Managing book clubs can be hard, but authors Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen say that when they work, they create a culture of reading unlike anything else, and have the power to bring out the very best in our students. With their newest book, Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers, Sonja and Dana provide dozens of mini sessions that address common roadblocks and strategies to make book clubs work.
We started our conversation with identifying some of the hiccups that book clubs face…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Sonja: I think we've had years where our book clubs just weren't as successful as we hoped they would be, causing us to just reflect and take pause to try to figure out exactly what makes book clubs tick. This is a conversation that Dana and I've had for a long time. There could be hiccups in terms of grouping students, acquiring the books...
Dana: Acquiring the books.
Sonja: ...helping students make selections that they will stick with, and helping kids just figure out how to engage in dialogue around a text.
Dana: Yeah, and I think one of the big hiccups too in the past has been what happens when the club fizzles and falls apart, and that definitely happens. So what are we going to do when kids aren't working together well or the discussions aren't going well? So we've talked a lot about that, and we really wanted to create a resource where those answers and things that we had found in the classroom were put out there for other teachers, so that they could address their hiccups that they were saying.
Sonja: Yeah, and I think that our work is really a conversation that Dana and I have been having for a long time as educators. And we hope that we are providing some practical tips for teachers that really come from our actual experiences in the classroom, working with students across grade levels.
Brett: Sometimes there can be a little bit of fear of letting go with the book club. How do we manage that?
Dana: I think there's an inherent fear of letting go in all things. When you're a teacher, you're trying to manage a lot of different personalities, a lot of different learning styles. Just your day-to-day routines. And so with book clubs, you know, this is one area where teachers say, "I don't want another area or layer of chaos in my classroom, potentially." So making sure that students buy in to book clubs is huge when letting go of that fear. Giving students choice to select the books that they want to choose and read for sure. And saying to yourself every day, "This is what's best for my students. I know that I'm giving them great opportunities because they are choosing their books, and they are running their own conversations." And I think that that's how you ultimately let go.
Sonja: And I remember us just having conversations about book clubs, and we really came to this sort of pivotal moment where for us it was that book clubs really is a vehicle to disrupt norms around how we teach reading.
Sonja: And that often when you think about the teaching of reading, some kids are having the experience where books have been chosen before they even enter our doors. The decision has been made. What they are going to read, the types of activities and assignments that they will navigate. These decisions have been made before teachers have even gotten to know their students to have an understanding of who they are as readers. And so for us, book clubs is a way to relinquish that control over reading, to really be more of a facilitator, a coach, a cheerleader for kids as they're reading. And kids are taking fully autonomy over what they read and how they read. And for us that was really exciting. Yeah.
Brett: Well, and sometimes with that choice and sometimes with that autonomy, there's another fear behind that of "Do I have to know every book? Do I have to of read every book?"
Brett: How do we manage that? Do we?
Dana: Oh my gosh. That was definitely one of our biggest fears.
Dana: And a lot of teachers that we talk to, they say, "But I haven't read all of these book club books and I don't have any time to read all of the ..." And we know. I mean, who has all of this time? And you don't need to know every single book, and you don't have to of read every single book. Every single year I buy some new book club books that for sure I've never read, and put them out there for my students. But I trust that my students can navigate these books and talk to me, and educate me about hey, this is what's going on in these books, which is exciting.
Sonja: And I think, you know, we have to reassure teachers that even though they may not have read every single story that their students will read, that's not a reason to deny kids the opportunity to make individual book choices, and choices that they want to read as clubs. Reading teachers are also teachers of genre. So you may not have read that fantasy book, but you do know how that genre works. And so you are able to go into a club and coach around what students are reading about, and what they will encounter, and what they can anticipate as readers. Same with historical fiction, with realistic fiction, with sci-fi. You understand how genres work and you can rely on that when you encounter a club that's reading a book that you haven't read.
