The Secret Book Society by Cathlin Shahriary
It started as a spark, a sudden burst of inspiration that struck me over the summer. It was probably due to the insane amount of books I had consumed while being stuck off of my feet recovering from surgery or the pain meds, but nevertheless the idea struck me – I should start a book club. I missed my little voracious readers (previous students) that would be moving on to fifth graders and wanted a way to still talk with them about what they were reading. So, I decided to start a book club.
At my previous school, our fantastic librarian, Mrs. Dobbs, was known to have book clubs with several different grade levels during her lunch. My students loved it. They would come back excitedly continuing their conversation from book club and eager to read the next book. While this worked well for her, I knew it wouldn’t work for me. My previous students wouldn’t have the same lunch time as I did, but I still wanted to talk about reading and encourage them to try new books. I also wanted to include other students, not just ones who had been in my class. I decided to make my book club a secret book club (like fight club but instead of fighting, we read and talk about books).
First, I set up guidelines for the secret book club. Ideally, I wanted to use books that I had already read so I could discuss them with the students. Since I didn’t have a ton of copies of one book on hand, I decided to use several different books and rotate them around. I picked books that I already had extra copies of in my classroom or ones I easily found on sale over the summer. I started by drafting a letter stating the guidelines to include with the books when I handed them to students. The letter stated that I had selected the student to be a member of the Secret Book Society and to participate all they had to do was read the book and write me a letter with their thoughts about the book. They could also sign their name and date inside the book. (I know what some of you are thinking – What? ! Write in a book? ! I know, it sounds crazy, but the ownership that students get from writing their name in that book is so amazing. I think some of them may have participated only to leave their mark in a book so that future readers could see it and wonder who they were).
After receiving my principal’s approval, I asked my fellow fourth grade teacher for a couple of names of previous students who loved to read. I asked them what kinds of books those students enjoyed and tried to match the book with the student, or push them out of their comfort zone and try something new. I placed a copy of the letter and the book in a manila envelope with the student’s name and the word TOP SECRET across the envelope. I snuck into fifth grade classrooms and discreetly handed off the envelope, whispering, “Open this later when you are alone.” And thus, the Secret Book Society (SBS) was born.
After getting a few fifth graders involved, I trickled the books down to include several fourth graders. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of which books were with who and checked in with the students from now and then (because some of them needed a gentle nudge to finish or return the books). My favorite moment was when a fourth grade student (who I honestly hadn’t considered would be interested in SBS) came up to me at recess and whispered in my ear, “Mrs. Shahriary, can I join your book club?” I, of course, played dumb, since the point of a secret book club is to keep it secret. He was persistent and started telling me how much he loved reading and all about the book he was currently reading. I told him that if I had any knowledge of a book club I would let him know, and with a wink I sent him on his way. One of the great things about a Secret Book Society, is that I knew the secret would get out and hoped it might make others want to join. (Of course the next day that particular student also received a top secret envelope.)
Just last month we had our very first meeting. I handed each of the students an invitation a week before, and Friday morning armed with donuts and books, I arrived early at school. Not all of the students could make it since I had scheduled the meeting before school, but I hoped there would at least be a few. I was pleased when about three-quarters of our members showed up, excited to be at school half an hour early. Two fellow teachers also joined me, and while I didn’t have much of a plan going into our meeting, I found I didn’t really need one. The kids took ownership of our little club and ran it. We ate donuts, talked about the books we had read for SBS, and made requests for the next book they wanted to read for SBS based on what they heard from the other students. I gave away several books, including a few signed copies I had picked up at the Texas Book Festival.
The last part of the meeting was probably my favorite. I asked, “So what are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for me?” And boy, did they! I loved the moments of “I loved that one, too!” or the “Oh, I’ll have to try that one!” comments that shot up around the room. We shared our love of novel series like 39 Clues and authors like Rick Riordan. I think we all left with a list of books to add to our TBR (To Be Read) piles and a few new book friends. The consensus we found was that the students can’t wait for our next meeting, and to be honest, neither can I.
My goals with our Secret Book Society are to eventually trickle SBS down to third and second grade this year, to get books into more students’ hands, and to continue discussing books with our current members. I can’t wait to see where this Secret Book Society spark will take us and how we can spread the reading fire at our school.
You can find a document with the letter I send to students at http://bit.ly/1BnQARQ . I encourage you to take it and make it your own. Nothing would make me happier than to see this fire spread to other schools.
Cathlin Shahriary is a fourth grade dual language teacher in Lewisville, Texas. She has been teaching for the last nine years. When she’s not molding the minds of our youth, she can be found cyberstalking her favorite authors, attending book signings, talking about books with her friends, or curled up on the couch reading with her cats or dog. On occasion she also likes to post video book reviews to share with students the books she’s reading at http://yourteacherreads.blogspot.com/. You can also follow her class on Twitter @shahriarysclass.