Book Clubs, Literacy, Passionate Readers, Reading, Reading Identity

How We Set Up Book Clubs in Middle School

Last week, we kicked off our second and final round of book clubs for the year. As I shared the titles for this round of book clubs, I was asked a lot of implementation questions. What do they look like? What do kids do? How do you make them successful? And while I have been referring people back to this post that discusses the changes that we have implemented through the years, I thought it might be nice for a comprehensive post that shares the how and why of what we do.

Timeline and Time Spent

Where do book clubs fit in for us? This graph may help with our layoot for the year. While I love doing book clubs, I will not do more than two of them in a year, our students ask us for moderation in everything we do and so two is enough in order for them to have other experiences with books as well. Of course, students may choose to run their own book clubs at any point, but they are not required to discuss their books like this except for these two times.

Having a gap in the book clubs allows us to continue our all-year focus on joyful independent reading, as well as see their growth. Since we start out the year by focusing on their independent reading and then slip into a read aloud for the Global Read Aloud we have done a lot of work with establishing our overall reading community. This helps a lot when I need students to work independently either reading or discussion while I am coaching other students in our team area.

In our 90 minutes our breakdown looks something like this (note this is the only time during the year that we do not start our class with independent reading:

  • Five minute word study (a root word exploration required by our district).
  • 10-20 minute mini-lesson, it becomes about 10 minutes once we have read aloud our anchor mentor text – a short story that I found in the brilliant book Unbroken – 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Marieke Nijkamp.
  • Then 20 to 30 minutes is reading time for the groups. They can also choose to discuss in their group, I require they discuss in front of a teacher once a week.
  • After our bell break, we usually finish with book clubs and switch to our writing work for 45 minutes. We will be kicking off our This I Believe writing unit next week that fits in nicely with our book club theme.

Overall Purpose

The number one purpose of book clubs for us is for students to engage in meaningful discussions, that are rooted in their chosen books but not confined by them. We really want students to feel like they are honing their voices, continuing to carve out their ideas and thoughts on the world, and also find others to share their thoughts with. This community piece is huge for us, which is why there is very limited written work associated with their time in book clubs.

We have a few guidelines in room 235D:

  • The book club experience needs to protect their reading identity.
  • The book club experience needs to be worth their time.
  • The book club experience needs to give them opportunities for authentic, non-teacher directed conversations.
  • The book club experience needs to help them grow as readers, thinkers, and human beings.
  • The book club experience needs to be accessible to all types of readers. It is not just meant for the chosen few.

We want to make sure at all times that these guidelines are honored in order to protect the reading community we have painstakingly built together. This means that we check in with these guidelines before we implement anything.

This also means that the skills they are assessed on are directly tied into their discussions and not to any written work, unless they choose this. The rubric for their discussions can be viewed here. If a student does not do well in discussion or would rather be assessed through writing, we give them the option to do this one-pager created by my fantastic colleague Liz. We also have a few kids where they are doing the one-pager and discussing with an adult instead of with a group because of extenuating circumstances. However, we try our very best to give ALL kids the same experience, even if we provide more support for some of them in order to be successful. Often, kids who are labeled as below grade level readers will not be exposed to the same reading experiences and opportunities as their peers, because we worry that they will not be able to do it, however, when we remove even the opportunity for them to try then we may end up limiting their future growth. How can you ever be successful in discussions if you have never been expected to do one?

Book Choices

Central to the experience is, of course, the choice of books. While our first book club of the year is centered around Dystopian Science Fiction (which the students loved), this second round is centered on the theme overcoming obstacles. Because this is a broad theme it has allowed us to bring in all types of formats of books, as well as honor many different reading accessibility points. We, therefore, have more than 40 books to choose from. These include many genres such as realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction. It also includes different formats beyond the regular chapter books such as free verse novels, graphic novels, and audio books.

