From Café to Class: Bringing Book Clubs Into Your Classroom

By Hayley Vetsch

It’s easy to discuss books if you like to read. Hobby reading comes easily to most of us English teachers, but I’d wager that it is one of the hardest things to teach in the classroom. In a time where longform is not the popular choice and 140-character essays reign, you can almost hear the groans from students when you plan the novels for your curriculum.

In my small public charter school of 63 students, the predominant response I get from my students is, “I don’t read.” Not I can’t, not I won’t, they just…don’t. It’s not as if I haven’t tried to get them into it. We’ve done literature circles, acting out scenes from the book, reports, projects, simulations, but with every single book I was teaching, I was met with resistance.

The idea struck me late one night after a discussion with a colleague. They had mentioned independent choice reading as something they used to do in school as a student. It hadn’t occurred to me until that point that I also had independent reading time as a student. My teachers would march us down to the library and we would peruse the shelves, make a selection, and that was our independent reading book. How could I apply that to our small school?

I realized that involving the Internet might make independent reading more appealing for my students. I turned to Goodreads. I had used Goodreads in college for a young adult fiction class. It was a meeting of book discussions and social media. Considering how much I had enjoyed it as a platform to encourage reading, I decided to integrate it into my classroom too.

After setting up Goodreads accounts and adding several titles that they had already read to their virtual shelves, the students joined a closed-group book club forum on the site. Rather than separating students by classes, I kept it open as a school-wide community to allow for integrated discussions among students who normally don’t spend class time together. Each student then added the Reading Challenge to their pages. This is a regular feature of Goodreads—charting your reading progress—so I encouraged all the students to set a goal for how many books they wanted to read in a year. For many of my students, I told them to strive for at least three. If we included the books we read in class as part of their reading challenge, they’d hit that goal before summer. Some of my more ambitious readers set a goal of 12: one book per month, no problem. Regardless of the number, setting a goal on a public forum like Goodreads made their aspirations visible. Knowing I was monitoring their progress and sweetening the deal with extra credit didn’t hurt, either.

Once the book club was created and the goals were set, the next phase was to set a standard for independent reading in the classroom. I have a wide selection of books that the students could choose from. Some brought books from home, but most borrowed novels from the classroom collection. The plan was this: every Friday, the hour would be dedicated to reading in the classroom. Students would read their novel—nothing else. There would be a weekly prompt/post on the Goodreads book club. After reading, students would post their responses in the forum.

The first few weeks were really difficult. Most students were resistant to independent reading, and many of them neglected the online forum. After a few of these uphill battles, I decided to lay down some ground rules to ensure student success with their reading. First, students could not read the books we were working on in class already. Second, they could not use the hour to catch up on missing work.

Many students felt that independent reading was optional, and viewed the hour as a study hall. I found that interesting–and very telling about the attitude they had toward reading. To shift this attitude, we prepared the classroom to be more reader-friendly. I created a bulletin board about the benefits of reading. I created book displays of titles related to topics the students expressed interest in. I brought in lamps and soft lighting to replace our harsh fluorescent buzzing lights.

With the new rules established and the classroom ready, we maintained Friday reading days over the rest of the semester. Slowly but surely, I was met with less resistance to a dedicated hour of reading. The responses in the forum shifted, too.

One of the first forum discussion prompts had been about the setting:

The setting is an important part of a story. The setting can be anything from the time period, a specific building, a season, or a place. Describe the setting in your story, and tell us how it shapes the characters and the events of the plot.

The responses were less than ideal. We set a goal for a minimum of four complete sentences for each prompt, but in that first round, almost every student fell under that goal. Here are some examples:

The setting of Fahrenheit 451 is (I believe) a dystopian future.”

the setting of the watsons go to birmingham takes place in 1963 they are in Flint Michigan and its winter time and it is super cold”

So far it’s the group that she goes to. And somewhat her school where she is at school with someone she goes to group with.”

These responses told me that it’s not that students aren’t invested in their books; it’s that they haven’t learned how to think about their books yet. But this was only the first week. The most recent forum discussion was posted on Wednesday, January 31. The prompt focused on an update of what they were reading:

Some time has passed since the beginning of the year, and I want to know what you’re reading now. Please include:

1. The title
2. The author
3. How far you are so far
4. What you like/dislike about the book so far

This time, the responses were more thoughtful and detailed. Why was this? I think that the students made it over the hurdle of resisting reading day—seeing it as a wasted study hall—and instead made it a part of their weekly routine. Now, on Fridays, they arrive to class with their books and say, “We’re reading today, right?” I’ve even spotted some of them reading their books over lunch. They have utilized Goodreads to send book recommendations to each other and comment on each other’s progress updates outside of their weekly assigned discussions.

Integrating a social media aspect to reading might make some scholars throw their hands up in frustration, but when you’re teaching a population more skilled in Snapchat than longform, meeting them halfway with a website to promote independent reading skills is absolutely worth it. I would love to see independent reading become a staple in high school classrooms—and even go beyond English classrooms to independent reading in other subjects, too. For now, I am content to see my students come to class with a book in hand every Friday.