Following Through on Book Clubs, and, Windows & Mirrors

Over the last few years, avid and ambitious readers among the students and staff have pitched their book club desires to me. Naturally I’m game, but as our clubs and organizations already are challenged by finding time to meet I admit I’ve been pessimistic about book club success. A handful of times such an effort would result in one meeting and then fizzle out. This year I’m giving it another go, inspired by two things. First is our newly formed Global Diversity Council, comprising students and faculty members and tasked with ensuring “effective diversity engagement, inclusive excellent practices, a multicultural environment and curriculum, equitable activities, and social justice actions.”

The second was a recent well-timed article from Teaching Tolerance, in which Chelsea Tornetto writes:

“A story is often the most effective way to create personal connections between very different people. Reading a novel allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, remove the context we are used to and replace it with something new. We are more prepared to accept things beyond our own experiences because we know we are reading a ‘story,’ and yet we also actively search for similarities between our own lives and the lives of the characters. A novel can begin to open students’ minds and shape their hearts, without doing battle against their sense of self.”

While this is something we all know already, evoking Rudine Sims Bishop’s often referenced “windows, sliding doors, and mirrors” metaphor, I read it at the right time. This past summer our faculty and staff read Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky, and the last line of this quotation points beautifully to the concept of this title; that we can find and should seek ways to effectively engage, identify with, and relate to people who are culturally different from ourselves without compromising our own identities and values. Reading about a fictional yet realistic character’s experiences is a safe way to practice this, which our school community wants and needs to do.

This article reminded me how simple yet powerful a program this could be, and with the right book, the right group to participate in and promote it, and enough (widely publicized) pizza, it could be a success.

This feels a little hard to say, but one of the stumbling blocks our book clubs have faced in the past is perhaps too much student ownership. I think my belief in wanting to give students voice and choice in this type of activity may have deprived them of a valuable experience. Of course I would like student voices heard and student ownership of our selections and discussions, but well-intentioned as our students may be, they, like all of us, just don’t always have time to do “extra” things like prepare, make posters, and successfully book talk an extracurricular novel. Reminder to self – reading promotion, awareness of current publications, and facilitating discussions about literature are my job. Those things aren’t “extra” for me. So maybe, for the students to have a great experience, a little adult (read: librarian) ownership is not such a bad thing.

I went to a GDC meeting last week and shared this idea. Rather than asking for book suggestions from the students, I said “The first book will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and first meeting will be during lunch on December 13 in the library with pizza. I hope that if we decide to continue the book club that you folks will have some suggestions.” An interested buzz made its way around the room, so that’s good enough to forge ahead.

Then I sent this poster to Upper School students, faculty, and staff:
Window and Mirrors Book Club

With interest and partnership from the GDC, I think this will go very well. Our library collection holds copies of this particular title in three formats, and the GDC was able to purchase a few copies for students, faculty, and staff to bring home over Thanksgiving break. The books came in yesterday and three copies had already been claimed by 8:30 this morning. I’ll spring for the pizza.

I would love to hear about others’ Windows and Mirrors Book Club successes, stumbles, and book choices. My hypothesis is that we will need to choose very current titles representing diverse identities and experiences, personally invite some folks who might not be paying attention to emails and announcements, and make sure everyone knows about the food.

Upper School Book Club: One Success Story

They came bouncing in, groups of two and three, full of questions. “Are we meeting here this year?” “What’s our book?” “Did we get kicked out of the library?” and of course “Where are the snacks?”  A group of maybe twelve upper schoolers came together in Seaver 308 to start another year of Book Club.  We had half returning members and half new faces. At first everyone gathered around the books scattered across the front table. I’d collected up an assortment of ten different titles, a mix of levels and genres, each with a brief synopsis, and there was immediate conversation bubbling up.   This collection was both insurance — in case there were not enough suggestions for new titles for the year– and a sort of ‘priming the pump’. As you know, for readers, often all it takes to generate conversations about books is: a pile of books.

In the eight years I’ve been at my current school we’ve only had success with a student book club starting last year.  The widely held understanding was that our students were so consumed with the high level of academic achievement expected of them that they had no time to read ‘for fun’. These kids ‘didn’t read’. They didn’t have time. There wasn’t space in their jam-packed schedules for something so frivolous.

