Why Book Clubs Suck And We Need to Talk About It

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I had meticulously made my lists.  I had thoughts of habits, tastes, personalities, reading preferences, pace and yes, even their assessment data.  I had scoured the book room, gone book shopping spending my own money and used most of my Scholastic points.  More than 50 choices awaited my students, I couldn’t wait to start book clubs.

So when I announced that today was the day they would know their book club groups, I had not planned for the groan of disapproval that met me.  The disgusted stares and the change in body language; slumped shoulders, heads down.  Clearly, they were not as excited as I was.  And so I did what I always do; I asked why.  Or more specifically, I mimicked what a student said, which was that book clubs suck, and I asked “Tell me all of the reason why book clubs suck…”

And boy did they ever.

“We hate being forced to read certain books.  Sometimes we have read them before, sometimes they are boring, sometimes we cannot relate to them no matter how hard we try.  We want choice, we want things that we want to read, we can decide by ourselves.

We hate being told when to read, how many pages, and what we should discuss.  Sometimes we want to read only a few pages because we know we are busy, other times we want to read a lot.  We want to come up with our own questions and we don’t want a teacher to facilitate.  Let us try to navigate it ourselves.  Let us try to lead the conversations.  Help us when we need it but don’t assume we need it all of the time.

We hate having a book take weeks and weeks to finish.  Sometimes we just want to read because it is so good, and what is wrong with that.  When it drags on we lose interest.  When it drags on we forget what is happening.

We hate being stuck with a book even if we chose it.  We hate being placed in groups with students we have nothing in common with.  We hate having to keep logs, write reports, and do group work when all we want to do is read and discuss.  Don’t you see, we hate book clubs.”

So I listened, and I answered their questions whether they wanted me to or not.  Carefully explained my vision for the next few weeks and why.  Would there be writing – no, just the thoughts they felt they needed to jot down to facilitate a discussion.  Would there be choice – of course, the books were waiting patiently for them and if they found none here then we have a library to go to.  They kept asking and I kept explaining, and as we went on their faces changed and the shoulders came back up.

Every class I taught that day went through the same process.  I didn’t expect to have those conversation 5 times in a row but that is exactly what happened.  Every time I mentioned book clubs, the groan came at me like a wave.  And yet, as we discussed I once again learned more about my students and their reading habits.  I learned how they want to be independent readers and thinkers, how they want to be able to have choice in everything so that they can invest themselves fully.  How it is okay that I put them into groups as long as I explain why those groups were made and that it wasn’t just based on one thing.

I could have ignored their groans, a few years ago I would have, I would have told them to “Suck it up, deal with it and make the best of it.”  Yet, I know from experience that if we want book clubs or anything that has to do with reading to work then we have to have these hard conversations.  We have to discuss, tear apart, and work through the demons that students carry, those preconceived notions of what is going to happen in the next few weeks, before we ever get an authentic buy-in; a reading experience that matters.

The day after the conversation, I had them book shop.  Every group went from choice to choice and debated the merits of the books laid out before them.  Every group weighed their options, and only one group  out of about 30 needed my guidance in book choice.  Yesterday, as I revealed the books they were going to read, most groups cheered.  Some kids asked if they could start right away?  Please, because the book looks really good and we are so excited.

Had I not stopped and listened to my students.  Had I not stopped the plan of what I was going to do.  Had I forged ahead, gone on with our day, there would have been few cheers and instead the next few weeks would have been filled with the passive resignation that middle schoolers do so well.  Yeah book clubs suck, but they don’t have to.  We have to find a way to talk about it and change the way they are done. And the first place we start is by asking out students why they suck or any other word that may describe their feelings toward them.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

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7 thoughts on “Why Book Clubs Suck And We Need to Talk About It

  1. It’s much easier to plow over kids’ ideas and interests and force them into our well-prepared work. Kudos to you for taking the difficult, but more fulfilling path. There’s a revolution coming in education. Thanks for all you do to facilitate students taking back control of their own learning!

  2. My fifth graders love book clubs because they have choice, freedom to write their own questions, and set their own pace. I choose the groups initially and limit them to four students. But the groups occasionally split and join up with another group depending on their likes, dislikes and motivation to read fast. My heart hurts when my former students come back and tell me they’re only reading class novels at their middle school. Thanks for providing a great example and validating what I’m doing. My kids would love to have you in middle school!

  3. Just the fact that they knew what they wanted and what exactly it was that sucked speaks volumes about the fabulous learning conditons they experience with you. I was struck by how everything they wanted is what we as teachers really want them to want…

  4. Pingback: How to Do Book Clubs in the Middle School Classroom | Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension

  5. Pingback: Ideas For How to Do Better Book Clubs in Middle School |

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