Brett: Well, in one of the things, Sonja, that I love that you mentioned in the book, is that you do have genre specific book clubs. You have identity specific book clubs. Why is it so important and helpful, really, to sort of have book clubs under those types of themes and those types of genres, even?
Sonja: I think it really helps us to think about kids and engagement. And if we want kids to be engaged readers, then we need to have more flexible ideas about what book clubs can be. And certainly there have been years where every club in my classroom was reading the same genre, and that's okay. If that's the access you have to the books in order to make the clubs go, you have historical fiction books so this is the sort of club you're going to be doing with your students, that's fine. But we also want to push teachers to think about book clubs in lots of different ways. That you can organize students around interest. You can have students that are organized around identity. You can have students reading different genres in the classroom at the same time. If we want our kids to be lifelong readers, then we have to relinquish control around normative practices even related to book clubs.
Dana: In my classroom, some students really wanted to dive deep into graphic novels. So to have graphic novel book clubs, where they could compare different styles of graphic novels across three or four different books was really cool and exciting to them. I've also had students who have done author studies, where they've read two or three books by the same author, and then they could compare across that author the different literary practices that that author used. Similarities and differences, which was really cool.
Brett: In the book you mentioned there are six ways that students can benefit from book clubs. Can you kind of walk through some of them?
Dana: Sure. The first one and the biggest one is engagement. It's that joy of reading and engagement in terms of choice because the students have bought in. They've chosen their book. They're excited. So engagement is definitely number one. The second that we talk about a lot is discussion, and ways that discussion can be enhanced and strengthened through book clubs. We call it the hub of everything in our book because that's where the joy is, that's where the discovery is. Also technology is a big piece. We love to use blogs and various forms of digital tools, in order to enhance their conversation and stretch it.
Brett: Tell me about how reading skills is one of the ways that really helped with book club?
Sonja: So I think book clubs really helps students develop their reading skills in a variety of different ways. They have the ability to transform readers who may have been resistant or reluctant into ravenous readers. They begin to see that they can move through pages more quickly, that reading a book doesn't have to take a month or two months, or three months. That they can actually finish a book in a week and they're motivated to do it because it's a book that they've chosen, and because they have the ability to have this social experience with their peers. They can't wait to get back to the classroom and talk about the books. And also to read together. And also book clubs really help students develop critical literacy skills. We want to see students not just reading passively, but reading actively and being able to push back on ideas, to critique them and to also think about how the ideas that they're reading about can change the way that they are interpreting the world around them.
Brett: Discovery is another important thing that comes out of book clubs. Talk a little bit about the importance of discovery.
Sonja: So what's really interesting is when you conference with students and you conference with clubs, and you get to see students, what they've been reading in their clubs, it's interesting that you start having conversations where you're able to help your students realize, "Oh, you really like to read about characters who are strong women." Or "You seem to be drawn to books that really deal with some aspect of social justice." There are these patterns that you begin to see very clearly with your students as they read through book clubs. You begin to see them discovery what they like to read and why they like to read the things that they're reading.
Dana: Yes. Discovery is so wonderful because as a teacher you get to see patterns that emerge with each of your readers, and it's so exciting to see students connect with a series or an author, or a topic, and then they just become ravenous. They want to know more and it just spreads like wildfire. They tell their friends. They rush home and tell their family members. They're rushing into school the next day to find out more, and to seek more books about these topics.
Brett: Why is it important to broaden our definition of book club?
Dana: This is a topic that we talked a lot about. We've been teaching for many years now, and I've taught book clubs in second through eighth grade, and it's amazing to see how the concept of book clubs has developed over the years. What I really, really love about it is it's not just, "Well, here are four options and here are the things you have to write about, and here are the questions you have to answer. If you stray off topic, this is how I'm going to lead you back." There's just more ownership on the student's part now, and that's how we've expanded and broadened the definition of book clubs. That book clubs can be different genres, they can be different types of book clubs, and students can have more ownership so it's not as controlled as it has been in the past. That's something that I've just seen really works with kids.
