A New Kind of Book Club by Sarah FitzHenry
Book clubs. As educators, we love them – but for student participants, they can be intimidating. Some students aren’t strong readers; others don’t like talking in front of groups; some readers, like me, can struggle to put their feelings about a text into words. As a child I loved to read. But during book discussions, I found myself lost and confused, feeling like an inconvenience to the group. While I often loved the book, I feared the inevitable discussion. I wanted to move and dance and celebrate the text in a way that felt special to me – instead, we sat around a table while I dreaded my turn to talk. I left most book discussions feeling discouraged and embarrassed; I couldn’t seem to express how much the books meant to me. When I became a school librarian, I knew that I wanted to create a new kind of book club that would welcome a variety of readers, with all different learning styles; a celebration of reading that everyone could enjoy.
So my journey to create a new kind of middle school book club began. Finding a book that could fit and captivate a large group of middle grade readers was no easy feat. The book needed to be short, but not too short. Fast-paced and action packed for the boys, with the character-driven writing that middle-grade female readers crave. Funny, but serious enough. Meaningful, but not alienating. In short: I needed a miracle.
If you’ve ever been a librarian in search of a miracle, then you know all about author Kwame Alexander. Alexander’s sizzling second free-verse book, Booked, was perfect. It was exciting and engaging from the very first phrase, grabbing readers and catapulting them headfirst into the story. Its free-verse format made it accessible for lower readers, while providing room for extension for those who sought it. Alexander breathes life into his stories through an intricate weave of pounding sports descriptions and exciting characters with complicated, lifelike relationships. Book choice was everything- and I knew that Booked would have my readers toe tapping, goal scoring, and page turning.
I announced our book choice using this fun Animoto video. Parents received an e-vite filling them in on plans and providing links to purchasing and borrowing options. Each participating staff member received a free copy of Booked, along with a request to shamelessly advertise to their students. Then, I crossed my fingers. And I watched as my registration numbers went up… and up… and up. More than 60 students signed up to join our discussion. My eclectic little book club had caught on.
When students arrived to book club, they were surprised to be greeted with choices. I wanted activities to make every learner feel at home – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. A dry-erase board pointed participants to different stations. Students had approximately 20 minutes to venture freely from station to station, exploring, before lunch.
Kinesthetic learners could head outside for trivia and soccer. One particularly brave and good-natured faculty member presented readers with trivia questions and for each correct answer, students could take a shot at the goal with their teacher as the goalie. Readers discussed the book while kicking the ball back and forth, sitting in the sunshine, or running laps.
Visual learners could join another faculty member in the library’s story pit, where they could add their thoughts via words or doodles to our giant word cloud, made to look like a replica of the one on Booked’s cover. Using markers, crayons, and their personal connection with the book, students turned a nearly blank piece of paper into a meaningful work of art.
Learners that preferred more quiet time to process and think could head over to meet waiting faculty members at the library tables. Each table was covered with butcher paper and featured a written question. Students were invited to take their time to think or discuss, and then write their responses directly on the table. After finishing, students could browse and check out a selection of main character Nick’s favorite titles mentioned in the book, a perfect way to segue students into their next great read.
After working their way through the stations, students broke into small groups and ate lunch while participating in a more traditional book club discussion. While munching cheese and pepperoni, groups discussed tough topics like bullying, divorce, racism, competition, and pressure to constantly achieve. They answered a wide variety of questions carefully crafted to have no wrong answers. At the end of our meeting, students signed two soccer balls; one to keep in the library, and another to send to author Kwame Alexander as a token of how much his book meant to us.
When our time for book club ended, I was struggling to push students out of the library. Many begged for one more visit to the stations. The middle school buzzed – especially the boys, a notoriously reluctant group of readers. Suddenly, the library was full of middle schoolers before school in the morning and during afternoon break. Creating an out-of-the-box literary experience had made the library a space where they felt comfortable, welcome, and recognized. Circulation went up, and the great reading discussions continued. My inner 12 year old smiled.
It is always a treat to set aside time to celebrate books that make us think and laugh and help us grow. And if librarians provide a book club with many different activity options, everyone can feel included. In this non-traditional book club format, students had a range of opportunities to share their love for reading with their peers. They read, debated, doodled, kicked, cheered and thought critically – all with joy and respect. It was wonderful to walk around the library and see each unique student feeling comfortable and confident. There were no wringing hands or blushing faces; everyone got to share their literary experience in their own way. Their enthusiasm and brought Booked to life, and I have the soccer ball to prove it.
Sarah FitzHenry believes that libraries should be magic. On her website Fitz Between the Shelves, she writes enthusiastically about school libraries, shares book reviews and photography, and proves that librarians do, in fact, make noise. At her current K-8 school in Charlottesville, Virginia, you can usually find her talking a little too fast, singing a little too loudly, and leaving trails of glitter behind her wherever she goes. Off the clock, Sarah is a proud member of the notoriously treacherous library biker gang Books on Bikes. Sarah is passionate about creating school libraries that make every child feel welcome, confident, and safe. Find her writing and photography all over the internet @fitzbetweentheshelves.