Last term I signed up to the UCL Schools Book Club volunteering group because I wanted to try my hand at running a book club for young people. During our book club training session a few weeks ago we were put into pairs and assigned to a school, and this afternoon was the very first session of our new book club!
When myself and my book club partner arrived at the school, we were a little unsure what to expect because the school happens to be Catholic and we did wonder whether this would affect the kinds of reading material that we could use in the group. However, it soon transpired that there would be no censorship of this type and that we were free to read anything that we wanted – in fact, we were even encouraged to choose literature which dealt with controversial issues, as the English teacher we spoke to felt that this would promote debate and discussion. I found this really positive and it has definitely inspired us to add a few more books to our reading list!
Our reading group is made up of fifteen girls who are currently in their first year of sixth form and the group is being run to encourage them to read more widely in preparation for their A-Level exam next year. The exam they have to take is vastly different from the one we studied for when I was at school – there are no set texts for them to study, and instead they must each choose several of their own texts to read for the exam. The idea behind this approach is that it prepares them for the kind of independent study which takes place at University. I thought that this was a really exciting way to approach an English Literature A-Level and I would definitely have relished this kind of independent study when I was in sixth form.
However, the English teacher we spoke to informed us that many of the girls were not in the habit of doing independent reading and some of them had been coerced into attending our reading group in order to get themselves into the habit of reading more widely before their next school year. I was a little worried by this as I was unsure as to whether I would be able to inspire them if they weren’t already fond of reading! As it turned out, there were quite a few members of the group who were enthusiastic about reading the books that we had suggested for them, although there were also several girls who admitted that they didn’t like reading at all.
The English teacher who we spoke to prior to the session had informed us that the theme of the girls’ A-Level exam was going to be ‘Love Through the Ages’, so we tried to select titles that would fit well within this theme. Our list included romantic novels from the eighteenth century to the present day, incorporating quite a few classics such as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice but also some more contemporary historical fiction. We let the girls vote on which book they wanted to read first and I was really pleased that they opted for The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. I think that this will be a really good first text, not only because it’s a great read but also because it isn’t too difficult – I was a bit concerned about choosing a challenging first text in case this alienated the girls who didn’t like to read.
The UCL Schools Book Club group has a small budget which means that we can buy a copy of The Night Watch for everyone in the group. Hopefully these should arrive in time for next week’s session, which will mean that we can get started straight away. Luckily for me, I already have my own copy so I should be able to make a start on re-reading this before next week!
We decided to spend the rest of our first session reading a little bit of poetry, as my book club partner had brought along copies of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats. I think that we managed to get quite a good discussion going by the end of the session and I hope that the girls found it useful and interesting. Many of them are still quite shy with us, but I hope that they’ll become more comfortable and relaxed during the coming sessions. This was the first time that I’d ever volunteered to work with young people so I was a little out of my comfort zone too – however, I’m looking forward to next week and I hope that we can manage to create a fun and inspiring book club!