Using a Book Club to Navigate Challenging Topics
Setting expectations and providing protocols can help create an engaged and productive student discussion.
Book clubs have been a part of my life for a long time: for professional development at my school, for social outings, and for classroom use with students. As uncertainty and unrest grew this summer, the role of book clubs shifted in response. The safe spaces that social book clubs provided became gateways to exploring deeply challenging topics and emotions.
As I experienced this with my adult book club, I started thinking about how to make this shift with student book clubs, using them to help students process complex current events and the uncertainties of life since the shutdown. Now more than ever, students need avenues to reconnect with each other, develop skills to establish emotional boundaries, and explore ideas in safe spaces.
Establish Group Norms
The first key to success for any group is establishing group norms. Developing norms together can be a way to develop community among group members, but more important, the experience establishes emotional boundaries. The process invites students to define their emotional needs and to communicate those needs with others.
Ask participants about their expectations for the experience:
- What will you need from the group to feel safe and comfortable enough to share honest feelings and reactions to the content?
- Do you have any known emotional triggers connected to the topic or theme of the book? If so, is this something you want to share with the group, or will you privately plan for handling the situation if you become upset during a conversation?
- What discussion protocols are most important for you? What annoys you? What helps you?
Once participants have discussed their expectations, each group drafts a plan that includes both their shared expectations and their specific plan for reading, including how much they will read for discussion and what they hope to get from the experience. Students also create individual reading goals as part of the plan, and I provide feedback on all student plans.
With students, I often had a few nonnegotiable norms: All book club members must be respectful and committed to their club members, which includes reading the agreed-upon pages, being prepared on discussion days, and honoring all voices in the discussion. Everyone’s goal is to grow as a reader, listener, thinker, and speaker, and to help others grow as well. Members are asked to be considerate of “airtime” and should invite others who have not had input to speak.
Norms provide a clear pathway for participation. Without norms, some voices are unintentionally privileged over others, or dominant personalities may cause introverted participants to withdraw.
After norms are established, facilitate a discussion about what happens when a norm is violated. With teenagers, this conversation can quickly degenerate into a list of excessively punitive consequences, so I find it’s helpful to have students work with their groups to develop a worst ideas/best ideas list. Then they choose one from each list to share out to the whole group. Creating the worst ideas often builds camaraderie that is helpful as each group approaches their first discussion, always the most awkward.
Provide Protocols for Reading
Reading protocols help readers narrow their focus, which is especially important when the text is complex.
Research shows that asking questions is a key factor in engagement and in making meaning from text. Invite participants to think about the following questions: What confirmed something I knew/have heard before? What surprised me? What challenged my thinking? Use these three questions to frame rounds of discussion, focusing on one question per round, creating a leaderless discussion.
This structure provides safety and equity in a discussion. Each person comes to the discussion as an equal member to facilitate a specific part of the conversation, and rounds ensure that all members will practice both speaking and listening multiple times in the discussion.
Students may also need support with ways to respond positively and to promote thoughtful interaction with their peers. Sentence stems and time to practice with them can help students access the language they need to feel empowered in discussions.
At the end of the first discussion, ask groups to evaluate the experience together and make a plan for the next discussion. For quick, informal evaluation, ask, “If you were starting your discussion again right now, what would you keep and what would you change? Why?”
Even with norms and protocols effectively implemented, issues will surface. A student may struggle with peer participation, or strong personalities may still dominate the conversation.
Teacher presence can be useful to signal to students to change their behavior or to brainstorm ways to solve the problem at hand.
Periodically ask students to write an informal reflection about how they feel about their group as an exit slip, or have them rate their group’s progress. One of my favorite reflection questions is, “My book club members would probably say _____ about my performance in our book club.”
A private conference is another opportunity to ask a student to describe his or her participation in the group. Students are much more likely to relax and share the true issues if you ask them to share their story. After establishing the root problem, help the student brainstorm solutions.
The goal is to ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion. Students and adults alike will back off from discussing complex ideas and emotions unless they feel they will be heard and respected. Taking the time to create emotional boundaries through developing norms creates team efficacy. Helping readers narrow their focus for discussion through protocols creates safety and equity.