Reflections of Book Club

This post revisits my online fantasy book club pedagogy and provides new critical insights as I reflect upon my process.

Firstly, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to James K. Tauber for his contributions to Teaching with Magic in his guest post series. His contributions were integral to some of my lessons in The Hobbit Book Club that I hosted for the past few months. His expansive knowledge of linguistics provided an alternative perspective to the story that fascinated my students, one that I would not have been able to offer without his expertise. Thank you again, James!

I have been working with Outschool for the past six months offering Book Clubs, writing classes, and one on one literacy tutoring. In July, I wrote a post about the benefits and how to’s of teaching a book club online. This post is a reflection of both of these works and the observations that I have made since then, and especially since teaching “The Hobbit” for the first time.

Since May (2020), I have offered three Fantasy Book Club classes, the first being C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Offering several sections throughout the summer gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my practice, how I was presenting information to the students, and how I was facilitating the discussion throughout in order to let the students dominate the conversation rather than the teacher. Since then, I have been very fortunate that some of my students (from various sections) chose to reenroll in my other Book Clubs for Lewis’ Prince Caspian and, most recently, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The students each decided and wrote down what they considered good qualities of a leader. They then debated how three different characters in “The Hobbit” showed these qualities throughout the text.

Time and again, my students have amazed me with their critical observations of the text and their questions. Every student reads the text differently depending on their own individual experiences, their relationship with fantasy books and with the world around them. One of my students will happily debate with me in regards to the “Chronological vs. Publication Order” approaches to reading the Narnia series, and he will insist upon reading a novel’s prequel before even attempting another (which has also led to an interesting discussion regarding Tolkien’s The Silmarillion). Another student will point out various patterns in word choice and poetry with the close reading skills of a college professor. My job as their teacher is to celebrate these observations, lead them further into their questioning, and occasionally break out into a dance when they do so.

My students often came to their conclusions based on or tangentially related to the journal questions that I would post for them to answer before class. Since my July post, I made one major change to the process that has been invaluable. I now require that all of my students come to each meeting with one discussion question to ask the rest of the class. I provide an instructional video for students during the first week that is specifically for constructing questions while reading. This strategy helps students come up with immediate but thoughtful questions while they are reading the text. Sometimes the questions are easily answered in the text, but other times students have provided critical exploratory questions or “if you were in the story” questions. Each class has garnered interesting results, and is not only reflective of the individual student’s personality but of the class as a whole. Some classes preferred comparing the texts with their own personal experiences while others were interested in more critical close reading of the text. Having the students provide their own questions gave them further opportunities to discuss the book that otherwise would have been overlooked if we had stuck solely to my understanding of the text or their answers to the journal questions.

My favorite (and saddest) day of Book Club is the last day. On the 8th and final meeting, we have a Creative Project Presentation and Tea Party. My students will come to class dressed in their favorite outfits and eating their favorite snacks as they present their project to their classmates. This final project is never graded, but I do provide guidelines for them to use and feel successful in their presentation. They must create something that reflects their understanding of the text and explain their artistic choices in a written defense of their work.

The results have been astounding.

From fanfiction chapters, comic strips, scenes written with computer code (Scratch AND Python!), and fashion design to (drawn) Social Media accounts, photographs, 3-D cards, and musical performances, each student and project has brought something unique. No two projects have been alike, and even my repeat students choose to creatively explore the text in a new way every time. Providing flexible guidelines, options, and possible topics to explore has given my students the opportunity to bring their unique creativity to the text without the restrictions of standardized rubrics and grading.

I am very fortunate to teach these students the magic of books. While this saying is a bit cliché, I truly have found that they teach me just as much, if not more, than I teach them. I’m certain that they will have even more success with their reading and with their reading skills as they continue their magical journey through their books.