Lifelong readers, engaged citizens, and emerging upstandershave one thing in common: they all devour text. And our middle level kids are ready to encounter the world of ideas at full strength. The time for abridged "kid versions" is coming to an end, and cursory textbook overviews will no longer suffice. Our students can now tackle whole, challenging books—both fiction and nonfiction. They can build the kind of deep knowledge that comes only from sustained engagement with big ideas, developed at length. Indeed, we believe that young adolescents should be reading and discussing many of the same materials as the thoughtful, curious members of the adult community around them.
Of course, we do use our textbooks sometimes, but they are designed to be bland and homogenized, to appeal to the widest possible market. They speak in a neutral, authoritative voice that lacks any human emotion, or particularity, or location. So we enrich kids' reading diets with current and classic nonfiction books, historical novels, and biographies. And we don't always read these as a whole class with the teacher running everything and telling kids what the books are about. Instead, much of the time, we help kids organize themselves into three– to five–member literature circles or book clubs, much like those voluntary reading groups adults join. In this way, kids can choose different books that really interest them and fit their reading levels, the teacher can differentiate instruction, and we can all jigsaw together our different information as a unit of study unfolds.
But for kids to work this way, to be effective book club members, they have to learn a set of social and management skills that makes this kind of autonomy possible. In this chapter, we will share some of those baseline lessons, and then tell you about a powerful novel study Sara has done with several classes of students
Book Club Basics
Thirty years ago, nobody had heard of literature circles or book clubs in American schools. Starting in the early 1980s, Smokey, along with pioneers like Becky Abraham Searle, Karen Smith, Jerome Harste, Carolyn Burke, Ralph Peterson, Mary Ann Eeds, Bonnie Campbell Hill, Nancy Johnson, and Katherine Schlick-Noe, led a movement to bring book discussion groups from adult living rooms into school classrooms. The idea drew upon the two most powerful trends of the era: an awakening to the power of independent reading (Fader 1981) and a commitment to sociable, collaborative learning (Johnson and Johnson 1980). A natural combination of these two ideas—as perfect as peanut butter and chocolate—was literature circles. Today, almost every student who enters the American school system will be offered many chances to join in small, peer-led discussions of an interesting book, meeting over a few weeks to share responses, predictions, reactions, questions, and connections, as the author's work unfolds.
Book clubs are one way to meet the varied reading interests and needs of all the kids in your room. Today's young readers have distinct palates for topics, genres, and styles—and also have reading levels all across the spectrum. In English language arts classes, teachers often use lit circles as a kind of small-group independent reading, a collaborative variant of the individual reading workshop. In this version, small groups of kids choose from among a wide variety of novels (at least the ones for which we have assembled multicopy sets) and launch their own differentiated experiences, with each group reading a different book. Some groups may be reading "harder" books, and some "easier" ones, but every group is reading and thinking about a whole book.
Trying out book clubs with your kiddos for the first time can feel like jumping off a cliff. You may feel you can't have a handle on three to six different titles being read at once, not to mention all those groups meeting simultaneously, when you can really only supervise one at a time. It is hard to let go of the control we are accustomed to, and hand it over to the students. But this is one of those great structures that allows kids to surprise us with their responsibility and focus—as long as we give them the careful training outlined in this chapter. So, wherever you may be on the barometer of book club anxiety, trust us, you can still give book clubs a go!