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Author Interview: 'Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs'

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Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide For Teachers.

Sonja Cherry-Paul, Ed.D, a middle school educator for 20 years, is an author, speaker, senior research specialist, and staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and works with educators on teaching about race and racism in K-12 schools. 

Dana Johansen has taught elementary and middle school for more than 15 years and is dedicated to the ever-expanding applications of technology in the classroom.

LF: Student book clubs can be great! At the same time, I know that the first time I thought about doing them in my classes I winced when thinking about the logistics and possible drawbacks. How do you get educators to get beyond initially thinking about everything that could go wrong?

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen:

For some teachers, the notion of book clubs can be daunting. We want educators to be aware of both the benefits of book clubs and a few key tips that can help them launch and sustain them in their classrooms. 

The research around book clubs shows several benefits. Engagement increases when students have autonomy over their reading. In turn, students' volume of reading increases along with opportunities for them to strengthen their reading skills. Further, it is in book clubs where students have in-depth discussions where they examine their own lives, explore their identities, and learn from various perspectives. Book clubs have an indelible influence on students as they develop as critical thinkers, lifelong readers, and change makers in the world.

There are a few tips that can help lessen educators' anxieties around the logistics of book clubs. First, consider different types of book clubs such as genre-based, goal-based, theme-or topic-based, and online book clubs. When educators think flexibly, this leads to greater possibilities for common issues such as acquiring books and reading engagement. Second, determine where and when book clubs fit in your curriculum. If you are an ELA teacher, a few options include as a stand-alone unit, after a whole-class novel, or while students are immersed in a writing unit. Consider a three-week time span, which includes 15 school days for students to read as well as meet two times per week. Third, it is essential that educators observe, coach, and assess book clubs. Collecting artifacts such as snippets of students' discussions as well as their written responses can help teachers make sense of what's happening in each book club and then provide the kinds of supports that students need.

The benefits of book clubs far outweigh the occasional hurdles. They bring excitement and energy to the classroom as students fall in love with reading.

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LF: What would you say are three keys to making book clubs successful, and how would you define success?

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen:

Book clubs are about creating spaces where students identify their own successes. Students set their goals and work to achieve them. We've had students for whom reading a book on their own from start to finish is a success. Other students have set the goal of reading a book from a genre they've never tried before. Every student has individual goals and successes. Book clubs foster a joyful space where students support each other as they work to reach their goals.

Three keys to helping students find success are: choice, creating goals, and setting aside sacred time for book club meetings. First, choice. The hallmark of a successful book club is student ownership. We've seen book clubs fail over the years because teachers choose the books that students will read with their clubs. Ultimately, when students aren't given a choice, they grow suspicious that they are being grouped by reading level or ability. This does not set the right tone for book clubs. Instead, we recommend introducing the book club books to students and encouraging them to pick their "Top 3." From their selection, create the club groupings. Providing choice sets the tone that you trust your students, honor their voices, and want them to have a joyful experience.

Second, setting goals. This is work that should be done all year long as well as throughout book clubs. Goals are not static and will shift and change during book clubs. Ask your students what they hope to achieve with their club and the ways they want to grow as readers. In addition to individualized goals, encourage each club to set "Club Goals." This will help create a community of learners who are supportive of each other and their club's successes.

Third, carve out time that is dedicated to book club meetings because club members need time to talk. With some guidance, students are able to engage in rich conversations that are similar to those that occur in adult book clubs.

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LF: What are the two or three most common mistakes teachers make when introducing book clubs to their classes?

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen:

A few common mistakes when setting up book clubs in our classrooms can cause them to fizzle and fade. These include exclusively grouping students according to levels, establishing rules, and misunderstanding about our role as teachers during book clubs  Many of these errors stem from a desire to hold onto control. We know that it can be challenging to let go in order for students to have ownership over their reading plans and club meetings; however, this is the recipe for success.

