Leading a Professional Book Club: Strengthening Professional Learning

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Likely all of us reading this post right now know (quite well) the experience of reading a text alone. If you are like me, you read when you can find the time, typically absorbing the text in multiple sessions. And if you’re like me, you think about the ideas evoked in the text both during and after the minutes you’re able to devote to reading. But as a busy adult and parent, I usually avoid setting deadlines on finishing a book I’ve chosen to read on my own, as life outside of school right now is just too unpredictable to pace out pages in any organized fashion.  As I read, I might jot down some important thinking so that it is “captured” and I can refer back to it later… or not. And I might mention the book, or perhaps memorable parts of it, to friends in conversation across my day; but I never do so in any organized or pre-planned way. Interpretations are my own.

But being part of a book club is different. Someone once said that there is something beautiful about gathering people around a single book. And we now live in an age in which a multitude of beautiful professional books exist. As I write this post, I can easily name at least ten or more books I cannot wait to read. However, picking up a professional text and reading all the way through it, as wonderful and impactful as this endeavor can be, oftentimes presents challenges (a few of which I have named already). This is where the idea of a book club comes in. If the desire to strengthen your professional learning burns strong inside you (and perhaps in some of your colleagues, as well), consider organizing and facilitating a book club. Book clubs hold the potential for helping us accomplish important goals, such as:

  • Providing a structure for existence- instead of “someday”, book clubs present us with social accountability, and thus support us when it comes to actually finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time;
  • Providing a structure for collaborative interpretation— instead of just one person’s ideas growing individually and privately, ideas can be grown collaboratively with other professionals, increasing the likelihood that people will feel comfortable taking risks in their practice.
  • Creating community-– book clubs hold the potential to forge otherwise unlikely professional connections, thereby strengthening not only the levels of literacy and/or teaching among educators, but also improving the climate.

Let’s face it, if we read to be changed in the company of others, this can be a powerful injection of not just fresh teaching energy, but collegiality as well.

So how might one go about launching such an effort? Consider the following steps:

  • Forming the club- Forming a book club is not as hard or daunting as it might seem, and can be accomplished in a few different ways. Personally, if I am working to organize a physical book club (versus a virtual club, which I will discuss at the end of this post), I extend an open invitation via email. Sometimes it can help to provide a specific number of “slots” available when sending out the email, as this can add an element of “exclusiveness” to an otherwise completely inclusive invitation. I know, you may be thinking of this as a bit manipulative. And perhaps it is. But in my experience, something in our nature as humans compels many of us to want to belong to something “exclusive.” So by generating a faux air of exclusivity around a book club, we can sometimes attract unlikely members to “the club” which can thereby subsequently serve to facilitate multiple positive outcomes.

Typically I follow up the initiating email with a concerted effort to extend in-person invitations to as many people as possible. Everyone appreciates a personal invite, so I view the effort as worthwhile.

Another possible method for forming a book club is through an already-existing structure, such as a standing department meeting or designated professional development time. For example, last year teachers at my school were interested in effective ways to teach grammar and conventions in the writing workshop. As the literacy leader in my school, I then devoted part of our professional development time to a book study around The Power of Grammar, by Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton.

While this can feel less like a “club,” dedicating a string of standing meetings to bringing colleagues together as a book club can be a robust way to forward professional learning.

  • Selecting the text- As I mentioned, an incredible array of professional texts, many or all of them now printed in color, exist in our world of teaching and learning today. Selection of text then becomes matching a book to a professional goal. Perhaps your goal is to enliven and strengthen workshop teaching? You might select Stacey Shubitz’s and Lynne Dorfman’s new book, Welcome to Writing Workshop. Perhaps your goal is more specific to strengthening conferring? Carl Anderson’s A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences may serve well. While you may wish to offer choices when it comes to the text, I have found it is sometimes best to extend the invitation to colleagues with a text already in mind, or perhaps just a few from which to choose.

In some districts am I aware of, principals and central office administrators are highly supportive of professional book clubs, and will even provide funding for the purchase of the texts.  So when it comes to procuring texts for your club, it would definitely be worth an ask!

  • Pre-meeting- If possible, holding an initial meeting with all interested teachers/professionals/colleagues can be helpful. This meeting holds two main purposes: (1) Creating an organizing structure for the club; and (2) generating anticipation and excitement:
    • Organizing Structure: It is important to remember that when leading a professional and/or adult book club, you may find that some of your colleagues have never participated in this type of collaborative structure before. Thus, in the spirit of creating a supportive atmosphere around the book, I find it helpful to provide a simple tool for supporting club members in planning their participation. You may click here to access the simple tool I have offered at my pre-meetings. The first step at the pre-meeting is deciding on stopping points and due dates. Depending on the length of the book, your club may wish to meet only a couple of times, or maybe multiple times. Personally, I prefer dividing the book into natural quarters, choosing around four stopping points. Somewhere between three and five stopping points is probably ideal, as that usually serves to accomplish two main goals: deeper understandings of the text, and increased connectedness between colleagues.
    • Generating Anticipation and Excitement: Pre-meetings allow a short, focused burst of time to organize, but they also allow for time to acknowledge everyone who has chosen to participate. Use this time to convey authentic enthusiasm for the upcoming journey through the text, as well as scheduling one of the most important aspects of a book club: food! Divvying up the responsibilities for snacks serve to make the book club feel less like “another meeting,” and more like an outside-the-normal-day experience people will look forward to attending.
  • Book Club Meetings- A mentor once taught me the definition of “good talk,” and I’ve never forgotten it: She said (and I’m paraphrasing), If, at the end of our talk (conversation):
    • I am thinking more,
    • I am thinking differently, 
    • I have more words to say about what I was thinking already,

then a talk ought to be deemed worthwhile. Although this definition is rather simple (but one I teach to kids), it still sets a high bar for an adult book club conversation. When working with adults, however, it is important to remember that you’ll likely be interfacing with a host of different learning styles. Therefore, I endeavor to remain low-key and positive during the meetings.

At the end of each meeting, be sure to clarify (a) the time for the next meeting (which was already decided at the pre-meeting, but it helps to restate it), and (b) the chapter or page everyone will agree to stop reading. These two quick clarifications help to create an invisible contract for the club, as well as accountability.

  • Big Takeaways– When studying a professional text as a means to strengthen professional learning, it can really pay off to publicly name out actionable takeaways. You may pose the following questions:
  • What will be different now?
  • What do people intend to try out in their teaching lives?
  • How will we support each other in those endeavors?

Naming out these things publicly creates non-threatening accountability for moving practice forward.

  • Virtual Book Clubs. Book clubs need not be in person! My friend and colleague Kathleen Sokolowski recently facilitated a virtual book club in which members communicated and shared ideas in Google Classroom. Also, each summer, teacher and literacy leader Cathy Mere leads a book club at #cyberpd. Check out her post from last summer to see how she organizes a club that meets in cyberspace by clicking here.

For even more inspiration and celebration of reading in book clubs, check out Penny Kittle’s and Clare Landrigan’s Book Love Foundation.  For this summer’s book club line-up, check out Clare’s video here or the BookLove Foundation Website here.

Resources for Possible Professional Book Clubs:

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Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works . Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)img_0857
  • For a chance to win this copy of Welcome to Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, May 5th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, May 6th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.