Librarians know that this isn’t entirely true. We see all sorts of titles, from the frivolous to the literary, move off our shelves, often quietly and with little adult involvement. And of course, any time you make such broad assumptions about ‘these kids’, you’ll end up immediately with examples that prove you wrong.  SOME kids DO read, and it became my quest to foster this interest and to give these students a space to explore.

With our second year of Book Club starting up and showing strength in numbers, I’m hopeful that we’ve come up with a winning recipe. Knock Wood–I don’t want to jinx anything!

Here are the basic elements contributing to our success:

1. Keep it Short and Sweet

It’s true that our students are heavily committed, with academics, sports, and other extracurriculars, so in order to make this at all possible, we meet for 25 minutes every other week.  Anything longer and students begin to see it as ‘too much’. We set our meetings to occur between the end of the last class and the departure of the first bus.

2.  Attendance and participation are not required

We have a “come if you can” policy, and there is no requirement to have read the book. Once this becomes seen as an obligation, we have defeated our purpose.

3. The only requirement is to be respectful of differing opinions

One element of the student book club that I had not anticipated is the very emotional issue of reading choices and their connection with the teen psyche. Reading opinions are often very strongly held. We work on the idea that different people have different tastes, that tastes change over the years, and that everyone’s views are to be respected.

4. Everyone participates in book suggestions.

We found that students were much more invested in reading other students’ suggested titles when they knew their own suggestions would also be on the list. Each student suggested a title at the first meeting, and those titles were put into a hat and randomly selected to make up a schedule of upcoming titles. I had provided an  ‘Introductory Book’ for our first meeting so there would be something to talk about, but remember that there will be less time for discussion at the first meeting as there will be organizational details to iron out.

5. Work from the designated list, and create a schedule of meetings and titles

Students will be able to ‘read ahead’ if they like, or make sure to show up for particular meetings if they want to be in on discussion of a favorite title. With our first meeting of 12 students, we had enough suggestions for 6 months of meetings. That leaves about two months (giving space for vacations) that can be scheduled later in the year for students who join later.

6. Snacks!  Movies!

I worked with the Book Club President to make sure there was a supply of goodies at each meeting. At the end of the year we had a special Movie Meeting when we watched Stand By Me (The Body by Stephen King was one of our titles last year). This was a big hit, and there has been demand for additional movie events. I suspect that if there were many of these scheduled, however, we would come up against Rule Number 1: Keep it Short and Sweet. We will explore adding a Movie Meeting right before Winter Break, perhaps, hoping for the right balance between Not Enough Fun and Too Much Fun.

There are two additional factors that have played a big part in the success of our book club. We have a very organized student leader who is Benevolent Dictator and manages all the organizational details. Our meetings are too short for Roger’s Rules of Order, elections and the like.  Our Fearless Leader is good at delegating tasks when necessary, and the system works really well for us.

We also benefit from a hugely successful Book Bistro program at our Middle School, with Anna Martino as advisor. Having a batch of lively readers coming into the Upper School each year has been key. While we’ve tried student book clubs in the past, they were unsuccessful until the Middle School’s Book Bistro built a solid base for us.

Bottom Line

We have developed a book club that works for us. The meetings are so short one might be forgiven for thinking that they were unimportant or inconsequential. My view is that our club is a springboard for student discussions away from our official meetings. We are building a community of readers with a shared vocabulary and common ground, where students can pass in the halls and exchange updates on recent books, and the conversation continues even if someone misses the meeting. The next book club book is available behind the library desk, where students can see it as they check other items out.

We had to start meeting in Seaver 308, just down the hall from the library, because our book club meetings had grown so boisterous that it was a constant challenge to ‘keep it down to a dull roar’ when we met in the library. No, we were not ‘kicked out of the library’, as one student asked at our first meeting. We just had to find a space that would allow for the exuberant exchange of ideas that went on at our book club meetings. I know that a successful student book club is as much a result of each year’s complement of students—some are better at this than others— as anything else, and I am very grateful for the success we’ve had so far.   Knock Wood—I don’t want to jinx it!

Your turn!  What has worked well with your book club? What has not? Are there other successful Upper School Book Clubs out there? What is YOUR secret?