Sunday, 31 March 2019

BOOK GROUPS - WHAT? WHY? WHO? WHEN?


The School Library Association Berkshire branch recently held an Unconference. This was our second such day and, like the first, was very successful. For those who have never attended an Unconference before, they are a fairly informal CPD event where the attendees drive the topics and discussions. However, our day was a mix of formal and informal activities. We had arranged talks from Alison Tarrant, CE of the SLA; author, Mez Blume; and RISC, the Reading International Solidarity Centre plus had two informal breakout discussions.

I delivered a session on book groups – a sort of “how to” rather than a list of ideas and suggestions:

WHY BOOK GROUPS?

·       Book groups promote and encourage reading – this is what librarians do and running such groups are part and parcel of our arsenal! Books and reading are our USP.

·       The majority of schools provide extra-curricular activities with staff organising all sorts of things outside lessons and librarians are no exception. Book groups count as an extra-curricular activity – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

·       Reading is, by its nature, solitary; book groups allow students to share and talk about what they’re reading, they turn reading into a social event. Anyone who loves reading also tends to like talking about books!

·       An open reading group where anyone can sign up will tend to attract the same people; unsurprisingly, those who like reading.  There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s great for students to have “their” place in the school. However, book groups can be used to target specific students – low ability readers, reluctant readers, more-able students, etc. It needs collaboration with the English departments to identify students and an invitation to attend rather than a general “sign up if interested” but focused groups can work well. I’ve run several smaller groups like this with great success, for example, a group of reluctant year 9 students who read Anne Cassidy books and then went to see “Looking for JJ” performed at a local theatre. (Warning – some of her books are for older readers rather than teens).
The other option to consider is limiting it to a specific year group. This will enable you to select books that are more suitable for the ages represented plus it can be less intimidating for younger students to mix with their peers.



HOW MANY?

The automatic response to this is to try and get as many students as possible interested but too many people in a group tends to make it a bit unfocused and chaotic with little time for useful discussion and sharing. Also, if you want everyone to read the same book then you’ll need lots of copies.

There are solutions. A large group could be split into smaller groups, each of them reading the same book (the BookTrust School Library Pack is excellent for this). You could also split the group into pairs or threes but both of these options take more time and effort to organise.

Not enough participants can make the whole thing a bit flat, especially if some of them don’t come to every meeting; it’s hard to generate any sort of buzz or discussion with 2 people.  However, I always feel that if you’ve made an impact on just one student, turned just one of them into a reader then you’ve been successful.

The recommended number is around 8 – 10 so if some don’t turn up then the group still works.



WHERE/WHEN?

The obvious answer to this is “in the library” – hopefully surrounded by a wide-ranging and curated collection so you can suggest further books along the lines of “this is similar”, “if you liked that then try this” or even “you might find this interesting, give it a go”. 
The group certainly needs to be held in a quiet place with few interruptions which can sometimes be difficult. If you can a separate room off the library, that might work but only if you have staff or responsible students running the library when you’re not there. Of course, if you have a pro-active reading group that have taken ownership on board then it’s feasible that you can leave them to get on with things themselves but, as a librarian, it’s nice to have some input, form those relationships and talk books with them.

The frequency of meetings really will depend on the type of groups you are running. If you’re shadowing a book award then it’s likely you’ll need frequent meetings in order to get through the shortlist in the time available. Monthly or half-termly meetings mean less pressure and fewer clashes with other activities but may not be frequent enough to keep the impetus going, particularly if you’re working with reluctant or less-able readers.

When really does depend on your specific circumstances. Before or after school can work and it’s often easier to close the library at that time but if you have students who are “bussed” in then it won’t be very inclusive. Break is another possibility providing you have management support to shut the library at that time or staff who can run things as normal. During tutor time? That depends on how long it is as any group will need a certain amount of time to be successful.

Basically, you have to work with what you’ve got and sort out whatever suits your situation. But there’s usually a way round problems and if the school has any sort of focus on reading or literacy then this gives you a reason to push for time to run a book group.



STRUCTURE?

·       Start with refreshments and time to chat.

·       Get their immediate reaction to the book.

·       Move onto questions – What is the book about? What messages does it have? Plot/characters (the CKG criteria is good for this particularly with more-able readers)?  Favourite bit?
How much you discuss and in what depth will depend on what you want from the group. Do you just want it to be about book chat, an exchange of opinions or more of an analysis of the book?
If you do decide to use questions it’s a good idea to prepare them in advance.

·       Have you read anything similar?

·       Activities – if you have time and want to do them.
These could be linked to the book or vaguely book-related. We’ve done things like read “Mister Creecher” by Chris Priestley then researched organ transplant/cloning and discussed the ethics around these. Or created posters based on books read and used them in a library display. Or coloured in bookmarks as a mindfulness activity around exam time.



WHAT TO READ?

Anything and everything is the simple answer! It’s important to let the students choose although, to a certain extent, this will be determined by availability. But there are lots of things you could try:

·       Put all their suggestions into a pot and have a lucky dip or vote on them.

·       If there’s an author visit students are able to attend then link with this.

·       Likewise, if you know a film based on a book is about to be released.

·       Occasionally plays are linked to books – again, a good idea for a book choice and follow-up visit.

·       Don’t forget about picture books, graphic novels, comics, information books. You could shadow the Kate Greenaway Award (illustrations) or the Excelsior Award (graphic novels) or the SLA Information Book Award.

·       A great session I’ve run is revisiting childhood picture books. Things like Spot, Bear Hunt, Hungry Caterpillar, etc. It generated so much talk and excitement!

·       Although you’ll probably have to plan what you’re going to read in advance because of getting copies of the books and preparing questions/activities, be adaptable and open to trying something unusual.


SOURCING BOOKS?

One of the main problems with running a book group is sourcing the books. Unless you have a large budget (and are happy buying multiple copies of a book) then this is a problem for most librarians.

As mentioned previously, the BookTrust School Library Pack is excellent for use with book groups as eligible schools receive 5 copies of each title. Consider collaboration. Get together with local schools and borrow copies of their books - this also works for Carnegie titles. It’s not unusual to find, a couple of years after an award, that you have several copies of the shortlisted books on the shelves which aren’t being borrowed. Yes, it takes a bit of cooperation and helps if you plan in advance so the books can be exchanged at meetings but it’s much cheaper than buying them.

Check out the public library. Many of them have schemes whereby groups can borrow sets of books. There’s usually an annual fee and the titles will be more suitable for older readers but it’s another source of material.

If you are lucky enough to still have an SLS contact them and see if they can help.

Once you’ve sorted out your list, ask parents/staff for donations – particularly if they’re popular books. And check out local charity shops.

Finally … don’t forget the PTA! And if you’re lucky enough to get funding for multiple copies, once you’ve used the books don’t allow them to gather dust in a cupboard, let others know they are available (see above) …

NB. I haven’t mentioned e-books as this will depend on access and hardware availability but they are another possibility.



FINALLY ….

·       Make it fun. It’s their decision whether to come or not and it should be “reading for pleasure” so no testing or reviews (unless they want to).

·       Give students ownership of the group.

·       Organise social events such as an end of term party.

·       Be flexible – sometimes talk goes off at a tangent and is nothing to do with the book in question. They’re teenagers and have a lot going on so maybe that week they just need time to chill or work through a few worries.

·       Food is important …




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