Book Clubs: The Struggle is Real by Phyllis Sutton and Jennifer Traub

I have always been a reader. 


Well, not really.  When I look back over my reading life, I see huge gaps. I barely read in high school.  I specifically remember a class where I despised the assigned reading.  So I didn’t do any of it.  Instead, I completed every single extra credit option available, walking out with a solid A at the end of the semester.


In college, I read what I had to read, but did not read for pleasure. There was not time, what with school and work and a social life.


Most of my reading memories come from reading to my children.  Our weekly trips to the library.  Miss Debbie, the librarian, greeting us and suggesting wonderful books for us to share. Curling up on  the couch with a stack of books and 1,2, or 3 kids curled up on and around me.


I have always been a reader… really. My memories start curled up on the couch with my mom and a stack of books (sometimes a brother or sister), sharing stories and snuggles. As I grew up, I simply moved over to the corner of the couch, immersed in my own stories.


After we had a read-a-thon in fourth grade, I invited friends over that summer and we spread out on our towels in the front yard, sharing snacks and our favorite stories.


I waited in lines for Harry Potter, reading them as quickly as I could to avoid any spoilers, then frantically racing to find my friends and discuss my favorite plot lines. I annihilated books, then waited in lines to see their movie adaptations (though if I’m honest, they never quite lived up to the hype).


Moving into my first year teaching, I read every fifth grade novel I could get my hands on, so that I could passionately share in this reading life with my kids. I knew from experience that there was a difference between a teacher that read, and a teacher that told you it was important to read.


What made this memories of reading so important?


The fact that I was not reading just to me.  As my children grew up, it was not unusual for us to talk about what we were reading.  To suggest books to each other. Nobody would dream of going on vacation without an assortment of books to read. Being in the company of readers made all the difference.


Fast forward to the classroom.  How do we build that atmosphere for our students?  Gathering a group of willing teachers together this summer, we decided to “practice” what book clubs felt like to the students.  How could we use this shared reading experience to both grow a love of reading and deeper understanding of what books could mean to us?


Having been a crazy reader my whole life, and having run book clubs in my classroom, I assumed that this book club would be a piece of cake. Read some fun books, talk about them, eat delicious snacks… sounds like a no brainer! What I experienced was something totally different.


A group of 4 teachers, all dedicated to developing a love of books with our students, gathered together to “practice” book clubs. We chose a favorite author and fully expected the experience to be fabulous.  However, for me – not so much.  The book wasn’t a favorite, I struggled to find a reason to jot or write about reading. We had started the book club without a defined purpose; when we met, we didn’t really know how to talk or what to talk about. This experience, though uncomfortable, really helped me understand how students might feel.


I expected our first book to be amazing, given how much I love the author. After getting through the beginning, I wasn’t connected to the story. I didn’t want to know the characters, and I wasn’t invested in the protagonist’s struggle. At this point in my reading, I would normally abandon the story and find something else. But… I knew that my reading club was counting on me, so I had to finish it. It was the first time in a long time that I felt the pressure to “finish the assignment” without being excited about it.


This was such an important experience for me because it helped me connect with students that are reading less-than-favorite books. Instead of continually pushing book clubs to finish the books that they start, it’s important that I give students the opportunity to quit and find another. If students become serial quitters, that’s a different issue… but pushing through a book I wasn’t enjoying just to do it made me find it NOT FUN. (Funny how all that research on student choice in reading is true, right?! When it doubt, refer to The Book Whisperer… all day every day.)


We decided to plow through with a second book, an author none of us had previously experienced.  We determined some goals for our reading and writing and set the date for our next gathering. It was with this book that I discovered a way to take notes and not loose the feeling of being lost in a book.  When we gathered, the discussion flew.  We had all noticed different things that rang true to each of us. We couldn’t wait to share. THIS is what we hoped our students would experience!


Our second book was a completely different experience. Once I started it, I didn’t want to put it down. We committed to jot, so I found myself writing single words or symbols on post-it notes, because that’s all I was willing to stop to do! When I got to the end, I was such an emotional, mumbo-jumbo of thoughts. I had to go back, read my jots, and form some coherent thoughts so that I could be a productive member of the team!


This was so important for me, because I have taught avid readers that despise stopping to jot. It’s always been a fine line for me because I understand loving the story and not wanting to stop reading, but on the flip side, I hate when my readers skip right through the beautiful symbolism or multiple themes because they’re so excited they read 300 pages in a single night and then missed all the detail. I learned strategies to help those readers, like marking important pages with a single symbol and then coming back, so that I can respect their love of the text and immersion in the story, while still holding them accountable for the thinking.


Participating in a book club with other teachers really helped me as a teacher.  As I read this summer, I realized that we all need to find our own way of taking notes and thinking deeply about a book.  It became crystal clear that having a preset purpose for our discussions helped us all come to the table prepared.  Our sharing was more vibrant and energetic.  I loved that we did a book that was not a good fit as well as one that we all loved.  The same happens with students and sometimes – especially in a book club format – you just have to finish and get as much out of the book as you can.  Just as I have practiced writing about reading (and therefore understand it so much more because I have lived it), I have now participated in a book club similar to what I hope my students experience.  I can now speak from experience, not theory.


These clubs were so important for me to do as a reader. It’s easy as a teacher to constantly rehearse the research, the list of things to do in a day, ways to hold students accountable, etc. Those things are important, I will be the first to admit. However, spending the time doing the work I expect my kids to do transformed my idea of a book club. After spending this summer in their shoes, I am better prepared, more passionate, and ready to balance the reading strategies vs. love of reading dance that’s done in our classrooms every day!


Phyllis, having recently returned to primary classrooms, is rediscovering the joy in watching young friends fall in love with books.  She hopes this will never grow old!


After almost a decade in the classroom, Jennifer has decided to take some time off to raise her son.  She’s looking forward to many more mommy / son reading experiences until she returns to education.