By: Jessica Michael Bowman

This time of year, many of the teachers I collaborate with are about to implement book clubs in their classrooms – some for the first time. In co-planning conversations, the phrase “book clubs” can elicit a wide variety of reactions, ranging from giddy excitement to subtle hesitation and mounting panic.

Book clubs have the potential to create and sustain a reading culture and sense of community within classrooms. They can be one of the most powerful cornerstones of reading workshop – the hub of a classroom where engagement and transfer thrive. And they can also be one of the most frustrating best practices to implement – one of those cringeworthy lesson plans that we vow never again to resurrect from our trashed files.

Powerful, engaging book clubs remind me of an old magician’s trick, veiled in mystery and intrigue. Can it really be done? More than that, can it be survived? We watch, a gathering of misbelief and hope, holding our breath – wondering if at the end we will witness magic or tragedy.

I’ve peeked between my fingers at those tragic moments, shocked with horror. I’ve felt the glaring heat of the spotlight, a disgraced magician whose hands reached for the rabbit within my hat, and instead grasped and combed the empty air. Its these moments, disguised as failure, that have shaped and changed the way I view and implement book clubs. In turn, I have seen them evolve from groups of disengaged students and fizzling discussion to the collaborative effort of enraptured students who feverishly devour book after book and beg for more time to meet and discuss.

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It may sound like some kind of illusion, but there are a few guiding principles, and many professional resources, that have created this shift.

Authenticity Always Wins

Some of the best professional learning communities I have been a part of have been book clubs. These are the type of PLCs that feel more like gatherings. They reinvigorate, inspire, and everyone leaves feeling a little more connected, a little more known. These experiences always share a few commonalities: kindred spirits, usually united over a love of the same author, genre, or title; welcoming, engaging, and low stakes atmosphere; and a sense of community and belonging.

In an environment like that, how could anyone not be encouraged to engage? However, often when we implement book clubs in classrooms, we trade the authenticity that we expect in our adult spaces for a stricter, more regimented version. In these types of settings, book clubs can feel less like conversation about a shared text and more like actors moving through the motions. Students may have less choice, ownership, and flexibility, which can often lead to disengagement… and sometimes chaos.

I wonder how we would react if we were to inhabit the same spaces as our students within our own classroom expectations? Thinking about how we project expectations onto our students that we wouldn’t thrive under ourselves, leads me to believe that authenticity is always key.  If we want book clubs to flourish in the midst of a prosocial classroom that values community and exudes high engagement, then I think we need to rethink the ways in which we implement and manage them. What work would we commit ourselves to and invest in willingly? How would we want to function, feel and be seen amongst our peers? How might our ideal collaborative environment, look, feel, and sound?

While in my master’s program, my inquiry project focused on how literature circles might impact students’ engagement, motivation, and comprehension. Overall, this action research was an exciting success, and I couldn’t wait to implement them as a first year teacher in my fifth grade classroom. Conversation would be lively! Students would fall in love with books, authors, and genres! I would flit about the room joyfully like a book club fairy, waving my magic wand and watching lives transform! Long story short, if I was the magician holding the saw, you would not have wanted to be the assistant in the box.

Over the years, I’ve tried it all. Literature circle roles, role sheets for students to respond to reading, choosing the texts for my students, students choosing their own texts, theme book clubs, online book clubs via wikis, using reader’s notebooks – you name it, I’ve probably given it a go. I’ve been unsuccessful again and again, but I’ve reflected, game planned, adapted, and learned.

For a moment I had given up on this illusive type of collaborative learning, but I am so glad that I have persevered. A decade later, I can confidently say that book clubs work. Not only do they work, but they move this teacher to tears with the profound insights, moving points, and thought provoking questions students share. Book clubs are real, visible magic.

What Guides My Book Clubs Now

So what have I learned through all of this trial and error? I can only speak to my experience using book clubs, and I have found them to be most powerful and effective when they remain student-centered and authentic. They are most manageable, motivating, and engaging when:

Students select their own hight interest texts that they are able to read independently.

