Book Clubs in Middle School: Independence, Choice, and Autonomy
When I started teaching, book clubs were all the rage. In fact, just using real books in general was highly promoted. In my first district, I was a classroom aide in a school that was working directly with the Teacher's College at Columbia University. If you don't know, they are the cream of the crop and were at the forefront of literacy at the time. I was so grateful to be an aide and learn, what I feel, is the best way to approach literacy.
My First Experiences
I first observed book clubs here. The teacher I was working with had enough copies of books to allow groups to choose. This was one of my first introductions to the value of choice.
When I finally got my own classroom, over the years, I tried to do the same, but it became impossible to allow choice since my resources were limited. My district would always buy me what I needed and that's what I did early on. I bought small sets of books and those are what I offered. They were also leveled based on Fountas and Pinnell. I would group the students based on levels and put them in those specific books.
It worked for awhile. But I found that not all the students were engaged. I got bored with the same books and I felt limited to those books because they were purchased for me.
I had to find another way.
Student Choice: Ditching the Reading Levels
I was already doing student choice in my other units. Students could pick in my library and they'd use those books for their independent work. That was so much more successful than forcing them to read a whole class novel.
I decided they needed to be able to choose their book club books, too. So, I started creating book lists. My lists consist of about 40 books in a genre. Students look at these lists and fill out a Google Form with their choice.
Reading levels are also out the window. Well, I wouldn't say they are *totally* out the window; I still keep them in mind, however I feel they are so limiting. If your lists are geared toward the age group you teach, you should be fine. When they talk in the groups, the higher readers help the lower readers...trust me!
If students are engaged and want to read the book, I honestly don't think levels matter.
Here are the book lists I've created:
So, if students aren't grouped by level, then how are they grouped? When I first started the book lists and student choice, I did pick groups. I based it solely on personality and work ethic, not on reading levels. However, I've changed this method.
I now let them choose their group members. There are a few reasons for this:
If working people they are comfortable with, students are often more eager to talk and to motivate each other.
Typically, if kids are friends, they have the same interests, so they will all agree on a book more easily.
They communicate outside of school, too, so it encourages reading at home.
What about students with little to no friends? I haven't had any issue with this. The main reason is because in my classroom, the culture is community-based. They know from the start that it is unacceptable to not work with certain people. They know that conversations are academic-based. They also know, ultimately, they are graded individually, so that takes away the "oh he won't do anything" mentality.
How to Get the Books
This is a very big issue for many of you, I am sure. Don't. Buy. The. Books. New books come out all the time, it's not worth asking your district for money. Use the public library! I have a whole blog post about this, but I'll sum it up.
Basically, I reach out to the town library. The librarian requests multiple copies of the books. She keeps them behind the counter. All the students have to do is pick them up with their cards.
Now, obviously, this means they have to have public library card. I encourage this in JUNE before they come to me. I reach out to my upcoming students' parents and tell them to get a card over the summer. I say it again in September multiple times. The media specialist helps.
If it is a REAL issue, I will get the book for the student on my card. It's worth the risk, in my opinion. Either that, or I look online for a PDF of it. Yea, I know, I shouldn't do that but...I just want my kids to read.
Book Club Roles
I don't have them. That's it. I used to do all those fancy roles...illustrator, word finder, connector, etc. It was too time-consuming and ended up being homework. I just want them to read for homework.
So what do they do when they meet? I always give them a focus that stems from the mini-lesson. It's typically just a discussion of some sort, a t-chart, sticky notes, etc. Sometimes, they will do a Google slide together focusing on the skill taught in the mini-lesson. It's very loose and sometimes short.
Later, I always have them do a culminating project together. I've had them do one-pagers, collaborative posters, and more. Here are some that I've done:
Body biography for memoir unit.
Collaborative posters for social issues unit.
One-pager for dystopian unit.
Companion website for historical fiction unit.
You could also use any of these of any book.
When I do book clubs, the focus is not on book clubs, it's on units. Therefore, I essentially just teach based on the genre and they get to work with their groups to help guide them along.
These are the units I do:
Dystopian literature (6th)
Historical fiction (7th)
Social issues books (6th)
Fantasy graphic novels (6th)
Characterization: realistic fiction (7th)
As mentioned earlier, I assess 100% individually. I do NOT believe in grading groups as a whole. It's completely unfair.
The crux of grading is done in their individual reading digital notebooks. I use my Reading Response Rubric to asses their slides.
Additionally, I will do a very informal grade for their meetings. I honestly do not have a rubric for it or anything...I just do a check, check plus, etc. I've never had a parent complain. It's something I may put together at some point, but it's really just a matter of are they participating? Are they reading? They have to be held accountable in some way.
If I need to throw a rubric together, I use this.
As always, you do what works best for YOUR students. I've just found, over the years, the more I try to manage every nuance of book clubs, the more frustrated I got. Making them more informal has produced better results...keeping it more individualized and just using clubs to discuss and share thoughts is the way to go.
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