Why Book Clubs Prevail In Any Type Of Learning Environment by Lorraine Radice
One the literacy courses I teach at my university is for pre-service and current teachers in a secondary content-area program. The course invites education majors in various disciplines like social studies, business, TESOL, chemistry, English, and beyond to think about themselves as contributors to the literacy lives of students through a content-area lens. I love this course. I love how, typically, literacy responsibility is not associated with physics, but by the end of the semester, that notion changes drastically.
I think it’s important for secondary teachers of all subject areas to read what young adults are reading. Young adult literature gives insight into what teenagers may be thinking, feeling, and experiencing, which can impact approaches to teaching and learning. It may catch a student by surprise one day to leave a business class and have the teacher ask, “Hey! What are you currently reading?” or say, “Before you leave today, I want to share about this great book I just read. Dear Martin by Nic Stone is something you should check out!” You never know which student that will be meaningful for, which light bulb will go off. If teachers model commitment to reading, it can spark engagement for students. All adults in schools can make an impression.
When the news was shared about transitioning to a virtual learning environment at the university where I teach, I thought carefully about how to best structure my class so that the course goals were attended to and so my students would stay engaged, continue to learn, and feel connected. After days of thinking, I arrived back at my starting point – book clubs. My students were already involved in choice book clubs throughout the semester, prior to the pandemic. The plan was to move from middle-grade book clubs to young adult book clubs so that my students could notice the progression of how literature written for young people in grades 5 through 12 develops – authors, character development, style, language choice, conflicts, themes, topics. My students had the opportunity to choose the books they would read for their book club experiences and the preferences dictated the formation of groups. Those who were avid readers were excited to gain a new read, and those who were reconnecting with their reading identities appreciated being able to choose the book that would get them back into reading. And that’s what happened…we became a community of readers.
We were in the middle of our second round of books clubs* (books for grades 8-10) when we transitioned to virtual learning. I decided to have my students finish their books of choice, and utilized the break-out room feature in Zoom for them to meet and discuss their specific stories. I loved teleporting in and out of break-out rooms (a little wonky at first!) just like I would move around the classroom and sit at different tables to listen in and join conversation. The only difference was that my students didn’t know when I’d be “popping in” like they would be able to see me meandering over to their table in the classroom. Every time I switched into new set of squares on the screen, my students were mid-conversation, talking about their book! It was magical!
Connection was really important to me so the revision to our learning plan I decided to make was to invite my students to all read two shared texts toward the end of the semester so that we could have a whole-class book club of sorts. While the intention for reading was to still analyze young adult literature and make connections to teaching and learning, it was more for connectivity and togetherness. While break-out rooms are a helpful feature for designing small groups, I didn’t want the remainder of the semester to include separating the class. There is a major difference between groups in physical space and groups in virtual space – in physical space, students are typically in the same room, just at different tables. When using Zoom break-out rooms, there is a clear divide among participants. I chose The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart for heart value and Winger by Andrew Smith for shock value…a little sugar and a little spice. These books represent two different approaches to young adult literature and feature very different protagonists for pre-service teachers to consider.
It was comforting to learn that whether in a physical or virtual classroom, a book club can bring about thought-provoking discussion, a lot of laughs, and build a strong community of readers. Because everyone read the same book, it leveled the invitation for participation and engaged us all in shared conversation. My students still logged in to class with their physical books and we maneuvered in and out of personal and professional connections to the texts, which allowed us to be humans enjoying other humans (just in little squares on a screen).
These ideas crystalized for me as a teacher as I read my students’ final reflections at the end of the semester:
- Thanks to the book clubs my love for reading is back and I could not be any happier. Not only do I read for knowledge, now I read for enjoyment.
- Joining book clubs and reading through assigned books ignited my love for reading again. Throughout the semester we were constantly reminded how important it is for our students to see us as readers; however, if I’m being honest, I haven’t read for pleasure in years. Though the readings were assigned, they were highly enjoyable books, which led it to be a pleasurable experience. I even began a book club with my friends using other books recommended by Dr. Radice.
- I also liked the book club meetings that we held during class. I love reading and it has always been a big part of my life. This class showed me that just because I plan to teach chemistry doesn’t mean that I can’t have a classroom library of non-chemistry books.
- Reading will never be the same after this class. I feel more confident and prepared when I have a book in my hands. I also discovered how much we can learn and get to know our students through reading. I have never read so much in my life in such a short period of time and I want to thank you for that.
- This class brought out my love of reading…the independent reading allowed my love of learning to blossom.
No matter what you teach, consider a book club as part of your meeting time. The stories invite you to escape to a different world, but only to arrive right back in your home, with a group of people waiting to hear your thoughts and to share a smile.
*If you’re wondering, here are the book choices my students were offered:
Round 1: In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, New Kid by Jerry Craft, Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee, Harbor Me by Jaqueline Woodson, and Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds
Round 2: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Scythe by Neil Shusterman, Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and One Of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus
Round 3 (the revision round): The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart and Winger by Andrew Smith
Lorraine Radice, Ph.D. is the PreK-12 Director of Literacy in Long Beach Public Schools. The heart of her work is supporting all members of the school community with developing their capacities to contribute to the literacy lives of students. She is also an Associate Assistant Professor at Hofstra University in New York in the Literacy Studies program. Dr. Radice was an English Language Arts and Literacy teacher for 10 years. Dr. Radice has presented at several national and local conferences, including NCTE and WLU, and is a contributing author to the research volume Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: Intersecting New Needs and New Approaches.