How does a kick-butt reading teacher facilitate book clubs?

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Some call them literature circles, but I’ve always found that name a little on the snooty side.  Book clubs are a staple of Readers Workshop for many a kick-butt reading teacher, including myself.  But saying “I do book clubs” doesn’t say much about what is really happening–or why.  Over the past several years I’ve run book clubs in many different ways, trying out one framework after another, never completely satisfied.  In general, there are two strains of book club–one that assigns certain roles for students to perform (sometimes with catchy names like “Literary Luminary” and such) and another strain that is fairly unstructured (more like the book clubs us grown-ups might belong to).

Which is better?  Neither.  Both.  Um… what was the question?  For the past couple of years, I’ve done a few book clubs per year, and I tend to do one that has assigned roles, one that is kind of free-form, and the third ends up taking the shape of whichever of the first two was most successful with that particular group of kids.  I personally prefer the book club format that allows all the readers to come to the table with their own ideas and questions and conversations take shape from there, which works really well with motivated, focused readers.  Not so much with the reluctant, “focus-free” crowd.  I just completed this year’s first book club experiences with my current class, and found that the less-structured format only worked for about a third of them.  I’m thinking that our next book clubs will be more structured for the two-thirds who seem to need that, and the ones who don’t may continue to construct their own book club conversations and experiences.  We’ll see how that goes.

Another issue is choice in book clubs–realistically, I have what I have in terms of small sets of books, and we have to choose from what is available.  That said, do I just let students pick whatever looks good to them?  Do I strictly enforce matching book levels and student reading levels?  Do I assign students to clubs?  No.  Yes.  Um…insert awkward pause here.  I’ve done all of these things at one time or another.  In Happy Happy Perfect Land, students would have the metacognition to choose the best book club selections on their own every time and growth would ensue.  Some students really can, because they have clear identities as readers, while others are still experimenting and struggling to understand where they are at as readers.  So I tend to offer up choices for book club, ask students to give me their top three picks and the name of the title they really don’t want to read, and then I sit with that information and try to make everyone at least a little bit happy while I consider group dynamics that will either aid or hinder book clubbing.  Sometimes I even get it right!

If you’ve ever been part of a really good book club, you know why I “do” book clubs in my fifth grade classroom.  Reading a book that makes you think and feel and wonder and open up to new ideas is pretty cool.  Getting to share that journey with others is freaking awesome.  Conversations that challenge my thinking about a book, that explain pieces I have missed, that reveal not only new aspects of the book to me, but new aspects of the people I am sharing the book with–oh, man.  That’s the journey I want my young readers to take in book club, in whatever way they are ready to do so.

In between book club experiences, I now have a tub of books for “dynamic duos”–pairs of students who want to read the same book and form their own mini-club.  At the end of our recent foray into clubs, I was not convinced that many of my boys were all that interested in book club experiences (I believe I used the word “focus-free” earlier).  But within a few days, I had requests from several students, including some of those boys, to try a “dynamic duo” book with a classmate.  I’m hopeful.


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