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When Book Clubs Don’t Even Feel Like School

Book clubs didn’t even feel like school,” one 12th grade student wrote in a book club reflection survey.

I’ve been in my own adult book clubs before and here’s the truth. If I didn’t like the book, I didn’t really read it. If I didn’t connect with the people, I didn’t really talk much. But when I had a say in choosing the book and when the people were my friends, those book club nights left me feeling invigorated, enriched, and even more curious about the world. As a Literacy Coach, I’m always looking for easy wins for teachers- book clubs are an easy win because for the most part, kids love them.

Book clubs for me are a self-governed, (semi) structured time and place for students to come together in a classroom to discuss a shared text. The most effective book clubs that I have seen include elements of choice for students in terms of who they work with, what they read, and what they will discuss. There are many logistical structures to put in place to set students up for success in books clubs, which I will speak to in a later post. As a Literacy Coach in my district, I often hear questions like “Where do I begin with book clubs? How can I do this with my particular group of 9th graders? Of 5th graders? In a classroom with a variety of reading levels? In a Social Studies classroom?”

I was looking to support these questions for teachers and even more so, to convince them that the book club waters were worth swimming in, whether it was in the shallow end with floaties or directly off the diving board into the deep end. I created this book club types and ideas chart to support teachers in beginning to envision their own entry point into book clubs. Regardless of the age group or subject area or group of students that you’re teaching, book clubs can open up space in your classroom for students to find, develop, and strengthen their voice through what they choose to bring to the table. Literally.

Book clubs are a place where students can take the lead on what they talk about. Most often the conversations are grounded in the text, but just like book clubs in the outside world, the book is often a spark for discussions exploring our world and each other. How DO we feel about the death penalty? How DO our environments shape who we become? How DO we feel about the stereotypes portrayed in this book? How might we have handled the same situation? How DID that town’s ideologies impact the justice system at that time? These are some of the questions that were being posed during the 12th graders’ book club unit.

And if you’re thinking, “Yes, but they are 12th graders! Of course they can handle this level of independence and autonomy in book clubs!” Here are some of the book club questions we heard from 6th graders: What do you all think made him such a perfectionist? The father-son relationship seems really complex- how do you think that impacts him? The main character doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends but we all really like her- what’s making everyone else turn away from her? Do we think that our book has a healthy family dynamic or is it unhealthy? Why does he keep lying about his past? The 6th grade teacher and I walked around the classroom occasionally making eye contact and mouthing “YES!!!!!!!” to each other celebratorily. They were doing it. This is not to say that there weren’t hiccups along the way; there were. Kids who weren’t reading, kids who weren’t preparing for their book club discussions, book club meetings that were choppy, awkward, or finished too quickly. But those became teaching points in a mini lesson later on that week, or a quick conversation we would have with a group to strategize.

“Book clubs motivate us to read. They deepen our understanding of not only the book but how others read and interpret the same text … rigor is not in the book itself, but in the work the students do to understand it” (45-47). — Gallagher & Kittle. In a world where there is so much noise, so much polarization, so much isolation, we could all use a little more practice and guidance in working collaboratively towards something bigger than ourselves. How to listen to different perspectives and agree or disagree with respect seems more necessary than ever. Book clubs are not simply about the book, or being in a book club. Book clubs feel like the answer to a call; an educational structure that supports an almost moral obligation we have been charged with as teachers. Teach them how to be together. Teach them how to offer different perspectives with respect. Teach them how to move us all forward and to lean on each other.

There are teacher days where all the stars align. When you overhear two boys on their way out of your classroom say “that book club meeting didn’t even feel like school”. At the end of the day, isn’t that the ultimate goal? On that day, the sun seems to shine a little brighter as you pull out of the school parking lot, put your sunglasses on, and turn your favorite song up louder than usual and you think to yourself “This. This is why I became a teacher”.

So whether you’re just dipping your toes in the book club waters, or looking to try book clubs around short texts or you’ve tried book clubs before and you’re ready for Book Clubs 2.0, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to teach students how essential it is to be able to read the world and each other. Thank you for answering the call.

Dana Silver served as a high school English teacher for 13 years in the NYC Department of Education before becoming a Literacy Coach. This is Dana’s third year serving as a district-based Literacy Coach serving grades 5-12 in Rockland County. She is pretty certain that she became a teacher simply so that she could stay in school forever. She remembers falling in love with books on Ms. Tomitz's reading carpet during our daily read-a-loud of Junie B. Jones. Ms. Tomitz was the first teacher who made Dana see herself as a writer, and reading and writing have shaped and driven her world ever since. Dana’s passion within coaching lies in the dialogue around literacy instruction happening in schools daily and partnering around that mission for the students we serve.


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