My AFFL Reading Group by J. Michael Hutchinson

I got an intimidating email in my in-box the other day. It was from Colby Sharp asking if I was interested in writing for the Nerdy Book Club blog. Now I had signed up to be considered for the guest blogging role, so I knew I might get tapped, but still being asked to write for a blog and community that I have always just lurked near was daunting.

I was asked to write a post for the tag “Pay it Forward.” I’m still not sure exactly want that means so I have spent the last few days thinking of how I would respond. My first thought went to my work with SMS Guys Read, a reading club I started nearly six years ago to champion boys reading and highlight the books that appeal to guys. I love working with my guys read club, but a digital friend of mine, Mr. Shaffer wrote both eloquently and elaborately on the subject of Guys Read and even gave our club and our Intercontinental Ballistic Reading Group a cool shout out.

So what was I to write about? After looking back over some older posts and thinking about what else I manage to do in the reading lives of my students and school I have decided to talk about my AFFL group. Even now, nearly a year since its inception that joke still gets me smiling… my AFFL (pronounced awful) reading group. Still funny.

So let me go back to the beginning and set the stage for you. I teach sixth grade social studies on an interdisciplinary team of four teachers. We teach the classic four core subjects of Language Arts, Science, Math and Social Studies. Even though I am the social studies teacher and not the traditional reading teacher, my love for children’s literature has pushed me to become more of a champion for reading on our team. I have pushed, I will say without much resistance, for the role of reading to be a shared responsibility and not just the focus of our language arts teacher on our team. We now each take a day of the week to have silent free reading session and do with the students what we will. That means that students on our team will have SSR in Math, LA, Science and SS once each week. It is now so ingrained in the minds of our teachers that we look forward to our SSR day as much as the students, sometimes maybe even more.

We also used this sharing of responsibility and the focus on championing reading from lots of points of view to the area of circulation and the media center. Normally the Language Arts teacher is the only instructor allowed in the media center for student’s circulation time. We decided to share the responsibility between the science and social studies teachers. Now both my science colleague and I had once taught language arts so we both felt comfortable in the role of sharing books, and wanted our student the experience to hear our thoughts on books and reading as well.

My science colleague is an old friend and we have playfully disagreed on my subjects over our teacher careers, but after we jumped head first into reading we found we had one gigantic reading difference. I told a student they should read Percy Jackson and The Lighting Thief, My science buddy over heard this advice and thought he might need to see what all the Percy Jackson fuss was about. He read the book and hated it. In fact he decided right then and there that he hated all fantasy books and went about telling any sixth grader within ear shot how bad fantasy stories were.  The battle lines on our team started to form.

This became a year of banter back and forth between us, him championing nonfiction and me championing fantasy. After one relatively heated confrontation about Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, I decided I need to something more than banter; I had to band all of our fantasy loving students together, so I formed the AFFL reading group. AFFL stands for the Anti F(our fantasy loathing teacher’s last name starts with F) Fantasy League. Our role was to champion fantasy reading and blow razz-berries and anyone who claimed fantasy was silly or dumb.

We started meeting once a week during our school’s enrichment time and started out reading Colin Meloy’s Wildwood. After reading and meeting for a few weeks, we actually decided that this was more than just a one off club and we need to become more of a permanent group. We then created a blog and started meeting regularly at lunch.

After Wildwood, we started reading the Unwanteds by Lisa McMann and started making videos to go along with our readings. Those videos were the highlight of our time together and really probably one of the reasons so many students kept coming around, even if that meant not eating in the lunch room with the other students.

After a few videos, my flip camera started to die. The video sound kept coming out all fuzzy and I made a half joking comment asking if anyone would like to donate a new camera. Lisa McMann saw our videos about her book and responded that she would be willing to share a camera with us as well as some really fantastic sway from her great Unwanteds book. My AFFL students were over the moon. Not only had the author of this book we loved written to us, but she loved what we were doing and was willing to share cool stuff with us. Powerful!

We even asked Lisa McMann what we should read after The Unwanteds. She demanded (her words) that we read The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen. After reading some of The False Prince and making more fun and fantastic videos Ms. Nielsen saw what we were up to and wrote us a very kind and incredibly powerful letter, she included with the letter some stones to go along with the plot of her fantastic story and some autographed stickers.

Three books read and two very powerful reading experiences met. We finished The False Prince right as our school year was ending, but we living the slightly strange world of year-round schools, so the end of last year was the end of June and we have already been back to school for about three weeks. As I see my now 7th grade AFFL members in the hallways they ask continually what is up with AFFL? So this school year we have made AFFL a legit after school club meeting twice a month. Our first meeting was last week and it was almost like a family reunion, even though we had only been gone a few weeks.

We have an author visit from Kenneth Oppel happening at the end of the month so AFFL will be reading his Silverwing novel and hopefully having a grand conversation with him and maybe some local bat experts. T-shirts are being planned and the members of AFFL are just as committed and excited about our group as they were when it first formed. In fact I now have to decide what to do with this year’s group of 6th graders. The word is out there that we have this AFFL reading group for students who love fantasy and current 6th graders are starting to ask me, “When can I join AFFL?” I think this AFFL group might have legs.

So what is my point in all of this rambling, really I think it boils down to championing reading wherever you can. Finding a hook and running with it.  I have found that middle school students crave the club setting and if structure the club around books and reading you can be successful with students.

I am lucky to teach in a school and on a team that love to read. I am lucky to have a friend who can push me on my love of fantasy and then handle me pushing back with a club named in his honor. I am truly honored to work with groups of students who love to read and are willing to give up their personal free time to meet with me and talk about books.