#NonfictionBookClub Part One: Preparation, Connection, and Reflection in Book Discussions

It’s likely happened to you. You showed up to a book club, with your book read and your notes prepared, lofty ideas in your back pocket. (“The hammer clearly symbolizes her frustration with her mother.”) And then one of your club members shows up and says, “I didn’t really have time to read the book, you guys go ahead and talk about it without me,” and then proceeds to hijack the conversation with celebrity gossip and other non-sequiturs. Or, perhaps, you have been that person. I know I have. But that was before. 

I’ve since learned that in order for any book club to be successful, there are areas of practice to which club members must dedicate time and energy. These areas are preparation, connection, and reflection.

  • Club members must prepare. They must not only read the text, they must digest it, analyze it, distill it. Preferably they record some of their best thinking to have at the ready.
  • Club members must connect with one another. During the discussion (and at times beforehand), club members must listen to each other, consider each other’s ideas, and look for patterns and points of agreement or dissension. 

Throughout most of my teaching career, I taught my students to consider the former two areas of practice, preparation and connection. But after trying the work in my own nonfiction book club, I realized that reflection is crucial as well. 

  • Club members must reflect. They must think about which strategies work for them as readers, and which don’t. They must think about what is difficult as they try to distill the information in a text. They must think about ways that they are getting stronger at talk and ways that they still could improve. 

Big ideas

After our chat, I had a few realizations about each area of practice. 

Preparation

  • It helps to have a shared space where club members can post ideas and questions prior to the discussion. These posted ideas form the agenda for the club, and allow club members to preview each other’s thinking. Club members can see places where ideas intersect and can come prepared to talk further about these intersections. In short, posting thinking beforehand can lead to much deeper thinking and talking in the actual discussion.
  • I believe it was Jenn Hayhurst who posted the question before our chat: How does scarcity influence school culture? We could have discussed this question alone for the entire hour. When considering which ideas to bring to a club, one could think about ideas that have strong personal relevance and ones perhaps with an emotional charge. We can think, what ideas or questions will my club really care about? If we can imagine a discussion topic taking up an hour, chances are it’s a great topic to bring up. 
  • As we read, some of us came up with systems to track and make sense of what we were reading. I tried using the colored highlights in the Kindle app to categorize information. I used pink for themes and big ideas, blue for supporting evidence, yellow for parts that resonated for me personally. Allison Jackson adopted a system from Content-Area Reading by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke. The system channels readers to use symbols to denote certain reactions to the text and kinds of thinking, like discovering something new or when coming up with a prediction. 

Connection

  • Simply saying “I agree,” or “yes” and naming a person and the point with which we agree does wonders to organize a conversation and anchor the new point one is making. 
  • One thing that is interesting about Twitter as a chat avenue is that it is possible to hold side conversations without interrupting the flow of the main discussion, something that is harder to do in person. Students may find that certain discussion points really spark their interest, and may wish to delve into them further, perhaps just with one or two club members. I’m considering ways this could be done in live discussions. Maybe time could be allotted after a formal discussion for this purpose? 

Reflection

  • Allison Jackson was saying afterwards that she appreciated the slower pace of the chat. Certainly, when engaged in Twitter chats with scores of participants, it can be difficult to get a word in edgewise. And it is hardly possible to absorb all of the ideas being bandied about. Our chat had fewer participants, but it also had fewer questions. We could take our time, ruminate, consider. Something we probably don’t do often enough.
  • One thing I realized after our chat is I could so much more to guide students in book clubs to reflect on their talks. Getting students to consider what went well and what they could do better next time as club member would be heady meta-cognitive work with a huge payoff. 

Of course, what I am capturing here is just a small cross-section of the brilliance that emerged on July 7. It never ceases to amaze me how eloquent people can be in 140 characters or less. I had high hopes that Storify would work seamlessly for me to compile and publish the chat for all to see. Alas, there is a glitch that prevents me from compiling the entire chat (only 20 tweets are showing up in the Storify timeline, if anyone knows a good workaround, please let me know!). I hope that this post captures just a few of the takeaways for those who weren’t able to attend. And for those who were, please feel free to add to this post in the comment section. I would love to hear about your personal insights and realizations.

I will continue to build on this list as we continue to discuss Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. If you are coming across this post and would like to join, we are reading chapters 3, 4, and 5 for July 21st, 2014, chat to be held at 8pm EST. Please feel free to share your thinking in advance on our group document

One final note, we are going to try a different, shorter hashtag: Please use #NFBookClub on the 21st to join. 

Looking forward to seeing you then. Happy reading! 

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Sharing Ideas before a Book Discussion #NonfictionBookClub

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Deep into chapter two of Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, part of assignment one for our summer nonfiction book club, I found myself thinking about how our first book discussion might go. I had been thinking that the best way to begin might be with very little advance planning, just to have everyone show up and contribute organically.

But then, I thought about what some club members said about preferring to think about questions in advance. I didn’t want to post a list of questions or discussion topics myself, since I felt that might be too prescriptive. So I considered what would be the middle ground.

Many teachers who are guiding students book clubs ask students to choose their best question or idea and write it on a post-it, and then put it in the center of the table for the club to discuss. The post-its form the agenda for the club, helping to keep the discussion on track and focused.

A way to help students focus their preparation and begin thinking about each other’s ideas right at the start is to create a space, digital or otherwise, where they can post their chosen ideas beforehand for their group members to consider. This way, students can see connections, consider implications, think through possible responses, and find evidence for each other’s ideas, possibly leading to greater depth in the discussion.

If you have time before our book club discussion tonight, please add an idea or a question to this shared document. You might consider coming back to the document before our chat to glance over others’ ideas in preparation for our discussion. What is posted in the document can form the agenda for our discussion. Of course, posting in the document is completely optional, and we will have more time to contribute there for the next reading assignment.

Looking forward to chatting with you!