Summer Reading Book Clubs Create Engagement, Community

There are many ways to approach summer reading, but book clubs can bring students and school communities together with a focus on conversations not assessments.

Schools approach summer reading in myriad ways, but the true goal should be to keep kids engaged in books over vacation. The key word is engaged. If summer reading doesn’t make kids interested in reading, the program has failed.

Options abound—the one-book, one-school model to teachers choosing specific books for incoming students; letting students read anything they want; or, an option I really like, a book clubs format. This model offers a lot of choice for students, emphasizes reading for fun, and introduces them to the idea of a book club with their peers. Here’s how three Massachusetts high schools use the book-club model for their summer reading program.

Book clubs require students to come back in the fall prepared to have a discussion with others who read the same book, but usually no other assignment is required. At Dartmouth High School (DHS), students have the option to take a 10-
question quiz on their book; that can be banked for extra credit in their English class if they score 80 percent or higher. The real focus, however, is on having a rich group discussion. Wilbur Higgins, DHS English department chair, discovered that “creating smaller communities of readers…seemed to lead to much richer discussions in the club meetings in the fall.”

Switching from a traditional summer reading program to book clubs was a no-brainer for these school librarians and ELA teacher, and an important shift to bolster a positive reading culture. Anita Cellucci of Westborough High School (WHS) switched to a book club model 10 years ago. “It was noticeable [before] that students were not engaged with summer reading” or feeling part of a reading community, she says.

With book clubs, schools reinforce the idea that reading is fun and that reading in community can make it even more enjoyable. Jill Surprenant of ­Nantucket High School (NHS) moved to book clubs that staff and students participate in together “out of a desire to have a broader group of adults in the building model a love of reading,” she says.

Schools striving for greater student choice and ownership also like this model. “We are not so much concerned with what a student is reading but simply whether that student is reading,” says Higgins. “We are all more likely to feel good when given a choice, which is what this present system is all about.”

“There are so many books to choose from that there is literally a book for everyone,” adds an eighth grade English teacher at Dartmouth Middle School.

Many schools are moving away from formal accountability for summer reading to focus on the importance of students enjoying reading. Some teachers still want some form of assessment, but Cellucci has moved away from accountability altogether in her quest to build a “community of readers.” ­Cellucci has also mixed up ­back-to-school ­engagement about the book, with the traditional discussion model sometimes morphing into ­interactive “discussions” with art, ­poetry, and theater.

Traditionally, school librarians and ELA teachers have helped select book club titles at these schools. But over time, ideas have come from the wider community as well. In Higgins’s and Cellucci’s schools, students can ­sponsor a title, meaning they suggest it and help facilitate discussion during the club meeting in the fall with peers and one staff member. At DHS, some 15 to 20 students have sponsored titles in the last two years. And as Higgins notes, “students are more apt to choose a book that was chosen by their peers than by a teacher.” Cellucci has also found that letting students get involved provides an appealing leadership opportunity.

For all three schools, summer book club titles are announced in late May and students make their choices via Google Forms. There are 30 to over 60 choices. As for the club sizes, educators report that keeping them to 20 students or fewer is best.

Book selection strategies vary by school. In the case of NHS, Surprenant and ELA teachers have selected titles recommended by We Need Diverse Books, along with ones recognized by the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards to ensure diversity. Surprenant always includes at least two graphic ­novels and a few nonfiction titles.

Higgins has done something similar at DHS, with a long list representing different genres and interests (the 2021 list had 62 titles). In the past, he limited how many students could sign up for a specific book. Now, DHS allows unlimited numbers to sign up for one title and shifts sponsors around to accommodate high demand for certain titles. ­Cellucci also tends not to cap the number of students who can choose a specific book. And while WHS formerly used teacher and student recommendations for their selections, in 2022 WHS educators utilized the new ­Massachusetts Teen Choice Book Award (MTCBA) winners for summer reading and invited 2022 MTCBA nominee and local author ­Jennifer De Leon to come and speak about her book Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. De Leon spent the entire day at the school and had a special ­Spanish-speaking lunch with first-generation Guatemalan and Brazilian students.

Laura Gardner is a teacher librarian at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School.

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