Deeper Learning Through Book Clubs

At Park Ridge High School one of the texts in our eighth grade language arts curriculum that fulfills a Common Core State Standard is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. This novel, which students read toward the end of the year, serves as a foundation to demonstrate that our students “read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

As background for the students to understand The Prince and the Pauper, I selected four “princess” novels by Carolyn Meyer as part of an independent reading book club assignment: Mary Bloody Mary; Patience, Princess Catherine; Doomed Queen Anne; and Beware, Princess Elizabeth. I chose these novels because they

  • Are written for young adults and appeal to reluctant readers.
  • Provide an historic setting that is rich in detail, language, and customs of the Elizabethan time.
  • Are told in the first-person narrative style, which encourages young adolescents to make connections with their own personal circumstances.
  • Are interconnected so a student who has read one title can have a conversation with another student who has read a different title.

When I first began teaching with the princess book clubs years ago, I had the students read most of their novels in class. When they approached the ending chapters (all the titles are roughly the same length), I assigned them for homework.

On Thursdays and Fridays, students had time to complete self-contained activities they could begin and finish in one or two class periods. Classwork included activities such as drawing a picture of the setting or writing a diary entry from the protagonist’s perspective.

Although these were all worthwhile activities in their alternative ways of assessment, I was frustrated that there was no continuity through the weeks and students were not doing any deeper, analytical work for a larger purpose.

I thought back to an interesting project I had done in a graduate school class. Working in small discussion groups, the graduate students were assigned the drama Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, for which we created “director’s notes” based on a literary theory (e.g., feminist, reader-response). We had to discuss and analyze the drama through the lens of a theory while providing other elements, such as glossaries of terms and a statement of purpose. The project was a challenging new experience in collaboration. Fifteen years later, that experience would become the genesis for my current book club project.

Stage One: Independent Reading

After selecting a princess novel, the students begin reading their novels silently in class. I try to give everyone their first choices, but forming effective small-group dynamics requires that some students get their second or third choices. Three or four days of silent reading are followed by one or two days for the book club members to meet and discuss aspects of the book.

I use a literature circle format: discussion leader, story connector, illustrator, word wizard. Students are encouraged to take notes and complete graphic organizers as they read; they also keep reader-response journals.

I monitor their progress through individual reading conferences. As they discuss their novels in literature circles, I assess their work based on four criteria: respect, participation, attitude, and readiness. This stage lasts about two weeks.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012


  1. I think that emulating the discussion style of a book club is so vital to teaching English literature. The spontaneity and group-sourced analytic thinking that book clubs usually entail is vital for giving students an intrinsic motivation to read. Of course you can still teach reading comprehension skills directly, and define different aspects of the English language. But for students to really delve deep into reading and pick up the accompanying critical thinking skills, they need to be able to build upon their ideas and learn of fresh perspectives as a group. That’s what takes them from students who read to readers.