A book club can help reluctant readers become engaged with reading while also encouraging students to share with peers

Using the book club model in the classroom

A book club can help reluctant readers become engaged with reading while also encouraging students to share with peers

I vividly remember my English teacher, Mrs. Grant, bringing a stack of 20 well-read copies of A Wrinkle in Time out from the closet for everyone in the class. She would read a chapter or two out loud during class and later we would read independently until it was time to take a test or write a report on what we learned. I don’t remember ever debating my classmates about the themes in the book or frankly ever even talking to fellow students about what we read.

Yet, for most of my childhood, I spent my free time with my nose in a book. I was an avid reader who read well above grade-level, but even I didn’t like to read the books that were forced on me.

Which is why middle school English teachers like Carrie Friday at Southwest Middle School in Palm Bay, Florida are using the book club model instead. Friday is her school’s librarian, and she also teaches several English classes. With 80% of her students reading between two and three grades below level, Friday says offering students’ choice in literature is a game changer. “Even if you just give them a couple of titles to choose from, they are going to be invested because they had a say in the process.”

In Friday’s classes, book clubs take student choice to a new level.

In one class, at the beginning of each month, Friday assigns a genre to every student in the class—for instance, this month the genre was Dystopia. She teaches the characteristics of the genre and what makes a book fit in the category. Then each student selects whatever Dystopian book they want to read and at the end of the month they produce a project like a BookTalk. She says, “Even our kids who read well need to spend time in books. Choice makes all the difference in the world.”

In another of Friday’s classes, students in small groups read the same book and meet for discussion.  Other times, everyone in the group reads a different book and they discuss the similarities and differences.  Friday feels that smaller group discussions make it easier for students to speak up and connect with each other. “When you have a class of 25 kids, reading five different books, they’re working on their tasks accomplishing standards and goals. But you can have great class discussions, like ‘Someone tell me the main conflict. How does that compare to the last group? Is it the same?’ Teachers can even take the kids and mix them up, so each student is talking about the ways in which the books they read are similar and different.”

Whether a student is reading a contemporary title or a classic, teachers can deliver the same skillsets—literary devices, comprehension, or discussion prompts, as Friday points out. To provide a deeper connection to the curricular standards, Friday often pairs a classic with a contemporary title to demonstrate to students how themes have changed over time. For example, Friday pairs A Wrinkle in Time with Tristan Strong, and Harbor Me with The Outsiders. Yet, time and time again she says the modern titles draw her students in. “Classic literature is removed from what their lives look like. So, I match those titles with books that are new, relevant, and mirror the stories or home backgrounds of the students I teach. And then it feels like they are reading about someone who could be a friend.”

This spring, Friday is piloting Kwame Alexander’s new Bookfest with her students. The New York Times best-selling author, poet, and Newbery award winner’s Bookfest pairs contemporary titles, curated by Alexander with teacher and student guides, along with interactive content, like author podcasts. Listen as Alexander describes his inspiration for what Friday calls ‘the newest, coolest book club in education today.’  According to Alexander, to be in the running for BookFest, every title had to be entertaining, accessible, challenging, and inspiring to make students want to make the world a better place. “Imagine an amusement park in your classroom, but all the rides are books. WOOHOO!” said Alexander.

Friday is jumping to the front of the line for the Bookfest ride because she’s been using the book club model her entire teaching career AND she was on the committee that helped Kwame curate the books in the collection. Kwame attributes Friday with helping him discover new authors and fall in love with new books during the curation process. So, Friday is confident Bookfest will provide teachers the tools to hit the standards but also let the books shine.

Shine like Becoming Muhammed Ali, her favorite book in the Bookfest collection. Friday told me she loves this book for characters and the story but also for the background knowledge it provides young readers on topics like the Kentucky Derby, Parkinson’s Disease, and The Boxing Association, along with all of the history and events of Ali’s lifetime, which carry over into other content areas and classes.  She firmly believes students are smarter about the world after reading the book. 

Although he’s enjoying great success with his books and poetry, Kwame Alexander continues to work toward the same goal he’s had for years – getting students to fall in love with books. He hopes Bookfest leaves students smarter but also helps them reach the same conclusion he did while cleaning his garage back in 1978—books ARE cool.

And Friday hopes teachers take the leap, whether they design their own book club or embrace Kwame’s Bookfest, and she promises, it’s worth it. “Be brave. And try it. Because it will pay off. The kids will love it. It doesn’t matter if the parents love it. Or whether your department loves it. The kids will love it.  They’re going to do it. They’re going to read.”

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Britten Follett
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