There’s nothing better for an English teacher to walk around the classroom, listening to multiple groups of students excitedly talking about the books they are reading. That’s what can happen when you run a book club with your middle or high school students. But how do you plan one? How do you keep students accountable? Read on to learn strategies for successful classroom book clubs.
The best time to do a book club 🗓
Before we get to the strategies, let’s discuss this: at what point in the year should you do the book club?
Well, it depends on what you want your students to be able to do. If your end goal is to just get them excited about reading and talking about books, you could start your year with a book club – or do it at any point, really.
However, if you want your students to be able to do more analysis, I suggest you do it later in the year. In my classroom, we start with independent reading, and students use their novels to learn about the basic elements of fiction. I keep my lessons and assessments short, because the focus at this point is getting students excited about reading.
Next, we do a full class novel or play, so we can all be on the same page and do more focused analysis. You can get the details on how I balance independent reading with the full class study on this post.
Finally, we end the year with book clubs because, at this point, students have the skills they need to work together – but independent of me – as they read their books.
Now let’s look at the five strategies for running a successful book club:
Selecting the books for your book club
Ideally, each group will be reading a different novel, and you should have approximately five students per group. But it’s not always that easy because the reality is that you have to have enough copies for each group. So, don’t stress over that part. If you have more than one group reading the same novel that’s ok. Or if you have uneven groups due to numbers of copies, that’s ok too. Just roll with it and see how it goes!
If you can, try to choose a selection of books with similar themes. This way, you can create writing prompts or other activities that relate to each text. For example, I chose books that fit under the topic of power, privilege, and prejudice, and many of our discussions and writing assignments centered on that.
And, when we finished our books, I did an activity where we created new groups – with a representative from each of the original groups – and they talked about how their novels fit into this topic. That way, every student got to hear about each novel, and many decided to read one of the other selections.
Create excitement about the book club choices
Before we began, I tried to create a buzz, some excitement about what was to come. I book talked each of the books and found some youtube and TikTok videos for each one as well. Booktoks are popular now on TikTok, so take advantage of that resource! Type in booktok and the title of the novel in the search bar and you will probably get a great selection.
We also did a speed dating activity with the class. It’s the same one I do at the beginning of the year, but this time they are checking out only the selections for the book club. I had students record their top three choices, then organized who was going to read what.
You could follow your speed dating activity with a class discussion, where students debate which book they thought looked most interesting and why. When students hear their peers extolling the virtues of a book, they might get more excited about reading it too.
Successful book clubs start with a plan
First, you will need to make a plan for when students need to complete their reading, and this will depend on the age and ability of your students. I was working with tenth graders and wanted to have them read their books in four equal chunks. So, I just looked at each book to decide on the best place to stop reading for each chunk.
The books, luckily, were similar in length, so I could make them more or less equal. However, if one group needs to read more each time, you can point out that they chose the book because it was of interest to them, so a few more pages shouldn’t matter that much! (and you may want to point that out when you promo the books).
Then, if you want to build in time for them to get each chunk read, you will need to think about the activities you will have them do between each reading section. More on that to come.
Create an environment for meaningful discussions about books
I think this is key to a successful book club in the classroom. We English teachers know how to talk about books, but students may need a little more guidance.
Another key to success is that these discussions should be as natural as possible. Think about book clubs you may have attended – you didn’t take turns reading your notes to each other. And you probably didn’t have someone who had to create a drawing for the book or create a vocabulary list.
I’m referring, of course, to the traditional roles that have been assigned to literature circles. I do think students need guidance and focus while discussing their books, but I like to set it up so they are focused, but speaking to each other like friends would in a book club.
So we have a leader who takes control and keeps people focused and on task. That one is necessary; otherwise they may not get much done. We get someone to start with a quick summary of the key facts of the section. This helps everyone remember what it is they are about to discuss. Next I ask someone to come up with good questions about the chunk they have read, ones that would lead to a lively discussion. And finally, there is a connector who thinks of ways that what they have read connects to their own lives. I stress that these people are only there to ensure these tasks get done, and anyone can jump in with a good question or connection.
Students take turns doing each role (on different discussion days) and after each discussion, turn in the notes they made in preparation. They also do a peer assessment halfway through the unit and at the end.
And, if you want these discussions to be successful, you need to do two things: model one at the beginning, and moderate as they do them. Before we begin book club, I pick a short story for my students to read, and I get some volunteers to play each role in the discussion. You can read more about this here. The whole purpose is for students to see what a good discussion looks like.
Then, when students had their first book club meeting, I needed to be on my feet, circulating and listening in. I would help them prod with questions when needed or just listen quietly if they didn’t need me. During the first discussion, several groups needed some prodding and redirection as they learned the expectations, but as time went on, I was less and less necessary.
Provide short assignments that don’t bog down the process
One of the most important strategies for successful book clubs, is finding a balance between holding students accountable and allowing them to just enjoy the books. If you give them too many things to do, it slows down the reading process and can take the joy out of reading.
So what did I do? I had the students do a few short assignments while they read, ones that could build them toward a final writing assignment and a culminating project.
We read the books in four chunks, as I said, and I gave them a date to have their sections read. We would begin with a writing prompt that focused on some aspect of the theme that tied all of the books together. During the week or so of “chunk reading time,” we alternated between time to read in class, and two types of short writing assignments: analytical paragraphs and creative writing that used their novels for inspiration. They also spent some time writing in “literary conversation books,” an idea I borrowed from Penny Kittle.
Using their texts as models for good writing provided me with lots of material for mini-lessons on how writers create character, setting, theme, etc. I could do a lesson on the ways they use dialogue, for example, and then ask the students to note a good section of dialogue when they were reading. Then they shared this with a partner and/or used it as a model to write their own dialogue.
Plan a meaningful and engaging final assessment
When my students finished their book clubs, they wrote an essay on a lesson they learned via a character, so they had to focus on both character and theme. They also did a group project/presentation. They created a trailer for the book and had to plan a presentation where they taught the class about some of the literary elements of the text.
I can honestly say that these presentations were some of the best I’ve ever had 1oth graders do. The trailers were phenomenal and the presentations were well planned and sometimes insightful. The secret? They were very engaged in their books and discussions and couldn’t wait to share them with the class.
I hope you’ve found some strategies you can use for your own book clubs. If you’d like to get more detail and the assignments and assessments I used, check out my Planning a Book Club resource. Or if need help planning a full class novel study, check out my short course.
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