Monroe School was very pleased with their literacy instructional program. The students were encouraged to read independently and kept track of the books that they were reading in reading logs. Teachers used mail order book vendors such as Scholastic and Troll to build classroom libraries and students’ home libraries. Every classroom had a growing, evolving classroom library. Classroom teachers engaged the students in literature circles where they discussed books and shared their insights. The instructional program featured writing workshop that engaged students in writing across a variety of genres, writing across the curriculum, and using the writing process to bring selected pieces to publication quality. Students kept writing journals and/or writers’ notebooks.
However, one important feature was missing. There was very little opportunity for students to participate in the discussion of any books other than those that were selected by the classroom teacher for literature circles. There were informal book discussions with students who were reading the same book for independent reading. Occasionally, students got to choose a book from a limited list of (usually three or four) books focused on the same theme. But more often than not, either a single book was assigned to the entire class or the teacher assigned students to different books based on their reading abilities rather than their preferences. When different groups of students read different books, whether chosen on their own or by the teacher, a separate literature circle discussion would be held for each group of students reading the same book; the various discussions would be conducted simultaneously in different corners of the classroom, with the teacher rotating among them. Teachers had their favorite books that they looked forward to reading with students every year. However, students seldom had any input with respect to book selection.
The literacy coach stumbled upon “the problem” while eavesdropping on some boys talking about Stormbreaker. Jim was surprised by the enthusiasm exhibited by these boys. They were not nearly as excited by Bridge to Terabithia, the book that they were reading in a classroom literature circle. When Jim inquired about the discrepancy, the answer was choice. They had chosen the book. Jim did a little research and discovered that Stormbreaker was part of a series about a character named Alex Rider. He extended an open invitation to the students in fifth and sixth grade to join him in discussing the next book in the series, Point Blank. Jim was startled to see 20 students show up to talk about Point Blank. He felt gratified to see them apply all the strategies that they had learned in class about literature discussion. Jim knew that he needed to provide more opportunities for students to discuss books that they had chosen on their own.
Creating the “Open Book Club”
Jim scheduled a meeting with the school librarian. The outcome of that meeting was “Open Book Clubs.” Open Book Clubs extend an invitation to read and discuss a featured book to all students at the appropriate grade levels for the book. A teacher selects the book and date for the discussion. The librarian gives a book talk on the featured book to each of the appropriate classes during its regularly scheduled library period. She then puts the book on display in the school library along with a sign-up sheet on a clipboard. Students may sign up to read and discuss the book. Open Book Club discussions are limited to at most eight students; if a book attracts a larger audience than this, additional book club discussion sessions are scheduled. The list of interested students is divided into groups (usually by grade level), and each group is notified if its discussion date is now different from the date on the original sign-up sheet.
The librarian secures copies of the selected book through loans from the public library and other school libraries. She always purchases a copy or two for the school library. During the discussion on the day of the book club meeting, the librarian covers the class of the teacher who originally selected the book. This teacher and the book club members meet in the school library, and the teacher leads the discussion except in special cases such as the ones mentioned in the first and third paragraphs that follow.
The first book club discussion of the school year has always been hosted by the principal. She traditionally selects the book, The Principal from the Black Lagoon. It is a humorous picture book that usually attracts students in second through fourth grades. This book club discussion gives the principal a chance to allay students’ “fear of the principal.” She enjoys hearing the students’ misconceptions about principals. In addition to helping the students develop a positive relationship with the principal, this book club discussion introduces some students to the Black Lagoon series. Throughout the school year, students greet the principal by waving the current Black Lagoon book that they are reading.
Building Community Connections
The Open Book Clubs give teachers an opportunity to interact with students at different grade levels. Each year, the kindergarten teacher sponsors a school garden project. The project involves students planting and maintaining gardens on the school’s grounds. One year for an Open Book Club, she selected Seedfolks, a book about a diverse group of people who maintain a community garden. This Open Book Club discussion attracted students in fourth through sixth grades. This discussion also generated a renewed interest in the school gardens. It resulted in new volunteers for the school garden project who had not participated in previous years. The kindergarten teacher said that she welcomed the break from Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?. It was fun to see how her former kindergarteners had matured into proficient readers. She also enjoyed working with students who were able to read, process, and discuss complex concepts and texts.
One first grade teacher went home raving after her first Open Book Club experience. She was so enthusiastic that her husband decided that he wanted to get in on the fun. He is a police officer. With support from the literacy coach and the librarian, he selected Officer Buckle & Gloria. On the day of the discussion, he came to school dressed in his uniform to lead the discussion. This book club discussion was so successful that he has been back to host at least one book club discussion every year. The librarian reports that book clubs with Officer Dave always fill up quickly.
Monroe School’s students took their enthusiasm for Open Book Clubs home to their families. Many parents reported that children were staying up past their bedtimes to read another chapter of their book club book. Some parents confessed to taking circuitous routes around bookstores in the mall. The parents were beginning to feel a little left out! They requested an opportunity to participate in their own Open Book Club. The literacy coach sent an invitation to parents to discuss a book. The book selected was My Sister’s Keeper. The book club attracted seven parents. They completely enjoyed the experience and had lots of ideas for extending Open Book Clubs. They would like to have a parent-child book club and a parent-teacher book club.
Jim was feeling a little concerned that Open Book Clubs still had a little too much teacher choice. It was true that students had the right to choose to participate or not, but teachers were still selecting the books. Then he was approached by a sixth grader who asked him if he would lead a discussion on the book, The Lightning Thief. When he was in the library to tell the librarian about The Lightning Thief, he ran into a second grade teacher who was sponsoring another book club discussion requested by a student. His experience made us both realize that even though teachers are ultimately responsible for much of the organization, selection, and structure of the open book clubs, the format naturally lends itself to far more input from students, community members, and staff beyond classroom teachers at schools. Open book clubs can be sparked by the time of year, interactions with community members, and conversations overheard between students in a way that goes beyond the planned curriculum for literature circles and read-alouds.