutes to install and 3 minutes to configure and get comfortable using) to record those conversations.

They can record for up to ten minutes at a time for free and instantly send me the link via Google Drive. This way, I can float around all class period to gather insights, but if I get hung up or want to check in more carefully with a group, I have a snippet I can pull up and listen to whenever I want.

And, for the first time (both in the spirit of inspiration from my reading of Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst and needing inspiration to keep things fresh up until the bitter end), we’re focusing discussion on just two questions:

  1. How is this reading changing me?

  2. How is this reading changing my view of the world?

Beers and Probst have reminded me that the more often my students see books as “invitations to experience new thoughts” as opposed to “burdens,” the sooner we can realize the “ultimate goal of reading”  which is to “become more than we are in the moment; to become better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we wanted to become.”

I’ve heard students discuss mortality and our responsibilities to the aging population, whether it’s better to have a community that is falling apart or no community at all, how they can use knowledge of habits to change their own and improve their lives, and what it means to overcome tragedy based on their reading coupled with their own experiences. As Amy said in a previous post about book clubs (with a bonus of suggestions for several great book club titles!), “Just let them talk.”

I want my students to spend every last class minute we have together focused on what they want to become…with books in their hands. Then, we are going to make goals for summer reading.

I don’t want to let them go without a plan to keep reading.

It’s my job to keep them reading. Our democracy, their spirits, and my sanity depend on it. How’s that for hyperbole? #booklove

Are you rounding out the year with book clubs? What are your students discussing? What are they reading? Please leave your ideas in the comment section below. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She has added eight books to her summer reading list just based on student discussion the last few weeks. No hyperbole. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 



4 thoughts on “Book Clubs Save Lives (and Sanity)

  1. Shana Karnes May 26, 2017 at 5:49 am Reply

    Love this list, Lisa! I need to add two titles to my TBR, and one to my “To Be Finished,” because I can never quite make it through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe I just need to read it with a book club!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa Dennis May 25, 2017 at 8:13 am Reply

    Thank you so much for reading! Off the top of my head, of Brain on Fire and January First would work really well together. THAT would be a powerful (mind bending?!) coupling. Also, When Breath Becomes Air and Being Mortal. American Sniper and Lone Survivor (students who have read both have some awesome discussion about what they see as moral differences between the two men at the center of these stories). If I can think of more, I’ll let you know! Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mrsturnerblog May 24, 2017 at 9:32 am Reply

    Love this! I’ve decided that I’m doing book pairings next year as book clubs (The Things They Carried and Impossible of Memory, for example, or “A Raisin in the Sun” and Papertowns). Would you pair any of these (or of the list on Amy’s post) with each other or with something else? I was thinking Missoula would work with What We Saw. I’m working on lists for my regular English 11 class (American Lit) and AP Language.

    Liked by 1 person

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