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This is my latest article in a series on owning your professional learning.

This is the second in a series on owning your professional learning. Book clubs can be a powerful way to learn new skills, find new ideas, and experience paradigm shifts. Book studies can be a great way to learn from one another and take the learning to a deeper level.

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Advantages to Book Clubs

Most of us have certain books that changed our lives. It might have been a work of fiction that shaped the way we view the world. Or it might have been a teaching book that pushed our thinking while providing specific, concrete strategies that we still use in our classrooms. This is the core idea of doing book clubs or book studies as a form of professional learning.

With book clubs, each person has something to contribute to the conversation. While there is a shared mentor text, members also have the opportunity to learn from one another. This can allow participants to have a deeper understanding of the book and its application to the teaching profession.

Book clubs allow you to take a deeper dive into topics over time, in both an individual and group setting. While workshops, sessions, and conferences tend to give a larger overview of ideas, books tend to be more systematic and elaborate. Book clubs that meet over several weeks (a meeting per chapter) allow participants to sit with ideas over time. This can lead in paradigm shifts that evolve over time while also allowing participants to test out ideas or relate insights to their context over a longer time frame.

While many book clubs focus on education books, I’ve also found it helpful to do book studies around general non-fiction. For example, a group of us read the book Rest and it reshaped our understanding of creativity and rest. I was a member of a book club that focused on the lived experiences of people of color. We read memoirs and works of fiction as a group. Representation is key here. Our leader was a teacher of color who was also a professor who specialized in Critical Race Theory.

It’s important that every group member is committed to reading the particular book that the book club chooses. I don’t recommend doing a reading rotation. You’re better off recruiting people to join the book club centered on one particular book and then selecting a new book and offering members the option to leave while also letting new members join. This helps prevent stagnation and groupthink by providing fresh perspectives as a group.

Four Formats for Book Club Meetings

Recently, I was part of a discussion group where we read a chapter together from Sapiens. The group varied in age, occupation, and faith background. Our discussion leader posed specific questions but generally, it was an open-ended discussion on Zoom. While this wasn’t a traditional book club (more like a chapter club), we have met a few times and used the assigned text as a starting place for conversation that ranges from personal to practical to philosophical — often with a hefty dose of humor mixed in.

It’s a reminder that there are many different ways to format book clubs. The following are some of the formatting options:

  • Online: An online book club is fully asynchronous (not happening “in the moment”) and often uses tools like discussion forums, Learning Management Systems (LMS), social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), or communication apps (Slack, Voxer, WhatsApp) to discuss the book. It doesn’t have to be text-based. Voxer is heavily audio-centric and both Flipgrid and Marco Polo are video-driven.
  • Virtual: A virtual book club is fully synchronous. It typically involves a meet-up at a particular time using a video conferencing app (Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, Zoom) but it can also occur as a phone conversation.
  • In-Person: Many book clubs occur in person. I love attending book clubs at a house, at a coffee shop, or at a local brewery. However, if you’re looking for professional development credit, you might have to meet up at school.
  • Hybrid: A blended or hybrid version combines any of the previous three formatting options.

Four Ways to Structure Book Club Discussions

The following are specific structures for organizing book clubs. Note that these structures can be used in in-person, virtual, online, and hybrid formats. However, the format will transform the interactions. it helps to think of these structures on a spectrum of structure, from open-ended to focused.

Before starting with any of these options, it’s important that participants establish norms. These might include things like “listen intently” or “wait and give space before speaking in” or “assume the best motives in others.” In the past, we’ve used critical conversation guidelines to help us as well. As a discussion leader, you’ll also need to explain the discussion structure. Include the elements that might feel different. This might feel forced or inauthentic but it’s a form of onboarding that helps each member feel safe ahead of time.

Option 1: Socratic Seminars

Focus Level: Mostly Open-Ended

Potential Roles: You might have a manager who checks that members are following norms (including silence) and adhering to the protocol. However, this type of group should be pretty self-managed.

Description: This is the most open-ended of the structures. Members meet in a circle (or more likely an oval, because, let’s be real, circles are really hard to create) and share their insights. Participants do not raise their hands or call on names. Because there’s no discussion leader, each member can comment or ask follow-up questions to one another. This can be really empowering for participants. However, there is a risk that certain people will dominate the conversation and quieter participants won’t speak up. Similarly, members of marginalized groups might be more reluctant to share their thoughts, so it’s really important to pay attention to the norms.

These discussions move in a free-flowing way.

Often, you’ll start with the mentor text itself. Some guiding questions are:

  • What is the main idea of the text?
  • How is the text constructed? Does it make sense?
  • What facts is the author using to convey their message?
  • What is the tone of the piece?
  • What type of bias exists within this text? What loaded language conveys this bias?
  • Where can you find evidence to back up the main idea? What evidence might contradict it?
  • What can you clarify about the text?

Next, you move into a more open-ended approach with a question such as:

  • What are your thoughts?
  • What stands out to you?
  • Do you agree with the text? Why or why not?
  • How does this text relate to your world?

Other times, you might simply use the text as a background question and instead use an overall driving question. The following sentence stems address driving questions:

  • What is the purpose of __________?
  • Which is more important: __________ or ___________?
  • What role does _________ play in __________?
  • What would happen if ___________?
  • Should _________ be allowed to ____________?
  • What would you change about ___________?

In this option, students will cite the mentor text but will ultimately focus on the core ideas in an open-ended discussion. I realize that some people would say this isn’t a “real” Socratic Seminar. But I’d like to point out Socrates was adamantly opposed to written text.

