Allowing Student Choice through Book Clubs

Getting students to read nonfiction can be a challenge, but I believe that it’s important to get kids reading all kinds of texts, challenging or not. So when we started this nonfiction unit, instead of assigning one title or telling students to find their own individual titles, I decided to offer them some choice in what they read, but not total choice. And I did it through book clubs.

About a week before the official roll-out, I book talked the titles I had chosen, and asked my students write down the titles that they would be interested in reading. I included a variety of topics and structures, and I think there was something for everyone.

Some of the titles offered were Marx for Beginners, Proofiness, In Defense of Food, The Happiness Project, Eyes Wide Open, An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and Guitar Zero.

Putting the book clubs together was a puzzling challenge. I’m not sure what the best way is – it’s all about how many copies of each book are available, and which combination of students prefers which title. It wasn’t easy, and on the day of the roll-out there were some last-minute changes, but it ended up working out.

I gave the books out during the next class period and asked students to really dig in and read for a while. This way they were able to build motivation and momentum for their at-home reading. I asked them to individually check their reading rates with their books, and then to set some realistic individual goals around how much they could and should read per week. Then I asked them to take their books home and read some more, coming to the next class ready to at least talk and think a little bit about their new books.

During the next class, I still didn’t seat them with their book group members. For their quick write, they brainstormed a list of ideas about what it means to be in a  functional book group. What kinds of agreements to group members adhere to? What sort of behaviors do book group members exhibit? Then, at their table groups, which were still not their book groups, I asked them to come to consensus about these points.

Each table group had a small white board and dry erase marker, and before they could put any ideas on the white boards, their table group members had to come to consensus that the idea was worth sticking to, and worth writing down. Once each group had a functional list of book group expectations, they could take their lists to the bigger chart that would become our book group norms.

Only after they had individually thought about what it means to be in a book club, then discussed it in a small group that wasn’t their actual book club, and then agreed as a class on these ideas, did I let them get into their new book clubs.

The reason for this was that I didn’t want anyone to start book clubs without any real thought as to what it means. I also didn’t want to tell my students how to be in a book club because I don’t think it would have “stuck” as well as when they came up with their own norms. And I didn’t want one book club member to start by dominating, or to have any new book club members sitting too quietly. I wanted to offer them as much voice and choice as I could.

The group chart paper ended up looking like this:

It’s not a complete list of book club expectations, but it’s a great start and it represents both individual and group thinking.

Once the book clubs got together, I asked them to set up their own due dates, expectations, and group norms. I asked them to think about how they want to be held accountable and how to hold each other accountable. As I rotated around the room they did not need redirection or any pushing. They had done the thinking required in order to start off on the right foot.

Class ended too soon, as usual. We will finish working on our norms next class, but they all agreed that they knew what they needed to do to get started, and were comfortable with it. Some closing comments from a few of them were about how they liked having a hand in making their own assignments and timelines, and thankfully they even look forward to reading their books.

I look forward to hearing their rich talk in the next few weeks, especially since we are starting to use the nonfiction Notice and Note signposts. 

I wonder how other teachers introduce book clubs, and how much students help in creating the learning situations surrounding book clubs. I’m sure there are other elements I haven’t considered, but I’m looking forward to the coming weeks of student learning with nonfiction.

I believe the learning experience will be richer because we started together, not with the teacher tells students what to do model, but rather in a model where students do the real thinking and planning, which creates the buy-in that is essential to learning. I can’t be the only expert in the room, and I want my students to feel empowered to listen to their own and each other’s voices, and to trust that we all have expert opinions, and that we can all learn together.

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Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

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