We know the value of students having access to high interest texts to independently read. Allowing students to select their book club texts is the number one way I’ve seen engagement and motivation increase during workshop. Students who are forced to read a text that has been selected for them tend to have less of a sense of ownership within their books clubs and disengagement ensues when they are not invested in the texts that they’ve been assigned.

Let’s consider authenticity again –  while I love a good recommendation, I prefer to read a book I’ve actually chosen for myself. I know a book club can’t meet if every student is reading a different choice text, and I’ve had success in creating collections of topics, authors, or genres and encouraging students to choose from them. This can help ensure they’re reading within reach books, and that teachers have enough titles for clubs, while still upholding student choice.

Students respond to reading in authentic ways.

Choice is also vital when considering how students respond to reading within partnership and book club frameworks. As I’ve grown and learned, I no longer use roles or role sheets in reading workshop. While I used to let students choose their roles, I found that this still placed limitations on the ways in which they engaged with texts. So out went the roles, and the role sheets as well.

What had begun as a way to hold students accountable to their book clubs (and to assess readers) had evolved into a mundane checklist of things to do and include. Remember when I mentioned going through the motions? My classroom was quickly becoming autopilot city. When I reflected on how I shared my own notes and thoughts with my friends and colleagues, I realized I didn’t need a sheet or checklist – I would just grab a sticky note or jot in a notebook. I was inspired to encourage my students to do the same. We moved toward using our reader’s notebooks as the springboard for partnership and book club discussions, not just independent reading. Accountability, engagement, and transfer are now upheld through book club conferences instead of sheets and checklists. This has been transformative!

Discussion is organic, authentic, and student-generated.

Generating discussion from reader’s notebooks has ensured that book clubs remain student-centered. Students’ theories, thoughts, reflections, and questions guide the conversation, and it feels true to the spirit of a coffee shop book club. Rich conversations about powerful passages, debates over authors’ craft moves, and rereadings of moving pieces of texts have replaced the going-through-the-motions style meetings once held. It was vital to support this new work students were doing in their reading lives with explicit and implicit teaching during mini lessons and read alouds, as well as anchor charts.

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Students from Ms. Brown’s 4th grade class consider powerful passages & conversations

These anchor charts, posted around the classroom, support both the work of the unit and the kind of discussions students might engage in as they meet. They remind students what powerful passages to consider might look like, encourage them to infer and analyze between the lines of what the author is saying, and they help keep them accountable and focused.

Now as I walk by classroom libraries and past carpets, I hear things like, “I know! I thought it was so crazy how she changed like that. I actually wrote…” instead of “It’s your turn to ask a question.” Discussions are rooted in the text and analytical, while proving to be engaging and lively. They feel – and are – authentic.

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Students from Mrs. Wood’s 5th grade class create their book club constitutions

Since becoming a literacy coach, I’ve seen more amazing book clubs than those that I facilitated in my own classroom.  When co-planning and co-teaching with teachers to implement book clubs, I find myself reflecting on the guiding principles I’ve learned and looking for new ways to reinvigorate and grow them. There are always challenges in implementing and sustaining them (let me give a shout-out to student created constitutions!) but when we shift our focus to authenticity, we rise to those challenges. In these classrooms, there’s always that same hum of energy and excitement. Students are more than engaged – they are invested. There is a sense of community and a reading culture that is hard to capture in words. It’s rewarding to be a part of them, and to be captivated by a little bit of magic from a front row seat.

New to book clubs? The following educators and their work inspire and inform my book club teaching & learning and informed this blog post:

  1. Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers by Sonja Cherry-Paul & Dana Johansen
  2. Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels & Nancy Steineke
  3. A Guide to the Reading Workshop & Units of Study for Teaching Reading (K-8) by Lucy Calkins & Staff Developrs from the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University
  4. A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences by Jennifer Serravello

 

WVCTE is wondering… How do you implement book clubs in your classroom? What are your tips for effective, powerful book clubs? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jessica Michael Bowman is an unabashed bibliophile and advocate of lifelong literacy. She is currently a literacy coach in Berkeley County, WV.  When she’s not teaching, coaching, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from all things literacy, she’s passionate about her family, traveling, and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.

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