While all students are expected to read at least one book in the three or so week span that clubs last, we also have groups who choose to read an entire series. They then engage in across series comparison work. One trick then is to make sure that they slow down enough to think deeply across the books and not just skim through the pages.

To see our book club choices, please view the slide show. Note: this is updated and I keep updating it so if you want to remember these choices, I would encourage you to make a copy for yourself.

One thing, we are asked a lot is how do you have so many books? There are a few factors at play here. One, my district, Oregon School District, believes in the power of funding books. This is why we have a beautiful school library and classroom libraries. We have a well-curated book room that continues to grow and expand as we add more titles, we tend to add groups of 5 to 10 titles in order to have a lot of different books to offer rather than just a few. I also buy a lot of books, I wish it wasn’t that way, but I do. While I certainly buy many via traditional means, I also use Books4School and Scholastic to help supplement our collection.

Because our book clubs are central components every year, we have been adding to our collection year after year and I don’t think that will stop any time soon. We have a lot of different readers and need a lot of different books.

Making Groups and Choosing Books

Because choice and honoring who our students are as human beings is a central component, we knew we needed to offer students ways to be invested in who they are spending all of this time with, as well as the book(s) that they end up reading. This is why they have a central voice in who they are with.

This starts with the partner interviews. This is a way for all students to reflect on who they are as a reader and what they need others to be in their groups. While many students naturally gravitate toward interviewing their friends, they often find that their friends’ reading habits do not match their own. They use this sheet to interview each other and then hand it in. For this later round of book clubs, students were given the opportunity to totally group themselves. We did discuss that they needed to be welcoming to all students and to base this off their reading habits, not just who they were friends with. All classes did a really nice job setting up their groups. All groups are kept to 3 or 4 students, with a rare exception for a partnership or a group of 5. We like the 3 to 4 people groups because it means everyone has an active role.

We do not assign roles to members of the group because we see this as an artificial component of groups, that while it may be helpful when students first start out in book clubs in younger grades, really can end up changing the experience and not allowing them to fully express themselves they way we would like them to.

Once they have created a group, they then go through the slideshow to select their top 5 of the books. There are two rules, they have to follow:

  1. No one in the group can have read the book or watched the movie.
  2. Everyone has to agree to rank it.

For some of my voracious readers, there were not enough choices. We then enlist the help of our classroom library, school library, and our librarian in order to help them find something they want. This is also where I typically end up buying one or two other sets of books that then get added into our rotation.

Once their books have been selected, they turn their sheets into me and then wait a day while we puzzle out what they get. The very next day, they are then introduced to their book club choice. Students then create their own reading plan breakdown. This is once again to honor their busy lives and reading habits. They then sign up for one day a week to discuss in front of a teacher, who assesses their discussion skills. There are still a few choices here:

  1. The group can choose to change their book before they even begin – we then show them what is left for them to choose from.
  2. The group can choose to abandon the book together within the first 3 days of reading. This is in case they don’t love it as much as they should. We want this experience to be awesome, not awful so book choice is vital.
  3. A student can choose to abandon their group within the first 3 days as well, if they really dislike the book or the dynamics are not working out for some reason. They then need to approach another group to ask if they can join them (with adult support) and then catch up to that group.

If a group needs access to the audio version of the book in order for all kids to be successful, we then add the book to our Audible account. We don’t ever want the decoding of the words to stand in the way for a child to truly participate since the decoding is not what is being assessed. This also allows our kiddos who need extra support to be a part of these clubs without barriers that may harm their reading identity. Many groups also end up using Audible as a way to read together, thus enhancing the reading experience.

And now they read and we start our mini-lessons. We always give them a few days to get into their book, during this time we do reminders of what we are looking for in powerful discussions, as well as have them do a main character baseline.

