I was recently chatting with an old colleague about our days teaching in New York City public schools today. “Ugh,” she moaned. “I hated teaching book clubs.” About a week later, I was in a meeting with a different colleague who said, “Book clubs just didn’t work for my kids last year.” Whenever I hear the same things twice, my pattern-seeking brain starts to go into overdrive. There was a common feeling here that I needed to explore and unpack. I sat with those comments for a couple of weeks and let them marinate. If I’m being honest with myself, book clubs were sometimes a huge struggle for me as a classroom teacher as well. But now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the difference between what I was trying to do ten years ago and what I’m trying to do now, I realize that it wasn’t the structure or “book clubs” that were the root of the problem. It’s that I had a narrow vision of what I thought book clubs were “supposed to” look like and be like.
I had this idea that book clubs were supposed to run independently and that if I just gave kids the time to meet and talk, they would rise to the challenge and function smoothly.
Now that I’ve worked in dozens of different schools, I realize that while it’s essential to have a vision of what’s possible, I shouldn’t let that limit the work and define success along the way. Yes, it’s lovely if book clubs meet on their own and facilitate their own discussion and set their own reading goals and hold each other accountable for reading and select their own texts. AND it’s also true that there are various other ways that book clubs can successfully function and work toward larger goals with far more structure, scaffolding, and support.
First, let’s keep in mind the larger goals of book clubs: authenticity, independence, community, and understanding of text. In their book, Breathing New Life into Book Clubs (2019), Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen describe how book clubs can actually create a culture of reading in classrooms and help students better understand themselves, each other, and the world. Once I have these goals in mind, I can design supportive instruction that’s both responsive to the students as well as work (sometimes slowly) toward these goals.
If you’re noticing that some book clubs aren’t yet ready to meet completely on their own without any teacher support, you can create a schedule for book clubs that allows you to be present when they meet.
One option is for book clubs to meet on alternating days so that each day two to three book clubs meet. So the schedule might look like this:
|10:20-10:40||Book Club A||Book Club C||Book Club E||Book Club B||Book Club D|
|10:40-11:00||Book Club B||Book Club D||Book Club A||Book Club C||Book Club E|
Another option is for book clubs to alternate days and for just two or three clubs to meet at the same time. While you can’t be present for the entire book club meeting, you can pop back and forth, supporting each club for 5-10 minutes during their discussion. That schedule might look like this:
|10:20-10:50||Independent Reading||Independent Reading||Independent Reading||Independent Reading||Independent Reading|
|10:50-11:00||Book Clubs A and B meet||Book Clubs C and D meet||Book Club E meets||Book Clubs A and B meet||Book Clubs C and D meet|
If you’re noticing that students aren’t sure what to talk about or how to sustain a conversation, consider adapting your role and gradually lightening the scaffold over time.
Often when students struggle to initiate or sustain the conversation, we fall back on old patterns of interacting with students. We might begin with our own questions for the purpose of “checking students’ understanding” or constantly prompt students to respond to each other with, “Who can respond to what Lucas just said?” One thing I’ve tried instead is to participate in the conversation as I would in my own book club–by asking questions I’m authentically wondering about and by modeling talk by responding to students’ questions and ideas. Jennifer Serravallo and others have called this role the “proficient partner” and note that it’s an incredibly helpful way to provide students with a model without taking all of the control away from the book club. At the end of the conversation, I try to name what I did so that students can replicate those moves in the future.
One other strategy that we’ve been trying at my school is creating mini anchor charts for each book club. We realized that so much of our teaching was auditory–students had to listen to us and remember what we taught them. Sometimes we even expected them to remember what we taught them yesterday, last week, or last unit. Instead, we’re now trying to create little artifacts of our teaching and leave them with the book club (in a file folder) so that they can be referenced every time the club meets.
We’ve made little anchor charts with the club’s goal and a strategy or two like the one below:
Caption: A chart made by 4th grade teacher, Amanda Manno, on a large sticky note
Not only does the chart help the club remember what they’re working on, it serves as a tool for the teacher. When we see an opportunity, we can use a verbal prompt such as, “Can you say more about that idea?” or, we can use a much lighter scaffold and merely point to the sentence frame we think might help the student elaborate. We’ve found that the pointing is useful because it provides just enough direction without interrupting the flow of the book club’s conversation.
Progress vs. Perfection
Every September, I’m reminded by teachers that we have to readjust our expectations while keeping our eyes on the long-term goals of our classrooms. We want students to be independent, to know how to get and put away materials without us, to solve their own problems. And every year, we have to assess where students are in relation to those goals and meet them where they are. That’s not a sign of failure–it’s actually just a sign of meaningful assessment and responsive teaching.
The same goes for book clubs. We know where we want them to be and still we must meet them where they are and count each step toward understanding, communication, and independence as a success. That way students experience the joy of book clubs and we experience the satisfaction of knowing that we helped them progress along their journey.
About the Author
Sara Kugler is a literacy coach and consultant based in Northern Virginia. Previously a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as well as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn, New York, Sara currently designs elementary literacy curriculum and professional learning opportunities for Woodburn Elementary School in the Fairfax County Public Schools system. She is the author of Better Book Clubs: Deepening Comprehension and Elevating Conversation.