This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch.
The idea for a family book club was originally born out of my desire to expose parents to the great work their children were doing in my English classroom. My fifth graders spoke eloquently about the novels we read in class, asking insightful questions and offering valuable observations, and I often found myself wishing their grown-ups were in the room to share in the pride I felt in these young readers. Looking to bridge the gap between the once-ample opportunities for parent involvement that began to dwindle as students moved through middle and upper school, I decided to host an after-school family book club.
With the support of my administration, I reserved library space, ordered some simple snacks (having learned from countless faculty meetings the siren song of tasty refreshments), and invited all fifth- and sixth-grade students and their parents to attend the inaugural meeting of my family book club. In order to build enthusiasm and participation, I posted information on our school website, made announcements to students, and emailed families an invitation and a Google form to make signing up for the book club as easy as possible. These invitations were sent out at least a month before each meeting, giving everyone time to arrange schedules and, of course, read the book.
For the past two years, the family book club has met approximately once every three months. Most students come with an adult—usually their mothers, but sometimes an older sibling has joined us, and I hope to convince a dad or two in the future. At each meeting of the book club, I have had one or two students who want to participate despite not having an adult who is able to join them, and this has in no way hindered the tone or success of our meetings. For each gathering I choose a popular YA fiction title, with an emphasis on diverse characters navigating complicated social dynamics. Recent family book club favorites have included The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer, Rules by Cynthia Lord, and Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
For those familiar with any of these titles, it is easy to imagine fifth and sixth graders eagerly sharing their opinions about strict or clueless parents, navigating complicated middle school friendships, or what it feels like to be different or lonely. I always come to a book club meeting with guiding questions about plot and characters, and I often rely on these prompts to get the conversation flowing. However, much to my delight, it’s never taken long for the students (and, eventually, their grown-ups) to chime in with questions, opinions, personal connections, and reflections about the novels we read. And, of course, this outcome is what prompted me to start the book club in the first place.
Just as is the case in my classroom, during family book club meetings I find joy in listening to students speak enthusiastically about Duncan Dorfman’s ethical conundrum or why Stargirl might be a role model to young people who’ve never felt like they fit in. I have fun asking questions and receiving answers I never myself considered. And, since I am not the only adult in the room, I also take pleasure in watching grown-ups react with pleasant surprise or appreciation or pride as their children speak eloquently and confidently to a crowded room.
Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.