I just finished a round of book clubs with my students for the first time this year. I tried a new system and I wanted to share in case anyone else out there is looking for something similar.
I like the concept of literature circles, in that students are having discussions about the book and they have roles and responsibilities, but some of the roles in the traditional model seem unnecessary to me. I don’t think we need students to create original illustrations of a scene from the book to understand the book, for example.
I avoided book clubs for the past two years because of two universal truths: some students aren’t prepared with their reading in time for meetings, and some students read ahead and inevitably spoil (or incessantly talk about how they can’t talk for fear of spoiling) plot points during the discussion. It’s also true that I lean heavily on choice for reading time, and it’s hard to pick a winning book (or six) for every student in a given class.
Still, I wanted to run book clubs because I think there is value in having a common language around a shared book. I also wanted to test the waters to see how my students could run discussion groups – with what degree of independence, with what level of depth and reasoning they would comment, and how effectively they might respond to each other, including areas of disagreement. My plan was to do book clubs early in the fall, while our units are still focused on fiction, and possibly again in the winter and spring, after a long stretch of work with informational texts, and measure the skill levels in terms of social interactions, supported reasoning, and organizational management over time.
About five days before we started
I gave book talks for about eight books, and asked students to rank their top four choices. I used these choices and my knowledge about my students as readers and as class contributors to form groups I thought would be successful. Groups ranged from three to four students each, and we ended up with six different books. I borrowed some titles from our school literacy library, our campus librarian and other colleagues, and used my own bookshelves to get enough books to students.
Days 1 - 5
Students were asked to read their books in one week. I was doing mandatory reading testing that week, so students had fairly large blocks of reading time in school, in addition to a nightly reading expectation at home and time to read on a three-day weekend. I haven’t set up book clubs this way before, but I hoped this would give all students time to read the books at their own pace. In the past, students have broken the book into sections to read, and each meeting is a discussion about that section. Here, it was understood that everyone would have completed the whole book before the first discussion meeting.
I created a set of questions for each discussion, and I walked through these with students during the week they were reading their books. I modeled expectations by using a fish bowl discussion about a picture book we had all read together, with four sample students following the question guidelines, and the rest of the class listening to and commenting about the process.
We walked through the important ideas page ahead of time – a set of four questions students would answer as a group at the conclusion of each meeting, including a rating about how the discussion went that day. I gave students a chance to ask questions about the discussion questions, and encouraged students to use sticky notes for responses – some color-coded for each of the four meetings – as they read through the book.
We have a few discussion stems posted in the classroom so that students can refer to these as they talk with each other. These include things like, “my thinking about _ has changed because _ ,” or “another perspective about this might be __.”
I also showed the students the final evaluation page, which included a reflection as well as a peer rating system, so that everyone would understand expectations for the meetings before they started.
Days 6 – 9
The topic for the first meeting was identifying and discussing story elements – noticing important characters and their roles, identifying point of view and unique text features, and that kind of thing. Students selected a group facilitator to read the expectations (participate respectfully, offer thoughtful ideas with examples, contribute to the important ideas page) first, and then the group facilitator selected questions from a list to discuss. The role of the facilitator rotated to different students on subsequent days.
Meeting 2 was about opinions, connections, and questions; Meeting 3 was about theme and author’s purpose; Meeting 4 was about author’s craft. Students submitted their Important Ideas pages and their final evaluation pages at the conclusion of Meeting 4.
How Well It Worked
I loved having them read the books before the meetings started. Some students hadn’t completed their books in time for the first meeting, but that is frequently the case with book clubs. Also, it was probably true that a few of those students had been grouped with books that were a little bit of a reach for their independent reading comfort – I had thought about how they could handle the books with peer discussion support, but some people are slower readers than others, especially with books that are challenging for them. Still, I didn’t want the book clubs to stretch on forever, given that some students read the books on the first day and read a couple of other books between the book club selection and the first book club meeting. I would organize the reading week the same way next time, in advance, but I would work harder to ensure the book choices were easily manageable for each student, especially in the first round.
It took a lot of energy to sustain discussion topics for four days about the same book, especially at the beginning of the year, and especially since some students had never participated in any type of book club before. A few students did not yet have a lot of independence to stay on topic without an adult consistently present (our school TAG teacher dropped by for our meetings on some days, and I floated from group to group). A few other students participated well during some moments and got off-task during others. I think some of those students needed more modeling and practice to understand exactly how to participate in those discussions, even with the stems and the guided questions they were given. The majority of students did a good job staying on topic and tackling vocabulary that wasn’t overly familiar to them, including “exposition,” “dialogue,” and “protagonist.”
Before each meeting, I offered a few reminders about moving “up” a level, where level one is having read the book and having all your materials, level two is listening appropriately and speaking on topic, and level three is responding naturally to what other people say, and offering insightful comments with specific examples. It was fascinating to see which students stepped into leadership roles to offer opinions and ideas about the book without the teacher directing the whole discussion. It was also clear that we have some work to do to move more students from level two to level three.
Some final written reflection comments from students about the process included:
“It worked well because everyone stayed on topic and got along.”
“I liked that they didn’t disagree with me about everything.”
“Nobody talked over each other and we were listening to each other.”
“It was very meaningful and I got to express myself and listen to what others thought.”
“Everyone was prepared.”
“They didn’t see it how I saw it.”
“It didn’t work so well because I wasn’t able to finish my book.”
“Everyone mostly participated. We worked well together.”
Overall, I was proud to give my students some ownership of discussion, practice with literary vocabulary, access to stories they might not otherwise have read, and a chance to reflect about the process.
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada. I love being a teacher-librarian!