I belong to a lot of book clubs. Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest. This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.
Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.” Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.
We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?” As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway. Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class. The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.
And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either. They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies. But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life? To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation? To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club? To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?
I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.
While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:
- Give generous choice in partner selection. I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey. A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends. If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
- Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up. One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up. Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with. I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries. It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
- Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing. One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card. Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles. If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat. I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs. (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.) I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium. Maybe your book club reads poetry. Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting. Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.
Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.
What about you? What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?
Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member. She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com