Book Clubs… Online??

We know and love that book clubs work. They are a wonderful way to get your friends together and talk about your favorite stories. It is beautiful to think that the book that is so closely tied to your heart is shared with a group of common minded people, a group that can be as small as one pair to millions of people around the globe. But book clubs are changing in this brave new world, and we can change along with them.

Once upon a time, we could meet on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, snuggle on a bean bag chair or a comfy couch and sip hot chocolate while chatting with our friends about the assigned reading for the meeting. In our new normal, however, that may not be possible. That’s not to say that sipping hot chocolate is out of the question- perish the thought! But there’s more than one way to enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other.

For the past two months, I have been teaching the first of my Fantasy Book Club classes on Outschool, an online learning platform for homeschooling families. On Outschool, I am encouraged to offer focused classes on my favorite subjects rather than scrambling to teach curriculum that has been handed to me by administration. Here, I can be creative, ask critical questions of my students, and easily adapt my lessons to fit their individual needs.

One student and I tackle Lewis’ dedication to Lucy Barfield in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” One short paragraph can reveal so much about a child’s analytical skills.

In the three rounds of Book Clubs thus far, every group of students has approached the same text in different ways. They have tackled C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe with absolute gusto, devouring each morsel of text as if it were Turkish Delight itself. They have asked questions about race, feminism, morals and core values without realizing it and without my prompting. They have sent poor Edmund Pevensie to court and argued for a punishment for his treason or for forgiveness. One little one begged me to tell him all about the Inklings and how they met every week at The Eagle and Child, while another child wondered how the story would have changed if Peter and Susan had gone through the wardrobe first. And they have all done it from behind a screen, armed only with a camera, a microphone, and the text.

Book clubs work when the students are given the room to talk with gentle direction. Teachers and parents should work to be facilitators of book clubs and refrain from telling students what the “right answer” is. I start all of my Book Club sessions with the phrase, “who has a question for today?” Even if I get the ever popular “I don’t have a question,” I simply smile and say, “yes you do, it’s right in front of you.” I give the students the room to use questions that they have devised during their reading or to simply read from the assigned journal prompt for the week. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What the heck is a Faun?” As long as the conversation is student driven, then it will all fall into place.

I also provide a series of optional videos to watch for added enrichment and context. Some of the videos are created by me, others are from other creative people who can provide more context to the story. That way, students can have more than one avenue to explore the story.

You can start a book club through any media you desire. There are many fantastic podcasts out there, such as Mythgard Academy, The Prancing Pony Podcast, and the Lamppost Listener that delve into texts and meet weekly through an audio or video setting, such as Twitch. Many teachers on Outschool have used MMORPGs such as Minecraft to build and explore ancient civilizations or book settings to talk about their favorite subjects. Anything is possible if you can conceive it, and you can teach in an adaptable, personable way and teach the students in your community how to adapt to this changing world.

Most importantly, don’t try to adapt a brick and mortar model to the online classroom. One of the downfalls of online learning in this pandemic has been some schools’ inability or lack of resources to be flexible and adapt their curriculum to the online setting. What works in a school probably won’t work online, and trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole does not work. Rather, reshape the round hole into a square hole. Consider how your media access lifts your curriculum rather than hinders it. Make changes, ask different questions, and provide resources for your students to learn along with you. Now, more than ever, students need to learn how to grow and change with the world, and you can grow and change along with them.

Foster community. Provide access. Talk about your books and the connections that students make with these texts. Help them lose themselves in the story and learn to love reading. Isn’t it magical?