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Reimagining Reading: Connecting and Promoting Lifelong Readers Through Book Clubs

By Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher
 | Apr 04, 2018

LT Book ClubsAlmost all of our students have abandoned the regular reading of books.

Let us say this again: Almost all of our students have abandoned the regular reading of books.

A strong statement, for sure, but not one we have come to lightly. We have reached this conclusion after surveying our high school students, many of whom have come from years of classrooms focused only (or mostly) on the whole-class reading of difficult texts. In these environments, they have found alternatives to actually turning the pages. They are practiced in participating in fake discussions spun from reading SparkNotes summaries. They have become experts in the art of hiding. And, sadly, we have found that this applies to all our students—even those at the honors level.

If we do not alter our approach to the teaching of reading—if we don’t figure out a way for students to rediscover the magic of books—we will graduate a generation of nonreaders, fake readers, and unprepared-for-college readers.

So how can we reconnect kids to reading? We believe the answer lies in providing our students with a balanced reading diet. In our classrooms, “balanced” means a rich foundation of independent reading, regular book club opportunities, and the study of a few core texts in a school year.

Though independent reading and whole-class study of texts are critical, we have found that creating vibrant book club experiences are particularly helpful in reestablishing reading habits in our students. Specifically, book clubs do three kinds of important work:

  • Book clubs allow our classrooms to be responsive. This year, we selected book club titles around the topic of equity. Students picked from a wide range of fiction and nonfiction titles, from below–grade-level to college-level texts, thus meeting the needs of the diverse reading abilities found in our classrooms. (Check out the sidebar for the list of books we used.) We picked equity as a theme because it is a vital part of discourse today. Our students need a part in the conversation. Charlottesville, “Take a Knee,” DACA, and Black Lives Matter are dominating headlines, and they demand to be studied in the moment. Our unit was responsive to the times, and relevancy motivates our students to read.
  • Book clubs raise reading volume. One thing we are sure all students need—and too many students will graduate without—is a deep volume of reading. What should college freshmen expect in the first year? Five thousand pages of reading (according to reDesign, an organization that specializes in teaching and learning practices) and 75 text-based discussions with students who come from many parts of the world and from religious traditions and family cultures unlike their own. We must create opportunities for our students to practice the speaking and listening, the reading and responding, and the thorny thinking that can result from examining current issues with peers. Book clubs increase the volume of reading because students are responsible to their peers. Having an audience beyond their teacher brings a renewed energy for reading.
  • Book clubs connect students to other readers. We build conversations around books to engage more students in productive talk. Students are too often alone together, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle named the isolation that is caused by a devotion to screen time. You know this. Our classes are quiet when we come in from hall duty. Most students scroll through likes and posts or are animatedly texting. Their friend groups are larger than ever, but less intimate. In the awkwardness of adolescence, it is easier to cultivate a presence online than to make eye contact and to speak, or to actively listen as others respond to your thinking. Small-group conversations are less natural and occur less frequently outside of school today, so they must become an essential part of our classrooms.

We used Flipgrid to connect our students across the United States, from New Hampshire to California, and then to education majors at Miami University in Oxford, OH. We included college students in our book clubs this year because many young adults find the adjustment to college in the first year difficult, particularly those who are the first in their family to attend. We teach those students, so we used book clubs to build a bridge from our students to college readers.

Both of us teach students from the working class. Their parents want them to rise above financial struggle, but they don’t know how to prepare their children for the demands of college or the workplace. They depend on us—teachers in the local public school—to know what their kids need. It is a sacred trust. We stand on the front line of preparing students for the future, and motivating them to read is a crucial part of this preparation.

When we recognized that almost all of our students had abandoned regular reading, it was time to reimagine our teaching of reading. We look forward to sharing more thinking on motivating young readers at the ILA 2018 Conference in Austin, TX, this July. We hope you will join us.

Penny Kittle, an ILA member since 1999, teaches English at Kennett High School in New Hampshire. She is coauthor of 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents with Kelly Gallagher and author of Book Love: Developing Depth, Passion, and Stamina in Readers (Heinemann).

Kelly Gallagher, an ILA member since 2003, teaches at Magnolia High School in California. He is the author of several books, most notably Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (Stenhouse).

This article originally appeared in the open access March/April issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher will be featured speakers at the ILA 2018 Conference, July 20–July 23, in Austin, TX. To learn more, visit literacyworldwide.org/conference.

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