Book Club

How do you get a bunch of teenagers to read?  Particularly a bunch of resistant, rebellious, and incredibly noisy teenagers?  My Year Ten class (ages 14-16) are a lovely group, but they will not stop talking, and many of them don’t read for fun at all.  Or at least, that was how this year started.

My own experience of reading in school revolved around having to write book reviews. I loved reading, could not stop reading, but I hated the writing of reviews so much that it affected my reading.  My aim was to encourage the all students to read, without making them go through the torture of review-writing. Thus, I came up with Book Club.

The theory is that, every other Friday, students will bring a book which they have read, or are still reading, in the past fortnight.  They will be put in small groups – four is ideal – and they will talk about the book: what they like about it; what is perplexing; who the hero is, and why are they interesting; who they would recommend this book to.  They don’t have to write about the book themselves, just talk.

However, in order to ensure that everyone has read a book, and is pulling their weight, the person to the left of the speaker takes notes about what is said.  There is a form to fill out, but students are encouraged to talk about more than the basics on the form.  Once the first student has spoken about their book, the next one talks and has notes taken by the student to their left.  This way, at the end of about 20 minutes, there are four sheets of paper with book titles, author’s names, basic genre, and a brief outline of the book. This paper gets filed in a big lever-arch folder, so that if anyone is looking for a book to read, there are a number of them, filed roughly by genre.


This was the idea which I came up with over the summer holidays, and I was quite unsure as to how it would work with real, live students. The idea of Book Club was introduced in the first lesson, and repeatedly brought up through the weeks.  Students were directed to the library. After two weeks of teaching, with a class (well, actually two at the same level) that I could not persuade to sit quiet, could not have them listening all at once, a class which I felt quite overwhelmed by, we finally had our first Book Club.  The first 20 minutes were riotous, and I was not sure that it was working.  There was lots of talking going on, and people were writing things down.  Some people had brought along book reports, and were reading off them.  Most of them had brought books, even if some of those books were Captain Underpants. Then, at the end of those 20 – 30 minutes, I was presented with whole sheaves of paper, with titles, and sometimes authors written on them.  There was information about the books, and who should read them. Students were begging to go to the library, and others wanted to finish reading the books they had brought.  So I went along to the library with those who didn’t have books, helped some of them check out their first book ever, and headed back to the classroom.  And it was SILENT. The students who had remained behind had just gotten on with their reading.  The students coming in with new books slipped into their places and started reading.  The whole class read silently for the last 20 minutes of the period, and it was a wonderful thing.

That was only the first class, though. Surely, it wouldn’t work as well on the second class.* But it did.  It went just the same way.  There was mayhem, as students all talked at once about the books, and then silence, as they settled down to read.

And it kept working.  More than that, students were borrowing books off each other, or buying books that others had recommended, or getting them out of the library. At the first Parent-Teacher interviews of the year, one mother said, “I don’t know what you’ve done.  We’ve tried getting him to read for 13 years, and suddenly, he’s asking me to buy him books!  They’re not books I’ve read, but I’m just happy he’s reading.” The students ask when the next Book Club is, and try to work out if they’ll have finished this book in time.

Sometimes we have themes: Favourite Books; The Book of the Film (done over the first holidays, comparing books to their films); Try a Different Genre.  There was a poster-day, where they had to present a poster advertising the book. But mostly I am trying to instill in the students the joy of reading, of finding new worlds to explore.

*Because the only surety in life is that a lesson that goes perfectly with one class will crash and burn with the second class.


Writing Involves Reading

Once again, I realise that, in order to do any of the writing I need to do (either for courses, or for my ‘novel’) I need to read. How much do I need to read? The answer is always ‘more’.

However, I feel that the post-grad paper I’m trying to write (which won’t get a widget, because it’s only 2,500 words) is rather prescriptive in its lay-out. I guess they’re more used to dealing with people who’ve done more practical under-grads, like archaeology, or anthropology. Being told to use “at least 20 major sources” and to “remember to rely primarily on refereed journals” is rather strange, until you remember that ‘post-grad’ could mean this is the student’s first paper/course outside of undergrad. I wouldn’t have even thought to look at unrefereed journals, and nor would I have gone straight to the museums’ web-pages (which are not to make up more than 20% of our references) to answer the question. Different strokes for different folks…

In other projects, I’m currently reading a very well-written biography of St Catherine of Siena, which is making me re-think the scope/angle of the novel I’m wanting to / trying to write. I want it to be historically based, and even to use primary sources. I’m just trying to work out how that might fit into a speculative non-fiction text.

Also, note that I’m avoiding writing by writing about writing. Go me!