I knew when I moved to 7th grade that book clubs would be one of the things that moved with me. That shared reading experience where students would get to just read and discuss is something I have loved having in the classroom the past few years. I knew it would be a different experience in the middle school classroom, after all their maturity would push their thinking, what I had not accounted for was also how my whole approach to the purpose of it would need to change to cater to a more critical mindset. So what do book clubs in the middle school classroom need to be successful?
An honest conversation. I would not have gotten student buy in if I had not had an honest conversation with them beforehand. They needed a chance to vent all of their frustrations with book clubs in order to see how this time around they might be different. They needed to know that their thoughts and yes, feelings, were validated and considered. While most would have invested themselves in the process simply because it was expected, I didn’t want that type of buy-in, I wanted a genuine desire to use this for good, to enjoy the 4 weeks or so it would last.
Choice in books. I know it is easier to have a small amount of pre-selected books for students to choose from so we can help facilitate the conversations, but with more than 100 students to cater to I knew I needed choice and lots of it. With the help of my amazing library team, bonus points from Scholastic, and the phenomenal Books4school, I was able to present the students with more than 50 different choices for titles. This way no group needed to share books and all students should be able to find something to agree on. I also told them that if they couldn’t find anything, to let me know, we would find the right book for them.
Choice in rules. While I may have an idea for how a book club should function, I needed student ownership over the reading, as well as how their discussions would unfold. All groups decided their own rules and posted them on the wall. It has been powerful to see them guide their conversations, and yes, also dole out consequences to members within their groups that have not read or are not participating.
Choice in speed. All of my groups read at different paces, so they determine how many pages a night they need to read as well as when they would like to have the book finished by within our 4 week time frame. One group, in fact, has already finished a book.
Choice in conversation. Book clubs should not function around the teacher, in fact, I have noticed that when I do listen in to an otherwise lively conversation the students immediately get timid in most cases. I have learned to listen from a distance and only offer up solid small ideas to push their conversation further when they really needed it. Too often our mere presence will hijack a group and students don’t learn to trust their own opinions and analysis. Removing yourself from the process means students have to figure it out. For those groups that struggle we talk about in our private mini-lesson.
Choice in abandonment. I do not want students stuck with a book they hate, so some groups chose to abandon their books within a week and made a better choice. Rather than think of it as lost reading time, I cheered over the fact that my students know themselves as readers. All of my students are now reading a book that they at the very least like and that is an accomplishment in my eyes.
Choice in length and meeting time. Students are allotted time every other day to meet in their book clubs and have 28 minutes to discuss and read some more. While I have told student to try to push their conversations, I have also urged them to keep them under 10 minutes unless they are having a great discussion. Students vary the length of their book clubs depending on what their self-chosen topic of discussion is and figure out how their group works best in the process.
Choice in final product. While our true purpose of having book clubs is to have a shared reading experience, I am also asking the students to do a book talk of some sort when they finish. There are two reasons behind this; to assess the standards we are covering in the quarter but also for them to develop their critical thinking skills. If the book they read is not suited for future book clubs then I need to know why. I don’t want students to have a lengthy project because that is not what book clubs are about.
While my method for integrating book clubs may seem loose at best, I have found incredible buy-in from the students. They have been excited to read their books, they have been excited to share their thoughts, and the accountability that they feel toward one another is something I would not be able to produce through force. Middle schoolers need a framework to grow within, they need our purposes to be authentic as much as possible, and they need to have a voice in how things function within our classroom. Book clubs offer us a way to have these moments in reading that abound with deep reading conversations that I may not be able to have as a whole group, they allow even the quietest student to have a voice. They allow students to feel validated in their thoughts and they allow them to share their knowledge with each other. What have you done to create successful book clubs?
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, 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.