Birthing a book clubPut several devoted English teachers together in a car for several hours and what do you get?
By: Gail Winship, New Richmond News
Put several devoted English teachers together in a car for several hours and what do you get?
More than enough imagination, inspiration and enthusiasm to bring forth new ideas to convey their love of language to students.
This is exactly what happened about six years ago when former New Richmond High School reading specialist Mary Jo Peterson and teachers Deena Neumann, Amy Almendinger and Susan Bull rode together to a state reading convention.
“We came up with the idea for a teacher/student book club in the car on the way to the convention,” Almendinger explained. “The idea became more concrete as we discussed it further at the hotel.”
It occurred to the teachers that a teacher/student book club would allow the students to talk about human behavior and social interactions in a non-threatening way because the characters aren’t real.
“The kids could talk in relation to the characters about ethics, behavioral issues and all kinds of things that could be reflections of their own personal lives without talking about real people,” Almendinger said. “It also gives them a chance to think through and talk about what they would do if they were in a similar situation as a character in a book.”
Peterson took charge of launching and organizing the unique book club concept the first two years with help from the co-founders.
Almendinger said because of scheduling conflicts the book club has not been held every year since its inception, but whenever possible it has been pulled together.
This year the teacher/student book club is in full swing with between 20-25 teachers participating. The clubs are not limited to teachers with students, according to Almendinger.
“Principals, librarians and teaching aides have held book clubs with students,” Almendinger said.
Change is inevitable
When Peterson moved away three years ago, Almendinger took on the responsibility of organizing the book clubs. Due to a heavy teaching schedule, Almendinger did what all great leaders do -- she delegated.
Students in Almendinger’s Advanced Placement (AP) classes actually organize a good part of the book clubs, she said.
“I send out an e-mail to every staff member and request an RSVP with a book idea or type of book they’d like to read with students,” Almendinger said. “Some teachers let the students choose the book they want to read and some teachers chose books they like or those related to their field of study.”
The AP students work in pairs and talk with teachers. Sometimes they will “convince” a certain teacher to participate, Almendinger laughed.
Some English teachers give students extra credit or reading points to participate, but some kids just sign up because they want to read, Almendinger said.
Once sign up is completed, the clubs take on a life of their own. Teachers meet with students initially to decide how many times they will meet and what type of discussions they will have; set some ground rules, and then they are off and reading.
There may be as few as one student in a book club or as many as the teacher and students feel comfortable with. Almendinger estimates there are between 100 to 200 students participating in book clubs this semester.
“Sometimes these book clubs continue into something beyond one book,” Almendinger said. “One year Matt Mealey (band teacher) chose Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and the kids loved it so much they went on to read the whole series.”
The Glass Castle
Language arts teacher Amber Johnson’s book club is one of several groups reading The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls.
Six students showed up for Johnson’s book club meeting Thursday, March 27, in her classroom after school -- four girls and two boys.
“I am so excited to see students get interested in reading an extra book and talk about it during a meeting after school,” Johnson said. “While talking with the students I am able to sit back a little and let them lead more of the discussion because they have strong opinions on the subject matter of our book.”
During one group meeting, Johnson said she stepped out into the hall for a few minutes to speak with another teacher and expected to have to get the kids “back on track” when she returned.
“They were still discussing the characters and events in the novel which created a dialogue back and forth that added great perspective and analysis of the novel,” Johnson said.
The students agreed that it was “more fun and easier” to read and discuss a book in a smaller group.
“It’s easier to talk in a small group because everyone is not talking at once,” student Jenea Jenkins said.
They also all agreed they would definitely join another book club because it was such a positive experience.
“As an English teacher, I don’t think there is anything better than seeing kids reading a book and responding to its meaning in such an energized manner,” Johnson said. “I wish I could see this type of connection with all students.”
Almendinger would love to see the entire community embrace the book club concept. She lives in Stillwater and they have a community book club there.
In Stillwater there is a committee that picks a children’s book, an adolescent book and an adult book, sometimes loosely based on a common theme. Each year they choose the books around Christmas and focus on reading and discussing the books in April. Often the author(s) of the books will come to speak to the book club members.
“It (reading the same books) gives you commonality,” Almendinger said. “It gives people something to talk about.”