A major cause of book clubs falling flat occurs when students are grouped solely on reading levels. Fountas and Pinnell (2018) warn, "Labeling children by their level is detrimental to their self-esteem, their engagement, and ultimately their progress." In book clubs, students can read on a wide variety of levels as they journey through a text with their peers. Students can always sense if they're being grouped by ability, and this can cause anxiety and disappointment. Instead, we urge educators to prioritize students having a say in which books they read. Therefore, part of organizing and setting up for book clubs involves making student interest central and helping students self-select the books that will work for them.

Whenever teachers are introducing book clubs to students, we'd like them to consider the book clubs they have been part of in their adult lives. We want educators to ask themselves, "What did these spaces feel like?" Typically, the answers include lively discussions, laughter, and fun. This occurs, not as a result of rules, roles, and other types of restrictions, but because the group is bonded by the common goals of discussing a book and connecting with one another. Yet these feelings can be the opposite of what students experience in book clubs. It  is our experience that book clubs operating within imposed structures begin to feel stagnant and peter our quickly. Instead, we recommend that educators invite students to determine the kind of book club experience they're hoping for and develop their own covenants, provide time for students to bond and form strong book club identities, and expect book club discussions and written responses to improve over time.

Further, it is important for educators to consider their role when book clubs are up and running. Observation, research, and coaching are key. Listening in on clubs' discussions, paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, and making note of students' reading strategies in action are the artifacts teachers can collect to inform the coaching that's needed in book clubs. When we think about the word "coach," the context that most frequently comes to mind is often sports. Teachers can apply the techniques of a soccer or basketball coach when a game is on. Extended, multilayered lessons have no place during book club meetings. Instead, educators can provide a quick strategy or suggestion that can help clubs get back on track or elevate their work. Unless a club is in crisis, our role is to get in and get out so that students maintain autonomy of their clubs.

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LF: I'm sure that many educators wonder about how accountability can work with these kinds of clubs. What has been your experience with how it's done?

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen:

Book clubs are not the teacher's clubs. They are the students' clubs. Students hold themselves and each other accountable in book clubs. We've found an increase in student engagement and ownership when students have the authority to choose their own books, create their own reading and written-response plans, and build a unique identity for their club.

It's essential for clubs to form a community and create a unique identity. We've had book clubs make such tight bonds that students continue meeting at recess or on the weekends. Some clubs even have reunions with each other after the school year is over. Creating a book club identity is important for accountability. Launching book clubs with a few short bonding activities goes a long way to establish a book club community.

When forming their book club identity, club members will hold each other accountable by creating "Club Goals," a "Club Constitution," or a blog. This allows students to take ownership over their reading and written-response goals, as well as discussions. We can help students set goals for accountability by asking them: What do they believe will make this the best book club ever? What are the qualities that are important to them that they will honor and uphold in this club? How can they work together as a team to achieve their goals? As you observe the clubs, you will see students' ownership in action by listening in on their discussions, hearing their reading and written-response plans, and by reading their blog entries.

Our role as teachers is to observe our students' book clubs, watch for what is working and what can be improved, and provide quick tips when we notice that a particular student or club needs assistance. Student ownership is central to accountability, and as teachers, we need to take a step back and trust our students. They will read. They will discuss. They will grow.

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LF: What are some of the benefits that both teachers and students gain out of book clubs that they might not get through other literacy activities?

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen:

More than any other literacy experience, book clubs are where students fall in love with reading. But we value book clubs because it is in these spaces that we witness humanity at its best. Through the process of reading and responding to texts, students come to understand each other better. They reflect on who they are, where they hope to be, and the ties that bind them together. The attitudes, traditions, values, and goals established in book clubs often become the principles that guide the way students live their lives.

As students dive into texts with their peers, they are both affected by the world around them and inspired to affect the world in positive ways. Book clubs give students the courage to name the world as they see it, the strength to ask why, and the gumption to imagine change when and where it's needed.

As we nurture a culture of reading in our classrooms through book clubs, there simply is no greater privilege as educators than to witness such academic and personal growth in our students.

LF: Thanks, Sonja and Dana!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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