The success of Oprah's Book Club, Amazon.com, and Book TV suggests that recreational reading is experiencing a revival, with book clubs in the foreground. This phenomenon inspired us to form the Teacher Book Club (TBC). We recognized that effective professional development in literacy must include a sustained, personal examination of our interaction with reading.
Interweaving pleasure and practicality makes a teachers' book club a powerful option for school districts looking for a fresh approach to professional development. Busy school days rarely allow teachers to talk socially or professionally. With TBC, educators get together and enjoy literature and the social nature of a book club while they probe literacy from different angles. We read and discuss literature, analyze our personal preferences for reading, reflect on classroom practices, and modify classroom practices on the basis of what we have learned.
In the past, teachers viewed reading as a set of skills to be mastered and believed that meaning came only from the text. Current views of literacy instruction reflect the philosophy that the reader and the context also contribute to meaning. Teachers require new ways of teaching, including such approaches as readers' workshops, literature circles, and book clubs to promote higher-order thinking, critical-reading skills, and a positive attitude toward reading. Over time, however, teachers may lose touch with—or may never have had—the kind of reading interactions they envision for students. Teachers can better understand students' needs as readers by engaging in reading and reflecting on their reading styles and responses to literature.
Reading through a new lens helps teachers enrich their understanding of literacy. Typically, teachers approach reading for practical purposes. For example, they read children's literature to choose appropriate books for their students, and they read the student textbooks and teachers' manuals that they use in the classroom. They also read professional literature—books and journals that enhance their practice. We believe, however, that these purposes often detract from the processes of reading and reflecting. Integrating pleasure reading into a teacher's repertoire fills a gap between learning and teaching. We call this additional dimension "reauthentication."
Reauthentication places the adult learner in the position of reexperiencing pleasure reading, this time with metacognitive awareness. In some cases, this activity calls up old memories; in others, the experience replaces, or at least affects, earlier negative encounters with reading. Ultimately, the reauthentication experience gives teachers more strategies—and more passion about reading. Often, teachers don't realize what they've lost until they take part in the book club.
The Teacher Book Club does not model a specific approach that teachers take "as is" into their classrooms. A club lets teachers explore what they do as readers. What do they do when they are puzzled about the meaning of a text or when they simply find it hard to get into the book? What do they find that they wish to share, and what techniques work for keeping track of their thoughts and feelings about what they read? A club offers opportunities to connect personal knowledge about literature with pedagogical knowledge for teaching literature.
Shaping Our Teacher Book Club
For a teacher book club to be successful, teachers need to choose what they will read. They should read texts at their challenge level to experience reading as their students do. They need to decide about methods for sharing. Finally, they need to connect reading, writing, and conversation because these activities are important for classroom book clubs.
To begin the Teacher Book Club, we mailed a flyer introducing our idea to local teachers. The book club was voluntary and free, with the district providing the meeting place and the books. Our readers included eight teachers, one staff developer, two media specialists, and two researcher-participants. Members ranged in experience from 2 to 20 years and represented elementary schools and a high school in four school districts.
At the initial meeting, teachers completed a survey about their personal reading and their classroom practice. Teachers worked together to consider genres and to select novels. Initial titles included historical and contemporary fiction: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells; Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden; The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver; and Praise Jerusalem!, Augusta Trobaugh.
Members were avid readers, and as the group evolved, they explored the value of different genres, including nonfiction (No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin) and adolescent fiction (Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine).
Teachers Learning Together
While Teacher Book Club members read, they reflected on their process and their needs as readers. They found that having uninterrupted blocks of time for reading, journaling, and discussing had a positive impact on their attitudes. Teachers used comprehension strategies that required interacting directly with the text, such as underlining and using sticky notes to mark important passages, which led them to consider suggesting these techniques to their students.
Each monthly meeting began with a written response to a prompt, such as "recall a memory about your favorite book." Discussions toggled between teachers conversing about their own literacy experiences and reflecting on instructional practices. One teacher reported,
I have rediscovered my devotion to helping students become involved in their own interaction with literature, rather than learning to analyze plot, character, setting, and so on.
Another commented on the "value of discussion" and the "importance of new ideas and perspectives." It reminded one teacher of "how we hate being constrained as learners and how we want to make decisions about our own learning." Being able to "experience firsthand what students are asked to do" was beneficial for one teacher. Still another said that the book club led her to focus on "kids as readers with intentions, desires, needs, and curiosities that don't need to be controlled."
