Photo credit: Heather Ford on Unsplash

What To Do When You’ve Tried Book Clubs In Your Classroom, and They Just. Didn’t. Work.

By Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johnasen

For a variety of reasons, book clubs aren’t always the success we envision them to be. Sometimes we spend exhaustive amounts of time gathering books and organizing students just to get the clubs up and running, only to watch pandemonium play out in the classroom. There’s the club where one student is unprepared for meetings. Every. Time. A student in another club seems to be doing the reading, but is silent during club meetings. Club members operate as if she simply isn’t there. All of the members of another club are having spirited conversations. Just not about the book. And there’s that club where none of the members seem to click, nor are they doing any reading. We zip around the classroom, feeling as though we need to be permanent members of each of the clubs in order to put out fires or provide the instruction that students seem to need. We end up only getting to one or two clubs before the end of class, the ringing of the bell signaling not just the change of classes, but our defeat. For these reasons and more you might be wondering, “What do I do when I’ve tried book clubs, and they’ve failed miserably?”

There’s a lot to juggle when book clubs are happening in our classrooms. Organizing clubs, managing them while they’re up and running, determining the instruction that students in each club need, and trying to empower students to take the reins of their own reading journeys, can feel daunting. But we cannot throw in the towel.

Here’s why.

Book clubs matter. It is in these spaces where students’ attitudes toward reading transform. It is here where students’ reading skills strengthen and improve as they transfer instruction to the books they read and discuss with peers. And the kinds of conversations students have in book clubs open the door to them learning from not only the various perspectives of the characters within their books, but from their peers as well. As students are challenged and changed by these discussions, they examine their own lives and explore their identities. For these types of book club experiences to flourish in our classrooms, we’ll need to commit to a few conditions as teachers: No roles. No turn-taking rules. No limits on ways of responding. Instead, we must honor the code of choice and ownership. And above all else, keep the joy of reading central as we set expectations for book clubs.

Here’s how.

To get book clubs going there are important logistics to consider: Which books should I use? Where will I get the books? How will I group my students? If you’ve tried book clubs before and they’ve fallen flat, a great way to breathe new life into them is by reimagining how they can go in our classrooms. The organization you do for book clubs begins by first discovering what your students want to read. Are they excited about graphic novels, nonfiction, fantasy? You’ll need to spend time getting to know your students as readers and honoring their choices. This is what informs the type of book clubs you organize. This is what strengthens students’ commitment and ownership. Ownership is gravity. When they have choice students buy-in and pull toward each other. Their bonds as a club will grow because they are invested in their own learning. Later, students may become more willing to branch out and read different kinds of books that you believe they may enjoy, but only after you begin by affirming their interests and reading identities.

So now that you’ve got the clubs up and running, the challenge is to keep them going. One way this can be accomplished is by helping each club to develop strong book club identities. Invite students to create their own club constitution that includes the guidelines or codes that they plan to live by in this space. Some goals might include the amount of reading clubs do each night, ways they plan to contribute in order to grow conversations, and how they will support one another when they need help. We can remind clubs of the famous quote from Spider-Man comics, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” Reminding students to honor their club commitments is a helpful way to get students back on track and stay there.

A common pitfall that teachers face is misunderstanding what their role is while book clubs are happening. We’d like to clarify this and offer you a sports analogy. Think of your role as that of a coach. There’s practice time when players exercise to increase stamina, coaches review the plays and provide pointers, and players practice the plays applying feedback from the coach. However, once the game is happening, the time designated for practice simply doesn’t exist. The coach can address the team throughout the game, but this happens in the course of minutes. Because the players have to get back to the game. Think about book clubs as “the game” and it’s happening…now! Aim to provide a quick strategy or suggestion, and it should take teachers five minutes or less to do so. In short, unless a club is in crisis, we should “get in and get out” in order for students to do the work of readers and respondents of texts.

For book clubs, discussion is the social spark that ignites students’ enthusiasm for reading. Therefore, it is important and necessary to adjust our expectations and broaden our conception of what discussion looks and sounds like in book clubs. For some clubs, it may be a quieter time filled with reflecting in their notebooks or on a blog. And for others, meetings can be more boisterous with raucous debates. The number one goal is to look for improvement in the discussions over time. Consider: Are students deciding what to talk about? Are many voices heard during the conversation? Are students able to sustain a conversation from one or two minutes to ten or fifteen minutes? We also appreciate the many ways technology aids our understanding of a discussion, and we know that digital tools can allow our students to have powerful exchanges. For example, students may choose to work toward balancing loud and quiet voices in their club by having a “Silent Discussion” over a blog. In this way, all students are participating and club members can read and respond to each others’ thoughts in real time. Supporting students in their club discussions helps us see transference and application of the reading strategies that we have been teaching as students take ownership over their reading lives.

So perhaps you’ve tried book clubs and they’ve failed miserably. Here’s the good news. The best thing about teaching is each day is our “do-over.” We can return to our classrooms, clear the air, and claim that today is our reboot.

Because the research is clear — book clubs help to cultivate lifelong readers. Each one of us can take part in a reading revolution by breathing new life into book clubs. Each one of us can provide pathways that nurture a love of reading in our students.

If you would like to learn more about how to implement effective and sustainable book clubs in your classroom, we encourage you to check out Sonja and Dana’s new book, Breathing New life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers. In it, you’ll find essential strategies for creating, sustaining, and improving classroom book clubs.

Breathing New Life into Bookclubs is available to preorder at now.

Sonja Cherry-Paul

Sonja Cherry-Paul has taught middle school English for twenty years. She is a literacy consultant who served on the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award committee for ten years. Sonja leads presentations about literacy at national conferences and provides professional development for educators on reading and writing instruction and racial literacy.

Dana Johansen

Dana Johansen has taught elementary and middle school for more than fifteen years. Dedicated to the ever-expanding applications of technology in the classroom, she presents at national conferences on the use of blogs, digital texts, and flipped learning in literacy instruction.

Together Sonja and Dana have coauthored three books, Teaching Interpretation, Flip Your Writing Workshop, and the forthcoming Breathing New Life into Book Clubs.

You can follow them on Twitter @LitLearnAct and @SonjaCherryPaul

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