Sonja: And I think we also want educators to understand that book clubs of today look different. So this notion of kids sitting in a circle and one child speaking at a time, and perhaps there's little assignments that each child has done, and they're taking turns talking about that, certainly is one way that book clubs can go. But kids today are multitaskers, and so in a club you may have two students having a conversation, one student reading, another student on a Chromebook searching up a topic that was just discussed. And I think that it's very easy for us as educators, and I'm guilty of this, to interpret that as chaos, and that learning isn't happening. And what we've discovered, which has been exciting, is that there's a lot of learning happening there.
Dana: A lot.
Sonja: And while it might make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, we are urging educators to sort of lean into that discomfort, and to trust that the kids are really listening to each other, even if it doesn't look the way that we've been taught to teach children, how it's supposed to look when they're listening and talking to one another. So in that regard, we want to expand this idea of what book clubs look like and what book clubs can be because technology is a big piece of book clubs in our classrooms because it allows kids to connect ideas that they're reading about in a text to the broader world, and it allows them to connect with their peers next door, and it allows them to connect with authors who are across states or even in different countries.
The role of technology in book clubs, I think, is a bit different than it was in the past when that was really just emerging. We were talking recently about technology and the way in which kids are engaged when they get to engage in technology. We were just saying that the platforms that kids are drawn to, whether it is Twitter or whether it is Instagram, or-
Dana: Right, Facebook.
Sonja: Whenever we can bring that into the classroom in a meaningful way, not just in add on way, kids are being able to experience school in ways that mirror their lives outside of school. And so we want book clubs to be an experience that goes beyond the four walls of a classroom and out into the world, and technology is a big piece of that.
Dana: And there are so many different digital tools that teachers can use now that mimic other tools, such as Instagram and Twitter without actually being those tools. So we love using Padlet, we love using Kidblog because these are safe educator friendly, student friendly digital tools that everybody can use and incorporate into their book clubs, which is so great because like Sonja said, you can connect with not just within your own class, but now your students can leave the four walls of your classroom and connect with other sections, other classes in other schools, even in different countries. So it's exciting.
Brett: As we redefine what book clubs mean in the classroom, what is your vision for book clubs?
Dana: Oh, joy.
Dana: That's our overarching goal. We want joy. We want our students to become lifelong readers and we want them to have that feeling of selecting a book and finishing it, and talking about it with other people, so that they understand that this is what reading is all about. This is the enjoyment of reading, right here in this moment. And that when they grow older, hopefully as they go through middle school, as they go through high school, hopefully they will connect with others in meaningful ways over texts. That's our dream.
Sonja: And I think it's an exciting time to be a teacher of reading, where the authors that our students are reading, and the authors whose written books that our students are reading, have really become rock stars to them. And that is so super exciting, and it has-
Dana: And to us, and to us. We're like, "Yay!"
Sonja: Right. And the enthusiasm for reading because of that has just been infectious in the classroom. And then there are these movements that are really all about reading. We need diverse books and own voices books, and I just think it's an exciting time where we're all just thinking about the importance of reading. We're all thinking about reading identities, we're all thinking about how do we help kids really match to books, connect to books, see themselves in books, get to see the world through books. And so we just feel that book clubs is a space where we can capitalize on all of that great energy, and transform the reading lives of our students.
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Sonja Cherry-Paul, EdD, has taught middle school English for twenty years. She is a literacy consultant who served on the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award committee for ten years. Sonja leads presentations about literacy at national conferences and provides professional development for educators on reading and writing instruction and racial literacy.
She is the coauthor, with Dana Johansen, of the titles Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop.
Follow Sonja on Twitter @LitLearnAct
Dana Johansen has taught elementary and middle school for more than fifteen years. Dedicated to the ever-expanding applications of technology in the classroom, she presents at national conferences on the use of blogs, digital texts, and flipped learning in literacy instruction.
She is the coauthor, with Sonja Cherry-Paul, of the titles Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop.
Follow Dana on Twitter @LitLearnAct