#BookExpedition: How a middle grade book group came together to read widely for themselves, their students, and each other.

When I spotted this Tweet from educator Mike Contuzzi, I was intrigued.



Educator reading groups were popping up on Twitter, but I had no idea how they worked. I replied to Mike (who has since left #BookExpedition), wondering what I’d signed up for.


Now a #BookExpedition veteran, I love the distance reading group model. There’s the thrill of receiving a book in the mail, often in a hand-decorated envelope. I know the pages will be filled with sticky-note comments from my fellow educator/book fanatics, but there are also intangible benefits. Not only has our group become close, despite stretching from coast to coast, but reading together helps us process the way we think about books and talk about them with students.


Here are Lorie Barber, Brooks Benjamin, Mike Grosso, Cheryl Mizerny, Cara Newman, Katie Reilley, Susan Sullivan, Erin Varley, and Amy Wiggins to discuss how #BookExpedition works, why this type of reading group benefits educators and students, and to share some best practices. Additional #BookExpedition members are Patrick Andrus and Alexa McKenrick.


How does it work?


Lorie and Susan:  #BookExpedition consists of middle grade teachers, librarians, and authors, but really it all starts with books. When one of us has received a newly-published or advanced reader’s copy (ARC) of a book (from an author, publisher, or purchased), we let everyone know via our Twitter group chat that we’re updating the shared Google Doc. When a novel is added, members sign up for what we want to read. Then, the best part: read, note, review, and publicize. We read the book, sticky-noting our thoughts, a-has, and takeaways. When we’ve finished, we often post a review on Goodreads or Amazon and link to Twitter. Finally, we share where the book is headed on its expedition, mail it to the next person, and check our name off of the Google Doc. Once a book completes its expedition, it is returned to the person who added it to the doc — often ending up in their classroom or school library– or back to the author. Participating in the summer is easy. Participating during the school year, not always so. We need to model what we preach to students and always have a book with us so we too can “squeeze them in.”


How does it help us grow as readers and teachers?


Cara: I’ve always heard you have to be a reader to teach reading and a writer to teach writing. These words finally make sense.The work we are asking of kids is challenging! #BookExpedition has shown me what authentic reading is about — the conversations, friendships, relationships, that can be developed through reading the same book. This is the type of reading I now make sure I encourage my students to do. I’ve become more empathetic to the children when we are talking about our reading lives and replaced all reading logs with discussions, blogs, Tweets to authors, and book reviews uploaded to Amazon or GoodReads. This is what real readers do.


Erin: I went into this a bit naive about the impact it would have on my life. I learned it’s hard to write post-its while reading. That’s foreign to me. When I’m reading, I’m in the zone. And then there is the whole other issue: Are my thoughts even worthy of being written on Post-its? I didn’t know these #BookExpedition people well. Would they laugh at what I wrote? Would they scoff at my comments? But I’ve asked students to do this type of thing countless times. We’ve had the discussion in my classroom about making learning visible, but I’ve now realized how hard it is to stop reading and write things down.


Brooks: Every book that I open motivates me to create meaningful questions for my students, questions that make them think, reflect, and empathize with characters they may or may not identify with. I love seeing what types of questions educators whom I admire are asking while they read. Even if we’re reading a different novel in class, the amount of discussion happening in the #BookExpedition group never fails to inspire me to dig deeper during the conversations I’m having with my students.


Katie: One benefit of the reading group is that it’s expanded my Personal Learning Network greatly. Through social media and technology, I can communicate, collaborate, and create with my knowledgeable colleagues. I wholeheartedly trust my #BookExpedition friends and greatly value the knowledge they possess.


Amy and Cheryl: We love collaborating with a group of passionate, talented educators and authors who are more than willing to share ideas that have worked for them in their classroom.  The group’s members encourage reading outside our comfort zones, participating more actively on social media, growing our professional networks, and thinking about new ways to incorporate books into our libraries.  Reading the #BookExpedition thread can be like attending a great conference session, inspiring us to run with something new.


