When You Know Better: A Journey to Authentic Book Clubs by Jennifer Brittin

I killed book clubs. How did I do it? It took a lot of planning. I spent many late nights searching online for the right tools. I anticipated every possible thing that could go wrong and had a carefully thought-out solution for each misstep.  I allowed for no deviation from my outlined execution. And in the end, no one even realized that I had done anything wrong. Well, no one except for me.

When I think of the crimes I committed against the readers in my classroom, as I was first starting book clubs, I shudder at the thoughts. All of my well-intended research put me on a path to make three mistakes that sucked the life out of one of the best reading experiences that students can share. My mistakes were simple.   Three little words, really: levels, roles, and packets.  The explanation behind them was fairly simple as well.  I placed my students in a book club based on their reading levels.  This made sense to me, because I knew what was best for my students. What if someone chose a book that was far too difficult? What disaster would play out as he struggled along, not understanding the book? And roles. Roles would bring stability to the meetings and give students a clear purpose during reading. I gave out roles like, The Summarizer or The Questioner.  Students were eager to take on these jobs. They seemed to enjoy them just as much as the packets. Yes, I had some task packets that I was very proud of. They were the latest and greatest from a popular teacher site. They screamed cool and fun AND easy to grade!

And although book clubs started out as something new and exciting, students quickly lost interest in books that they didn’t choose. They began squabbling over their roles, and the trend-setting task packets that looked so appealing inspired little of the higher level thinking I was hoping to see.  So, I tried again, making some adjustments, but operating under the same flawed premises that bored students and left me frustrated. The results continued to be unimpressive.

Thankfully, I was saved by a book (of course).  The wisdom in Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer breathed new life into my teaching of reading, and I started to see the possibilities for authentic and meaningful clubs in my classroom.  I was ready to try again, with a fresh perspective and new purpose.  And new was just what we needed.

Choice Instead of Levels

Instead of placing students into clubs with a book that perfectly matches their reading levels, now they choose their clubs. We’ve spent a lot of time developing book-selecting habits, and book clubs are a perfect place that we can put those strategies into action. Book Preview Day generates some big time buzz in our classroom, and students can’t wait to dive in and spend a few minutes reading a bit of each possible book club selection. Several copies of each book are placed on tables throughout the room, and students move from table to table previewing, jotting notes, and whispering with classmates. These days are some of my favorite all year. I love the desperate notes I get, like the one I received from a student who refused to put a second or third choice down. “I must read Rules, Mrs. Brittin. I just have to!”

Real Talk Instead of Roles

One of the scariest, but best decisions I made was to completely abandon any kind of roles during book club meetings. I knew that it was important for everyone to be a part of the conversation, but my vision for what that looked like was completely changing.  At first, I worried that without the structure of roles, students wouldn’t know what to talk about or how to keep talking once they started.  I worried unnecessarily. When given the chance to read a book of their choosing, students were bursting with ideas to share. Were they all amazingly insightful? No, but real conversations took place that led to more thinking and more reading.

I also worried about the student who wouldn’t talk or the one who talked too much. This happened a lot. I’m realizing, though, that natural roles will emerge in clubs. Some students will fall into the role of discussion leader, while others will quietly wait, saying something simple but brilliant when the time is right. And still others may be listeners at first. It’s not important for me to assign roles, but to nurture students to be a part of the group in their own way.

Purpose Instead of Packets

Now, when I plan my clubs, I start by asking, what’s the point?  If in the end, my students hand in a packet that proves they did some reading, then we’ve all missed the point completely. I recently had my class take a survey about book clubs. When asked what the purpose of book clubs is, one little boy answered, “You get to know other people’s ideas about a book and see how they are the same and different from your own.”  Another student wrote, “To become better friends with the person you’re sharing the book with.” When I read these and many other touching answers I thought YES and YES!  Talk grows our ideas. Books have the power to bring us closer together. I loved these responses, and they helped me understand how to frame the end result.

What does assessment look like now in our clubs?  It depends on the club. After a round of theme-based clubs, students might write their own precepts based on a lesson in the book. This type of work was inspired by our deep affection for R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. Or, after reading a book with a social issue, students may write about how the book changed them. One of my new favorite questions to ask is, How are you a better person now that you’ve read this book?

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”  Such wise words for all of us. We are all on a journey to something better.  My students are on their way to better talk and better understanding during book clubs.  I’m on my way to better teaching.  But more importantly, we are all on our way to being better people, and books are part of that journey: empowering, inspiring, and changing us.

Jennifer Brittin has been teaching fourth grade for the past twelve years. Read about her experiences teaching literacy on her blog: corneroffourth.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter @jenbrittin.