Other “tools” we introduce to help our students find success are…

  • Creating an anchor chart following our mini-lessons of what they can pay attention to when they are reading.
  • Handing them a bookmark that also gives them things to discuss. They tape their reading plan to the back of it. I also pull small groups that need extra support with their discussions in order to help them find success.
  • I stop discussions if they are not going well. If it is clear that a group is not prepared to discuss, I would rather pause them than keep them going. This means they get a chance to come back the following day once they have prepared. If it happens again, then they do their discussion ad we discuss what needs to happen the following week.
  • Lots of post-its or note cards. This is the only time during the year where we require students take notes as they read. I do mini-lessons on what you can annotate for so that there is a deeper meaning to their notes and not just “…the teacher said I had to do it…” some students need more help than others. They cannot discuss if they do not have evidence pulled to support their thoughts.
  • Discussion prep sheets. We have found that if we have students pick things they want to pay attention to and discuss the following week, their discussions are so much better. This graphic organizer changes as we see fit. Before they then discuss in front of us, we ask them what they are focused on this week and then hold them accountable for that.
  • Partner feedback groups. I have written more about these in this blog post.

After the first week, I pull them to discuss in front of me and then continue to do so every week. The first discussion is a formative discussion and then the following two are summative. I will write another post about what I am listening for if there is any interest in that.

PS: In case, you missed the announcement, I am running a book study of my first book Passionate Learners this summer in the Passionate Readers Facebook group. You should join us!

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

15 thoughts on “How We Set Up Book Clubs in Middle School”

  1. Thank you for sharing all your wonderful resources. It’s amazing how much my book clubs have changed over the years. It is always nice to see how someone else handles book clubs and maybe pick up some new or different ideas.I always look forward to reading your posts.

    1. I am interested in knowing what and how much you grade, not only for book club but also independent reading etc.
      I am going to restructure my entire ELAR classes this year but I am concerned as to how the grading might work. Please help if you are able.
      Thank you

  2. Thank you so much for this great, informational post! It is awesome that you are sharing all these resources!

  3. For your students with disabilities or ELL population that are reading at significantly lower levels their classmates, do you only provide access to texts through audiobooks? I love this idea, but I feel like I still am looking for more. I struggled a lot this year with book club groupings roughly around reading level as well as interest because I had two readers that had success in the NOPQ band while their classmates had ventured far into UVW and even XYZ books. I don’t want my striving students to miss out on even hearing proficient conversations by constantly being grouped together, but I also don’t want them to miss out on authentic reading experiences without audiobook support. What are your thoughts on this? What other suggestions do you have?

    1. I am not sure what you are asking, we provide audiobook support so that there can be choice grouping and they don’t get stuck with the same kids over and over. Because our emphasis is on discussion, they will still know the story even if they are working through some of the finer nuances. Having them exposed to abstract thinking done by their peers if very powerful even if they are still working on the skill themselves.

  4. I would be interested in hearing about what you are listening for in student discussion groups. Thank you for breaking this down more. Every student, every class, every year has new opportunities to try something different. Many of my students will not speak – this is new to me as I have always had class that have 3-4 students who model enthusiasm and participation. Book clubs are a bit scary for all of us this year as we navigate this dynamic.

  5. These resources are phenomenal—thank you for sharing. My middle school students valued their discussion time during their book club earlier this year! Our second one will revolve around poetry and I am very excited to begin—utilizing more mini-lessons, anchor charts and book tastings this time around. I too enjoy how book clubs have grown over the years. I had the opportunity to hear you speak in Michigan last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks, again.

  6. I noticed that you mentioned you let the students listen to Audible. Is this a class Audible acct or their own personal acct? How can more than one student listen to something on Audible at the same time. Thank you for all of your amazing resources!!!

    1. We have an account for the class where students use a common login, they can then select the books they are listening to and they can listen on different devices at the same time. All they have to ensure is to hit “cancel” when they get a pop up asking them if they want to start where they last left off.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in middle school books clubs. I am excited to model our book clubs after the things I have learned in your blog. Do you have a list of all the books you have as choices in your book club?

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