10 Ways to Make Book Club Better
One of my primary goals for my student teaching experience was to initiate book clubs. Having only helped initiate one small book club on my college campus (and only for one semester), I had no idea what to do or how to do it.
I taught 7-12 grade English for 17 weeks at a small, rural K-12 school. Book clubs were not in place. In fact, no one even talked about books despite having a 30 minute reading block for all students every day.
I had initially anticipated one book club, but once I started talking to students about a potential book club it seemed like the junior highers and the high schoolers wanted to read different types of books. While the high schoolers wanted more serious books, the junior highers wanted to read about school drama and imaginary friends, an interesting combination.
What transpired were two book clubs, one for 7 & 8th grades and one for 9-12th grades. In the end, the high school club fizzled, but the seventh graders hopped on board and that club grew, albeit it grew in all sorts of strange directions.
In retrospect, if I’m being completely honest with myself, I don’t know if the book clubs were successful. The high school club made such slow progress – we only read two books – and we didn’t even meet to discuss the second book. Considering they were both brief graphic novels, the amount of time we spent on one book was altogether too long and was detrimental to our progress.
The junior high club had a lot of energy, but the energy was in far too many directions. Not all members of the club read all of the books, which was fine but it created a chaotic atmosphere when trying to discuss the books. I even had students show up to the meetings who had no interest whatsoever in reading any of the books. This, again, was fine, but it was hard for those students to concentrate when trying to discuss the books or choose new books.
When looking back on my experience, there were many things, as leader of the clubs, I should have done differently. Here are ten ways I could have made my book clubs better:
1. Start Time
Instead of starting the book clubs on my first day or my first week, I waited for over a month before I started organizing them. It was nearly six weeks before I got books into students’ hands. Time is precious to book clubs because of the length it takes to get everyone to finish reading the book. I really needed to start the clubs the first day.
2. Initial Meeting
This is how I started the book clubs:
- Outside of class, I asked students if they would be interested in a book club.
- If they were, I gave them a list of top 2014 books I compiled to consider for the club.
- However, I also told them they could choose any book to read even if it wasn’t on the list.
- I told the students to share the list with their classmates to decide on one book. (I don’t know if they actually asked other students or not…)
- I followed-up with students and the first book they said they wanted to read I bought and dispersed to interested students.
- I made a class announcement, pitching the book, and told students they could talk to me if they wanted to read the book. (I did this with each book.)
The whole process was a mess of miscommunication and waiting for answers. It would have been better to announce to all classes that the book clubs were having one initial meeting. During this meeting, all interested students could learn exactly what I had in mind for the book clubs, how they would work, and they could voice their interests and opinions, too. Also at the initial meeting we would choose our first book together.
Starting off as a whole group on the right foot may have prevented some of the chaos that ensued as the clubs progressed.
3. Physical Environment
Our book club had to meet during lunch so, while we scarfed down our lunches, we tried to talk about the books we read. Eating and talking is always a challenge, especially when we only had a limited amount of time together. Moreover, the classroom we used was not conducive to discussion. It felt too sterile and impersonal to have deep book discussions.
The arrangement of the tables and chairs were horrible – straight lecture-style setup. The tables were too heavy to move, especially for the short period of time we met, and the chairs became a jumbled mess when we tried to arrange it differently. With our time constraint, we couldn’t make the room fit our needs. What we needed was more of a coffee shop environment with lamps and comfy seats and, most importantly, circle seating.
The biggest problem I had was students who would keep books for weeks at a time and then not even read the book. With limited copies of books, this problem was colossal and really halted the growth of the clubs. Some students would get frustrated that they hadn’t had a chance to read the book yet. I would tell them who had the book, hoping a bit of peer pressure would speed up circulation. It didn’t.
I needed to set check-out lengths for students. If a student were really trying to finish the book then that’s fine – they could renew the book, but circulation is crucial. A la Donalyn Miller, I should have had a book drawing where names of students who want to read the book are put into a bowl and are chosen at random. The student chosen only has a limited amount of time before another student is randomly chosen to receive the book next.
5. Scaffold Discussion
The high schoolers were great with discussing the books. They had excellent, insightful thoughts and used courtesy to give everyone a chance to express their opinions. However, the junior highers were awful at discussion. They didn’t know what to say about the books. Despite my prompting, our discussion remained unsuccessful. I know in their English class, open discussion never took place so they did not know how it worked.
Giving students a model of several ways to respond to a book would have helped discussion. Book Club Questions for Fiction Novels would be a good way to start, or the book club could have worked together to create a collage of ways/areas to respond to novels. In fact, having the high school club help the junior high club would have been extremely beneficial and probably successful. (Why didn’t I think of this earlier?)
I had full intent to introduce my students to GoodReads, but the meetings were always short and we always seemed to run out of time. From the very first meeting, GoodReads should be explained, accounts created, friends added, and books added to shelves.
Some kids would whiz through a book. I should have given those students more if they wanted it. Books from the same author or genre or even author interviews would have been a great supplement and could have enriched our book club meetings.
8. Staff Support
I needed other teachers and administration on my side to get the book clubs really going. By the end of the semester, I had one teacher who sat in on our meetings, but never read the books. Regardless, I truly appreciated her support, but it was exhausting trying to keep up with two newly-formed book clubs by myself. Unfortunately, I don’t know what will happen to the clubs next year. The junior highers asked me about next year and wanted to keep it going, but because another teacher wasn’t on board with me, I don’t know if anyone will pick it up next year.
In the beginning, I had envisioned teachers, paras, staff, and administration showing up to meetings and giving book talks about books they enjoy or that other students enjoyed. I needed to be more proactive about asking my colleagues to join.
Choosing the book to read was always a challenge. Some students wanted to read this; others wanted to read that. If the clubs would have centered on particular themes, the dilemma of choosing a book would have subsided. Smaller, more intimate groups of 3-4 students would have alleviated a lot of the problems I had with trying to oversee a larger group.
My goal for the book clubs was for students to like books. Yes, even love books. To do that we didn’t need a traditional book club where we all read the same book and then discussed it. If my goal was to foster a love for reading, then I needed to refocus the clubs.
Instead, the book clubs could have been a place for students and teachers to talk about books – not the same book – but books they heard about or read themselves. Rather than a book club, I wish I created a book-loving club. We could have waited for the Printz winner to be announced. We could have watched book trailers and made posters for “Books We Love.” We could have formed a group, centered on books, and then gone from there.
So were the clubs successful? I don’t know, but if I helped even one student like reading a little more, my time was not wasted.