Everyone who works with teens in an educational library setting knows it’s a struggle to compete for a their time and attention. We’re up against schoolwork, sports, various extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, social media and technology. We want teens to spend time in our libraries and love reading, but it can be challenging to get them in the doors. Three years ago, after being a classroom teacher for many years, I became our district’s library media specialist. One of my first goals was to start a book club and, over the past few years, it’s become one of the most successful extra-curricular activities in our school. This year we have 530 students in our school, and about 40 are involved in Book Club. Here’s what I’ve learned since its inception in 2014.
- Start by partnering with the Youth Services Librarian from your local public library. When the school and public library work together, a community is strengthened. Katelyn Boyle, the Youth Services Manager at the Peotone Public Library, assists in planning and is able to access books through our interlibrary loan system. She even comes to each book club meeting! Our teens know her as a public library partner to their education, which is a positive thing.
- Meet regularly. Our book club meets one Friday a month at 7:30 AM. Yes, that’s early, but this is the time that conflicts the least with sports, clubs, and part-time jobs. I serve a simple continental breakfast at each meeting and am flexible in allowing bus-riding students to arrive late. We only meet during the school year; we tried a summer meeting one time, but it was not successful.
- Create a welcoming, comfortable, and accepting environment. In our Media Center, we push tables together so everyone faces each other. There are also couches and lounge chairs nearby, so students have a choice of where to sit at the meeting. From the beginning, students understand that there are no topics off-limits and all viewpoints are welcomed.There have been discussions where members have expressed different opinions, but we have never had a situation where a student was disrespectful to another. Our kids are aware and proud of this!
- Select the books yourself. Some school librarians may disagree and believe it’s best to give students a choice, but Katelyn and I feel it’s best we take that responsibility. Our students trust us to pick books they will enjoy. And that is critical. Choose books they will enjoy, not books you, as the librarian, believe would enrich the curriculum. We’ve tried a few award-winning non-fiction titles, but they have not been well-received by our group. Students told us that they are too similar to their required reading for their classes. Listen to what your teens tell you! If they love what they’re reading with the book club and get involved in the discussions, they will keep coming back!
- Obtain as many copies of your book club selection as possible to hand out at the meeting. Sometimes, we are unable to have enough copies for everyone, so our faster readers know to turn in their books to me as soon as they are finished. I keep a list and contact students when copies become available. To assure that we can obtain many copies of a book through interlibrary loan, we often choose titles that are a few years old.
- Have activities and discussion questions prepared for each meeting. Sometimes, I’ll start with a brief readers’ theater, book trailer, author interview video, or book review video I find on the author’s website, on YouTube, or on the publisher’s website. In case it’s needed, I always have questions available in a jar that students can randomly pick to get discussion started. Most of the time, it’s not needed.
- Offer opportunities for book club students to get involved with more than just the monthly meetings. For example, our students help decorate the media center, volunteer at the Eighth Grade Orientation Night to promote our program, work at our annual Barnes & Noble Bookfair, attend book-to-movie outings, participate in book craft events, and work as “Library Helpers” assisting with tasks in the school library. Some of our non-meeting activities are held at the public library to encourage students to become more familiar with the building and the resources available there.
- Plan activities for your teens to share their love of reading with others. Reading to elementary students in the district or participating in community literacy events are great outreach activities. This year so far, our teens have led a literacy activity for children at the University of Illinois Youth Literature Festival and our district book fair.
- Reward your awesome teen readers with an author visit. Our students love to read a book, and then meet the author. Even schools on a tight budget, like ours, can find local authors who do not charge a fortune, but give terrific and motivational presentations to teens. Always meet with students ahead of time and help them to prepare for the event by planning questions and comments for the author.
- Promote your book club by reaching out to younger students in your district. It’s important to meet with middle grade students to tell them about Book Club and encourage them to get involved. The continuation of your program depends on new members each year. Ask your current members to tell eighth graders about the Book Club. Our middle schoolers love to hear from the high school students!
- Communicate often with your readers. I use a group email (all students have a school gmail account) and my teacher website to touch base with my students regularly. I also use the Remind App for text communication. Recently, with administrative approval, we started a Peotone High School Book Club Instagram page. Students cannot post directly to the page, but may e-mail photos to our club gmail account for consideration. In addition to our current members, several of our junior high students and alumni follow the Instagram page. It’s another way to encourage younger students to join the group once they get into high school and to keep in touch with our grads.
- Design a Book Club T-shirt. We design one each year that members can purchase at a reasonable cost. It gives us that “team” feel, and we look great when we dress alike for events. Consider adopting a slogan as well. We use a John Green quote, “Great books help you understand, and they help you to feel understood.” This year, since our teens participated in the Youth Literature Festival, I bought a professionally printed vertical banner for our group. It displays a beautiful book graphic with our school logo and our slogan. The kids love it!
- Personally invite students to join Book Club. At any point in the school year, when I see a student who seems to need a “place,” I invite him or her to join. The mix of students in our group is one of my favorite things. Students who probably would never talk to each other in the Commons before school, are interacting and forming friendships at Book Club!
- Word of mouth! Encourage some of your most enthusiastic members to tell their friends how much they love Book Club. Word will get around, and you’ll be thrilled when students wander into the library media center asking how they can join!
Library Media Specialist, IL