Teachers' thoughts about literacy, students, and instructional practices shifted gradually.
- Teachers abandoned many student activity and comprehension sheets.
- They gave students more choices.
- They recognized that there is a rhythm to reading and that keeping a story alive requires a fluid reading pace.
- Teachers reduced requirements for journal writing.
- They recognized the need to steer away from prescribed questions and answers.
- They taught students to say more about less.
- They created better instructional balance not only by focusing on comprehension and skills, but also by creating an awareness and a model for reflecting and sharing insights on the reading process, including the affective elements.
At one meeting, a debate emerged about whether students should be required to read across genres. One 4th grade teacher reflected,
It's interesting that when we talk about ourselves as readers, a lot of the things that I do and have done in the past to kids are things that I don't like to do. Teachers feel an obligation to expose things to kids year after year after year: genre wheels, 25 million comprehension questions, worksheets. We have a lot of kids who don't like to read, and I wonder if it's to do with all the teacher-directed control.
All the teachers felt more enthusiastic about, and reconnected to, their love of reading, and several shared this renewed experience with their students. They recognized that choice reading and open dialogue were more intellectually gratifying than skill-based instruction.
We asked teachers what made them sustain their commitment to the book club.
This is a positive way to balance personal reading, professional development, and social activity.
TBC is motivational and enjoyable compared with other professional development workshops.
TBC gives me the confidence to try new things. For example, some teachers used elements of TBC discussions to scaffold student discussions.
Really getting to know other participants and learning about their prior experience made for richer, less inhibited discussions. Longevity with group members can benefit literacy conversations because establishing a good flow takes time. This led me to rethink how I form and rotate student groups.
Books and supplies were free.
Back in their schools, teachers have increased their collegial talk about literacy, including why reading should accommodate students' needs and how being respected as readers had a positive influence on them. Members often share books with other teachers, which encourages new readers to consider joining the group.
Student Book Clubs
When we talk at TBC, we are often off-task. We don't like writing anything for meetings, and we've rejected the notion of a discussion leader or time manager. Why as a teacher do I put so much pressure on my kids to define their discussion through group roles or half-page journal entries? What would happen if I just gave my students the freedom to talk in their group the way we do, without boundaries? That's what I'm going to do as an experiment—have students read Shiloh or Strider and guide their own learning.
—4th Grade Teacher
Teachers' experiences with the Teacher Book Club became the underpinnings of their literacy planning. To improve student achievement with book clubs, some teachers work together to plan literacy themes; others team-teach with researchers. Teachers further extend the experience through direct modeling and book club "shadowing" between teacher book clubs and student book clubs. Another extension includes videotaping student book clubs and critiquing them. When two teachers watched a student book club video together, they quickly targeted an area for improvement:
Their favorite part, their favorite picture, their favorite character. Is this what we've trained students to focus on? Now we know that they need more time experiencing and observing different types of conversations. Students need more to rely on besides their "old favorites"!
Will a Teacher Book Club Work for You?
Teacher book clubs help members learn more about literacy. They encourage teachers to experience professional development not as passive consumers of programs or approaches but as engaged learners inquiring into and reflecting on literacy goals. Further, they give teachers opportunities to engage in deep conversations, to layer personal experiences with literacy learning, and to probe instructional issues on an extended basis. Most important, metacognitive thinking fills in the gap that exists between teaching and learning.
During the last meeting of the school year, we celebrated our journey as readers, teachers, and book club members. Some members thrived on discussions, others listened; some read each book in one weekend, others seldom finished. The Teacher Book Club led us to fully develop and understand our profiles as readers and to rediscover the excitement of being a reader. The message was bold: For students to become readers, they too need guided flexibility.
Raphael, T., Pardo, L., Highfield, K., & McMahon, S. (1997). Book club: A literature-based curriculum. Littleton, MA: Small Planet Communications.
Authors' note: The members of the book club are Mary Van Alstine, Debbie Ferri, Ginny Frank, Dianne Stephenson, Cindy Palmer, Laura Roop, Marie Johnson, Beth Harrington, and Judy Schlachler.
Shari M. Goldberg is a K–8 Supervisor of Instruction for the Washington Township Schools, Long Valley, New Jersey (e-mail:
). Ellen Pesko is a Research Assistant at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan (e-mail: