When schools moved to a distance-learning model in March 2020, I immediately began running virtual book clubs for students of all ages, and students that I teach signed up right away. Because of the word of mouth and social media, soon I had book groups for children of all ages and children from all over the country. The impetus for the reading groups is my belief that a sense of belonging supports a student’s social and emotional health, and book clubs provide a connection in myriad ways.
Just as I do for my traditional classes, I bring a lesson plan to the online book chat. And, just as I would during my in-person classes, I always anticipate that my plans will change. My role in a virtual book club is most often determined by the group participating, and I meet students where they are. If the group needs more support, I pose questions and encourage them to discuss. If the discussion takes turns I hadn’t expected, I welcome the circuitous direction while also guiding the group toward a meaningful experience.
I aim for each book club to run for about two weeks, and ideally, each group consists of six to eight students. I provide a reading guide ahead of time. Students all begin reading on the same day, and generally read the same amount each day; if students fall behind or read ahead, that’s OK. My goal is to design a positive, affirming experience. I send video messages to the students before and during the two weeks, and we meet online every two to three days for an age-appropriate amount of time (more on that below).
5 TIPS FOR GUIDING A VIRTUAL BOOK CLUB
1. Begin with an icebreaker: One gift of online reading groups is that often the students don’t know everyone in the group. Without peer pressure, many students gain confidence and participate freely. Keep in mind that it’s important for everyone to know each other’s name. Sharing other information—not too personal, like a favourite book or board game—goes a long way to creating community online.
2. Let students take the lead: Student-to-student conversation is better than student-to-teacher discussion, and the less the teacher chimes in, the better. That said, meet students where they are. I ask each student to bring a pencil, a piece of paper, and a book for each class. With a shyer group, having students answer a reading question in writing before sharing gives them the chance to process their ideas and become confident contributors.
3. Optimize for time: A few days before we begin our book club, I send a video message. I use the Google extension BombBomb (which is currently free for teachers), but there are other apps for this as well. Students watch the video ahead of time and come to the first meeting with a common understanding of details like what to bring.
BombBomb allows me to track who has watched the video ahead of time. With that information, it’s easy to plan how to start the first few minutes of the reading group. I really like using video messages to emphasize connection, and these videos also help us spend our time effectively and keep our conversations focused.
I try to keep book meetings for elementary and middle schoolers to 30 minutes or less. Older students can handle longer meetings, but I suggest under an hour.
4. Ask text-to-self questions: Reading with a teacher and other students enhances students’ understanding of the story—and also their own experiences. As we ask questions about the story, we ask questions about ourselves, and ideally, this self-reflection leads to self-discovery.
With that in mind, I encourage intentional text-to-self connections. Here are some examples of questions a teacher can apply to just about any story:
Which character do you think you might be friends with?
Which character do you think you’re most like?
Would you like to live in the story’s setting? Why?
What are you learning from the story?
5. Underscore preparation as a means of participation: As I run online book groups, I work hard to both ensure that everyone participates and acknowledge that participation can take many different forms. Intentionally creating space for each student is paramount. Ensuring that quieter students feel included might mean having students show a drawing or character chart, asking them to read a line from the story, or giving them the chance to show their annotations on a certain section. Because the groups are small and low stakes (but high reward) learning experiences, the close-knit setting also encourages students to take healthy risks, practice self-reflection, and empower themselves as learners.
The overarching goal of an online reading group is to promote a love of literature in a positive, supportive environment. Of course, the online learning space is different from the classroom, but with the right approach, teachers can use stories to cultivate connections and empathy.
By Laura Milligan