Over the summer break, I’ve been thinking about what improvements I can make for next year, poring over student feedback from June and remembering aspects of the school year that caused me the most anxiety—and my chest begins to tighten as I think about choice reading book clubs.
I try to figure out how to monitor whether students are really reading their books, how to effectively manage a classroom with five groups discussing different books, and how to properly assess students’ learning when their readings are different.
These issues alone seem reason enough to abandon book clubs, but then I think about the research demonstrating that independent reading and student choice in reading are significant factors in helping students improve as readers. So as I resolve to keep book clubs, I attempt to identify a few keys to making sure they’re successful.
Share With Students Why Reading Matters
At the beginning of the year, I tell students that I believe reading is essential to a well-lived life and share research indicating that reading is linked to overall academic and economic success.
But we don’t just talk about why reading matters, we live it. During choice book clubs—an exercise we do twice a year—I ask students to look for quotations that transcend context and exemplify how fiction can reveal truth. We share these passages along with the wisdom they reveal by creating posters with Sharpies and designing Padlets, and we discuss these ideas in pairs and small groups. Recently, one of my students quoted Akhil Sharma’s Family Life: “Vanishing into books, I felt held.” The truth he drew from this was: “When we read books, we feel less alone.” The lessons we learn and the ideas that resonate ignite our desire to read, and remind us of the value of reading.
Provide Meaningful Selections
During book clubs, I offer five or six books that are related either to a whole class text or to each other by topic, theme, genre, or author. In 2016–17, my ninth graders read popular young adult titles by authors such as John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Ernest Cline. Last year, in an effort to bring in diverse perspectives, we selected coming-of-age stories by male and female authors from Nigeria, India, Korea, and Sri Lanka.
When I introduce book clubs, I explain why I selected the books and seek to generate interest by sharing a brief summary of each one along with an excerpt I particularly love. I also provide students with links to reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and class time to choose a book.
Provide High Interest Activities
In a classroom with five or six groups discussing different books, the challenges are many. Teachers have to ensure that students are prepared to engage in meaningful discussions, provide questions and conversational moves that work for multiple texts, and monitor discussions.
In my class, book club days are predictable and organized, yet they still provide variety. Each book club has a specific focus, such as character, theme, writing style, or how fiction reveals truth. Students arrive having read the agreed-upon number of pages (as decided by their book club) as well as having prepared a task for the day’s focus (as decided by me).
Students begin by writing and responding to targeted prompts designed to generate ideas for the day’s focus. The targeted prompts vary. For a book club focused on character, for example, I tasked students with tracking one character and marking in their book where they learned about the character through what he says, how he acts, and what others say about him. Some of the writing prompts included: What are your initial impressions of the character? What predictions can you make about how the story will progress based on your understanding of the character?
During book club discussions, students refer to their notes on these questions and their prepared task, along with conversational moves I’ve provided to ensure a thoughtful, civil discussion. Toward the end of class, students have time to reflect on the discussion, set future goals, and decide how many pages to read before their next discussion.
What About Assessment?
I’ve had to accept the fact that choice reading is messy and that assessing it must be as expansive and imperfect as books themselves. So I check journal entries and the completion of book club activities, and as a culminating assignment students write a formal reflection on how their book changed their view of themselves or the world, using specific textual evidence to support their assertion.
I know that these assessments don’t prove that all students have read their books. Generally most kids will read, and a few will not. But in my classes, these book clubs have generated more excitement about reading and higher levels of insight than any other reading we do.