Our School Book Club: the story so far…

I have been running a weekly school book club (jointly with a fellow UCL student) for one whole month now and so I thought that I would write a blog post on my experiences so far.

Having never run any kind of reading group before, this has been a really valuable learning experience for me, although running the book club has not been without its ups and downs! After our first successful session, we ordered copies of the chosen book for the girls and planned to start reading it the following week. However, we had a brief crisis when the school contacted us the day before the next session to say that the books hadn’t arrived in time! Luckily, I already owned a copy of the text so we used this to make copies of the first few pages for the students. However, we didn’t think that this would fill the time sufficiently so we also prepared some handouts about the historical context of the novel – the Blitz in London – and we made a short quiz for the girls to do in teams based on this subject.

As it turned out, the quiz was really successful and all the girls in the group seemed to engage with what they were asked to do, which was really positive. I have since come to the conclusion that putting the girls into smaller groups and setting them specific tasks is much more effective than putting them all in a circle together and having everyone discuss the book at once. What I have discovered is that when the girls are together in one group, the keen girls will do all the talking and the quieter girls – or the girls that haven’t done the work! – will not engage with the group.

We have had some unexpected problems with some of the girls not doing the required reading, which perhaps in retrospect shouldn’t have been unexpected given that the book club is compulsory for them and not voluntary. We also had some quite bad attendance problems when we ran our third session – several of the girls came late, and it transpired that some of the other girls had deliberately tried to skip the session! This was not encouraging for us, and that particular session also suffered a great deal of disruption when the teacher went to look for the missing girls and then told them off very loudly in the corridor just outside the room before sending them in one by one in disgrace! Nevertheless, we persevered and managed to get a good discussion going towards the end of the session, despite several of the girls having not done the reading.

I tried to emphasise to the girls that the reading was for their benefit and that it was in their own interest to do it for the sake of their exam next year. This seemed to get through to some of them but clearly not all of them as we had similar problems the following week with some girls having not done the reading – although at least this time everyone was sufficiently chastened to show up! For our fourth session, we decided to take a different approach as it had become clear by this point that the girls who weren’t doing the work were just sitting silently in the circle and not engaging. We divided everyone into groups and my partner gave them an exercise which she had prepared. Each group had to look at a particular section of the book and examine the relevant characters’ relationships in that section. They were also asked to put the scene in context by looking at what had just previously occurred in the novel.

I would say that this exercise had mixed success. Two of the groups had obviously done the required reading, and so could begin their discussion almost straight away, but the other two groups were clearly playing catch-up as they tried to read the section they had been given, while also reading back over the previous scenes. However, this at least forced them to engage with the book and myself and my partner spent some time talking to each group individually and encouraging them to share their ideas with us. Afterwards, everyone came back into the circle and was asked to share their thoughts with the whole group.

Today was the most recent session of our book group and it was a little bit nerve-wracking this time because I had to run the session completely by myself! My partner is currently away on a research trip over the Easter break, so I will be running the next session on my own too. Even though it’s a bit scary, I’m really pleased that I have the opportunity to do this because I think that it will really boost my confidence for leading group sessions in the future.

Today’s session actually went really, really well and I’m very pleased with the girls and how well they engaged with the work. I decided to create a group work exercise similar to last week, but I gave them handouts of specific sections of the text to analyse so that even the girls who were behind with the reading would be able to quickly read these short extracts and then join in with the discussion. Each group was given two extracts and asked to compare them – specifically, they were asked to look at two particular relationships between different couples in the novel and then to find similarities and differences between these two relationships. I thought that this would be a useful exercise for them as it is quite similar to what they will have to do for their exam. I then spent quite a bit of time with each group, making sure they understood the task and asking them questions relating to the two extracts. I think that I managed to get everyone in each group to make some contribution towards the discussion, which was really positive – most of the girls were even quite enthusiastic and one group had quite a debate going about the motives of one particular character, which was great!

I let them discuss their ideas in groups for about 25-30 minutes, and then we came back into a circle and each group described their extract to the others and gave us their thoughts. Nearly everyone seemed engaged and interested so I think that I’m definitely going to stick to a structure of group work exercises followed by feedback in the circle for future sessions. I also made sure to tell them that I would be asking them questions about the book when they got back from their Easter break and that therefore I expected them all to have done the reading – we’ll see how effective this has been during the next session! To be honest, though, I don’t really mind that some of the girls don’t want to engage properly with the work; it means that the sessions are more challenging and interesting for me because I have to figure out ways of motivating these girls to read. I don’t think that this would be as valuable a learning experience for me if all the girls were already keen readers – so I welcome the challenge of having reluctant readers in the group. I do however hope that the next session is as successful as this one has been! 🙂

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