When I was teaching high school English, one of my biggest struggles was getting students to connect with literature. It was disheartening because I loved reading and wanted to share that passion with my students. However, I was often met with the familiar phrase "I don't want to be told what to read."

Our school had a "book room" where we all shared books that had been ordered by the district at some point in time. The room contained everything from tattered copies of Of Mice and Men to pristine editions of graphic novels, like Maus. Sadly, our district was starting to move away from teaching literature in favor of nonfiction, so the novels in the book room were relatively unused.

It didn't sit well with me that students were not being exposed to works of fiction anymore. I felt that it was my duty as an English teacher to share with them some of the great novels they would never read otherwise. And even if they didn't necessarily enjoy it, they would at least know a little bit about Nick Carraway or Holden Caulfield before they left my classroom.

Having been a teacher for over a decade, I had tried every variation of teaching novels: independent reading, in-class reading, a combination of independent and in-class reading, me reading to them, and partner reading. Nothing ever seemed to really work on a consistent basis.

I also knew that a lot of their dissatisfaction stemmed from how we approached the novels. Some students preferred independent reading because they couldn't stand listening to others read aloud. Some students would never read a word if it wasn't read to them in class.

I had to sit back and think about what my goals were for them. What was my "why" for when an administrator or parent questioned my lesson plans? I focused on:

  • General exposure to something they wouldn't normally read
  • Finding a connection in an unlikely place
  • Independence and autonomy

Once I identified these goals, I began to think of how I could get more buy-in from the students. As we all know, people are more likely to feel invested if they are given a choice. I also wanted to make it less of a school environment and more of a real-world atmosphere. A lot of my students were vocational tech students who were already out in the community working with adults. It was hard for them to come back to school, where they really had no freedom.

I finally landed on the idea of a book club format. I gave the students very specific guidelines, but they had freedom within those guidelines.

Here's how it worked:

"Selling" the Book

I chose 6 or 7 novels that we had enough copies of for every student to take home. I usually had 30–35 students in a class, which would make approximately 5–6 students per group. I varied the novels by difficulty, subject matter, and what resources I had. Some of the novels I used were: Of Mice and Men, The Glass Castle, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The House on Mango Street, Into the Wild, and Lord of the Flies.

I would block off about 30–40 minutes of a class period to "sell" the books. I would introduce a synopsis of each novel, similar to a movie trailer. I told students the general premise, discussed some of the characters, and gave a "teaser." The students came to really enjoy this activity because I would try to make it as entertaining as possible. I never allowed any personal preferences to show through my presentations. I explained each book as if it were the greatest book ever written.

The students then had a day or two think about what book they wanted.

Choosing the Book

On the day we chose our book club books, I wrote all the titles on the front board with 1–5 slots underneath (or however many could be in that group). I made no exceptions. I would not add another slot to make room for friends.

I then had students pick a number out of a hat (literally) to determine what order they would choose. We started with #1 and went around until everyone had chosen a book. Were there disappointments? Yes. Was this the fairest way I could figure out? Yes.

Once they had their groups, they picked up their copy of the book and a book club packet. Then they went to their designated "meeting place" to decide how to run their groups. Armed with the deadlines they had to meet, they discussed how much they would read independently and how much they would do together. They always did a good job respecting the preferences of each member. Whatever worked for them was okay with me.

The packets took the most time to create. However, once a packet had been created for a book, it could be used all year.

The Packets

Each packet had different sections that were to be completed by specific deadlines: comprehension questions, vocabulary, activities, and discussion questions. I tried to vary the activities by type (written, speaking, artistic, technology) and learning styles so all members of the group could find something they were comfortable with contributing.

PART I: Reading Comprehension Questions – I found comprehension questions for every chapter and put them all together into one section. Some books had 100 questions, while others may have had only 60–70. As I told the students, you get what you get. I gave a final deadline for all of the questions to be done, but I also gave them a “halfway deadline,” so they could stay on track.

PART II: Vocabulary – The vocabulary focused on both educational words and words that related to the time period. For example, a lot of students don't know that a bindle is a bundle of clothes or bedding. It's not a word they will probably encounter in daily life, but they do need to know it for reading Of Mice and Men. I would find vocabulary activities they could do as a group. Some were crossword puzzles, sketches, or a slide deck of words, definitions, and photo examples.

PART III: Extending Your Thinking – In each packet, I added a section that compelled the students to think about the story on a deeper level. To save time, I usually compiled a variety of resources from other teachers, lessons I had done in the past, and the internet. This section allowed me to see that the students were not just reading for basic comprehension. Some of the activities were analyzing tone or creating a character chart. Others had them research a particular topic from the book (The Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties, etc.).

PART IV: Discussion Questions – The main purpose of book clubs is to discuss the books with others. I dedicated one day a week (usually Fridays) as Book Club Day. During this class time, students were to have a discussion with their fellow group members—as in, I wanted to hear them talk for the first 20–30 minutes. I would make my way around to every group and pop in on the conversations, sometimes playing "devil's advocate" to stoke the fires a bit. In the packet, I had discussion questions they were to use. Some of them piggybacked on the comprehension questions, but I tried to elicit some real conversations. For example, from Of Mice and Men, I might ask, "Did George do the right thing by shooting Lennie?"

Grading and Assessments

Every student took a final test. I included comprehension questions, as well as short-answer and essay prompts. I also graded their packets for completion and had a rubric for when I observed their in-class discussions. It was easy to know who was a strong contributor and who was not.

Benefits of Book Clubs

Independence – Students had the opportunity to tailor their groups to their liking. I gave some structure, but I allowed them to decide as a group how they would do the rest. In the younger grades (9th and 10th), I had them rotate roles (leader, writer, artist, organizer, etc.). The juniors and seniors were old enough to direct themselves.

The long deadline was also somewhat freeing for them. They knew when they had to be done, and they could schedule out as they saw fit. Time management was more difficult for some than for others, but it was an important skill for all of them to learn. I loved hearing them go through and pick chapters or pages to read before the next meeting.

Freedom – The Book Club idea stemmed from the usual complaints of not being able to choose what they wanted to read for themselves. They still didn't have complete freedom, but they did like the ability to pick from several titles. And believe me, no one was ever absent on Book Pick Day.

Group Work – I am not a huge fan of group work, but I do see the benefits. In the "real world," we all must work with different personalities. Not every group was filled with friends; they were usually a mixed bag (thanks to the random numbers). And this was intentional. Group members had to talk to one another about their strengths and weaknesses. They had to decide how everyone could contribute. Before we started, we had a whole class discussion about respecting others' differences and working as a team to complete a BIG task.

Was the process flawless? Nope. Were there students who did nothing? Yup. But, as teachers know, you must make exceptions and modify for whatever situation arises. However, this was one of the best projects I had the students do. Students who were usually apathetic about traditional classwork often did well in this environment. Not only did they feel like they read an entire book on their own, but they learned how to contribute their own strengths to a significant project.