How does it help our students?


Cara, Susan, and Lorie: Our passion and enthusiasm towards books is contagious. Running into school the morning after finishing a book, knowing the right hands to put it in, builds relationships. Children come to trust us and want to be included in OUR reading lives just as much as we want to be included in theirs. They know we’re invested. When they see our stickies in books that we’ve been lucky enough to keep after a #BookExpedition is complete or even as the book is traveling, they want to add their thoughts. They want be part of the expedition.


What best practices have we learned?

Lorie: We’re lucky to have authors in our group, Laura Shovan, Brooks Benjamin, and Mike Grosso. We learned that authors don’t get that many advanced copies of their books. We want to do right by the copy we’ve been given. This made us reconsider who and how we ask for an ARC. We have come to want to protect the authors, the work they’ve gifted us, and the relationship the book has created between educator and author.


Mike and Amy: There are times when a book comes along and, we think, “Wow, that was intense! How can I approach this topic with my students?” #BookExpedition to the rescue! Members of this group have read the same book, so we can discuss it with them on our “spoilers” thread. Together we figure out new approaches to introducing difficult topics.


Susan: Our reading lives often reflect who we are and how we grew up. Growing up I read books with only white characters, I learned history through the eyes of the victor. #BookExpedition tries to focus on diversity in our reading, but it’s something we need to improve. We talk about and examine our book selections, our classroom and school libraries, as well as the make-up of our membership, and work thoughtfully to do better.


What we love about reading together:


Cheryl: #BookExpedition gives me a safe place to discuss books that brought up tough memories or reminded me of sad experiences. I know that I am not offending anyone when I admit that I truly disliked a book and explain why. Hands down, the most fun part is when we all adore a book and can’t stop raving about it to one another.


Lorie: I have made friends — true, lifelong, supported-you-when-your-Mom-was-dying friends. What an unexpected, yet beautiful and priceless gift. They say books bring people together. We are proof of that.

#BookExpedition meet-up at NerdCampMI (2017)
Left to right: Laura Shovan, Cheryl Mizerny, Susan Sullivan, Patrick Andrus, Katie Reilly


#BookExpedition at NerdCampLI (2017)
Clockwise from top: Author Josh Funk, Cara Newman, Lorie Barber, author Jarrett Lerner, Erin Varley, Susan Sullivan

Lorie Barber is a 5th grade teacher in Lisle, IL, who carries a book with her wherever she goes and will always ask you what you’re reading.


Brooks Benjamin lives in Tennessee with his wife and their incredibly spoiled dog. My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights (Delacorte/Random House) is his first novel.


Mike Grosso is an author, musician, and a fifth-grade teacher who always keeps a guitar in his classroom. His father gave him his first lesson, and his mom taught him how to keep a steady rhythm. Mike continues to write and record music at his home in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his son and a drum set he plays much too loud. I Am Drums is his first novel.


Cheryl Mizerny is a sixth grade teacher in Bloomfield Hills, MI, who believes in creating a community of readers in her classroom. She appreciates other book nerds who share her love of children’s literature.


Cara Newman is a fourth grade teacher in Massapequa, NY, who is an avid reader. She is thankful to have both #BookExpedition and Twitter where she can share her love for reading with other passionate educators.


Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher in Elburn, IL, who is passionate about getting books into the hands of her students and thankful to all the amazing book nerds for their continuous recommendations.


Laura Shovan, author of the middle grade novels The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and Takedown (Random House, June, 2018), is a long-time poet-in-the-schools in Maryland.


Susan Sullivan is a school librarian for third through fifth graders in Greece, NY, who lives for the moments when a child and a book find each other.


Erin Varley is a fifth grade teacher in Western NY who loves to read and wants to be on Broadway when she grows up.


Amy Wiggins is a pre-K through sixth grade school librarian in Los Angeles, CA, who can talk books with anyone and everyone all day long.