I am a book club junkie. I believe that the desire to get together and talk about books is a natural offshoot of being a reader. I belong to two book clubs that meet in person, and through social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads) I belong to a myriad of virtual book clubs. Book clubs deepen friendships through the shared experiences of common books, conversations, and the unique perspectives that each member brings to the club.
I have made book clubs a part of my reading workshop so that my students can have those same experiences and, I hope, continue to find and cultivate formal, informal, and virtual reading clubs for the rest of their reading lives.
Book clubs never happen the same way every year in my classroom. In part, that is because I am joined by a new group of students. But mostly it is because I grow and change as a teacher every year.
Looking back, I can see that one of the primary ways I’ve changed my book club practice is that I am much more thoughtful about timing the beginning of the first book club cycle. I know that several important pieces need to be in place before book clubs can be successful. First and foremost, I need to know my students as individual readers and as a community of readers, and my students need to know each other in the very same ways.
I have also come to realize the importance of conversation skills. I no longer assume that my students will be able to have rich conversations about their books without direct instruction, scaffolding, and practice. I make time for whole-class conversations, usually about our read-aloud, during which we talk without raising hands and practice using stems such as these from an anchor chart: “I agree/disagree with _____ because . . . ,” “I would like to add to what _____ said . . . ,” “Could you clarify . . . ,” “That’s an interesting point, but . . . ,” and “What do you think, _____?”
During these whole-class conversations, my primary role is that of an observer, jotting notes about who is or isn’t talking, recording interesting conversational moves, and listing topics covered. I usually interrupt only when side conversations erupt, to help a student who is having a hard time entering the conversation, or to encourage the dominant speakers to include others.
Another change is book choice. Early on, I chose all the books and assigned students to book clubs. Now my students scan my shelf of multiple copies for book club books, come back from the school library with a pair of books, or ask me to request multiple copies from the public library. I still exert a bit of teacher leverage, gathering sets of multiple copies from our school’s literacy resource room and the public library so that I can talk about a variety of books (genre, author, length, complexity). But they are always books from which students can (but don’t have to) choose.
Finally, the accountability piece in my classroom book clubs has evolved from Harvey Daniels’s literature circles in the early 1990s. Back in the day, my literature circles/book clubs had packets of role sheets to fill out as they read and every time they met. Gradually, as Daniels intended, my students internalized the roles and we dropped the teacher-made packets. Now, there are no packets. My book clubs set goals for themselves to work on as they read. Their goal might be to make predictions at the end of every chapter, discuss what chapter titles might mean, list juicy words or rich language the author uses, track the ups and downs of the story arc, or mark favorite parts to share and discuss. Our favorite tool for tracking thinking is the lowly sticky note.
Another shift in accountability from the days when my students read the books I chose and filled out the forms I gave them is that my students are much more accountable to each other than they are to me. They negotiate their stopping points for their weekly meetings and dole out their own disappointment and frustration when a group member doesn’t keep up, or reads too far, or comes to the discussion unprepared. My role is to listen in briefly to their weekly discussions, ask few if any questions about their thinking, and get out of their way. To acknowledge that work has been completed, a classwork grade can be gleaned from my weekly notes about their discussions, and students can create a self-evaluation rubric at the end of each book.
This Year’s Book Clubs
This year, our first round of book clubs didn’t happen until January. That’s when our classroom community really started to gel. Student interest was the impetus for beginning book clubs, but I was ready to follow their lead. The first-round books were chosen very quickly. A group that was working with a reading intervention teacher chose Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville) on her recommendation. The rest of the clubs chose books that I had in multiple copies in my classroom (The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop, Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher, and El Deafo by CeCe Bell).
Four students opted out—they were invested in their own books and didn’t want to be tied to a common book. This is a choice I have often made in my own reading life, and I honored this choice, all the while hoping that when the second round of book clubs started, they would be ready to join in. When the other clubs were meeting about their common books, the “mixed-book” club met to talk about their variety of books.
As always, it was fun to watch the groups (even the mixed-book group) solidify over the course of the four weeks they met about their books. More than that, it was fun to see what happened when it was time to choose the second book, and then the third.
Two groups had been planning for their second book as they read their first: the Bruce Coville group chose another from his Magic Shop series, and the Castle in the Attic group couldn’t wait to read the sequel, Battle for the Castle. The other groups chose books from the sets I gathered at the public library and previewed for the whole class: No Talking by Andrew Clements for the Flying Solo group, and a set of short books to read—one every week or two—for the group who read El Deafo. The four who previously opted out of book clubs chose Weasel by Cynthia DeFelice, and were captivated by the story and chattering away happily from page one. The magic of a supportive group, a common book, and a regular time to meet and talk had infected every reader in my classroom.
Third-round book choices revealed the necessity for both the groups’ and my flexibility. Two groups had members who had not kept up with the reading. They are continuing on, but it will be interesting to see whether the groups stay together and even make a third-round book choice after they finish their round two books.
The members of The Castle in the Attic group, composed predominantly of fantasy readers, are challenging themselves to read a new genre—realistic fiction—with Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli. The Bruce Coville group has had enough of light fantasy series books and will read Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo, an author with whom they are already familiar.
An enrichment student who is not in the classroom on Tuesday afternoons when we do book clubs asked if he could be in a book club. How could I say no? The change was initiated by a student who wants a book club, and it meets the needs of another student who will be challenged more appropriately in his reading and conversations. There’s no reason why they can’t meet during reading workshop on a different day from the other clubs.
Book clubs continue to evolve. They will evolve in terms of book choice, group members, and focus goals. As I respond to and learn from students, my own thinking about book clubs will evolve. And I hope I have planted the seeds of book clubs well enough in these students that they will form new book clubs, both formal and informal, in all the coming years of their lives as readers.