At some point, as a team you will end by clarifying any ideas, identifying misunderstandings, and paraphrasing key ideas. While I generally like Socratic Seminars to be open, I have found that a round robin structure works best here to ensure every voice is heard:

  • Are there any questions you still have?
  • Is there anything that still feels unsettled or unclear?
  • What was a key take-away?

In some cases, you might do a debrief at the end with questions such as:

  • What was that like for you?
  • Did you feel understood?
  • How did the group communicate?
  • In what ways do you understand the concept differently?
  • Are there any new ideas that you have based on the discussion?

Although this process seems fairly structured, the goal is for the conversation to be open-ended and free flowing. Often in book clubs, you’ll have a leader who asks questions. Each person answers and the leader paraphrases, then there are follow-up questions. However, a Socratic Seminar is truly meant to be democratic and connective. The following visual illustrates the difference:

Virtual Variation: You can have a Socratic Seminar using a video chat. I think it’s important that you limit the book club to 4-6 people total. Although Socratic Seminars don’t typically include hand gestures, you might use the hands-up gesture as a way to let fellow group members know that you would like to speak.

Option 2: Graffiti Wall

Focus Level: Mostly Open-Ended

Potential Roles: You might have a manager who checks that members are following norms (including silence) and adhering to the protocol. However, this type of group should be pretty self-managed.

Description: The graffiti wall can be done on a whiteboard or with a large sheet of butcher paper. Each member is given a marker and has a chance to process their insights by writing out their thoughts on the “graffiti wall.” In some cases, they might use arrows or dotted lines to connect ideas. They might even sketch out their ideas visually with pictures, diagrams, or icons. Some book discussion graffiti walls begin with a giant blank canvas and members write out their insights after reading the chapter. In other cases, you might start with a single guiding question taken from the chapter. One critical component is that nobody is allowed to talk. The silence is a powerful aspect of this exercise. I’ve found that it’s helpful to have members paired up with a single marker per pair. This forces them to communicate silently and it helps ensure that each person is actually reading as often as they are writing. You might even schedule a Partner A time and Partner B time so that each person has 15 minutes to write and to read. When it’s done, each member is asked to spend a few minutes reading these ideas silently. Afterward, you can debrief the graffiti wall with the following questions:

  • What stood out to you?
  • What did you find thought-provoking?
  • What trends do you see?
  • What are some areas where we don’t necessarily agree?

Finally, you might create a time and space for members to comment verbally on something that is written.

Virtual Variation: You can do this activity with a Google Doc using the text and comment functions. Assign each member a particular color (just as you would a marker). Or you could use something like Padlet.

Option 3: Connect-Extend-Challenge

Focus Level: Somewhat Focused / Narrow

Potential Roles: You might have a time-keeper if it is timed. You might also have a manager who checks that members are following norms and adhering to the protocol. However, this type of group should be pretty self-managed.

Description: This structure was developed by Project Zero and is featured in the book Making Thinking Visible. If you haven’t checked out that book, it is the ultimate practical guide for visible thinking strategies. The Connect-Extend-Challenge structure functions as a bridge between prior knowledge and new understandings. Participants use the following questions as they read each chapter:

  • Connect: How is the reading connected to something you know about?
  • Extend: What new ideas or impressions do you have that extended your thinking in new directions?
  • Challenge: What is challenging or confusing? What do you wonder about?

If you’re doing a book club, you can use these questions as larger guiding questions for each discussion. When I’ve used this for structured book clubs, I start out with going round-robin style, with each person sharing their connections. After someone shares their connections, other group members are able to either add to that idea or ask a clarifying question. It then moves counterclockwise to the next person who shares connections, followed by others adding ideas or asking clarifying questions. Once each member has shared their connections, we move to Extend and use the same process until each person has shared their new ideas. During the Challenge phase, members have the freedom to ask clarifying questions, build on ideas, or answer a question that someone might have had.

Although this process is highly structured, the conversations tend to be pretty free-flowing and open. However, it also gives each group member a chance to process the information individually first, which helps ensure that introverts have processing time. The round robin structure helps ensure equity (especially in situations where white men like me might be too quick to share opinions and too slow to listen). This also helps to prevent any member from dominating the conversation. You might even use a timer for each person in each phase.

Virtual Variation: You can do this in a video conference. However, you can also use asynchronous options as well. This structure works well with certain apps, like Voxer, Marco Polo, or WhatsApp. You might also use it as a structure within a Learning Management System (LMS), where each person posts their insights and others add comments or questions.

Option 4: Structured Questions

Focus Level: Narrow/ Highly Structured

Potential Roles: You might have a time-keeper if it is timed. You might also have someone whose job it is to focus on equity and make sure that each member is getting a chance to talk. Often, you’ll have a group leader who will ask the questions and guide the discussion with follow-up questions.

Description: This process begins with a study guide. Each member uses the study guide questions as they read each chapter. If you’re looking for examples, you can download the study guides for my books Launch, Empower, and Vintage Innovation. Members can use these study guide questions in advance to journal, to think, or as a springboard for something like a sketch-note. When they meet together as a group, the group leader guides the discussion with the study guide questions as a starting place. Often, the leader will ask a follow-up question and the conversation has a more open feel. However, in some cases, you might want to use the round robin approach in the previous option to give each person a chance to share their answers.

Virtual Variation: You can do this in a video conference. However, you can also use asynchronous options as well. This structure works well with certain apps, like Voxer, Marco Polo, or WhatsApp. You might also use it as a structure within a Learning Management System (LMS), where each person posts their insights and others add comments or questions. I’ve also used private Facebook groups in this way and many people create Twitter chats with structured questions to guide the discussion.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Do you have recommendations for teacher book clubs? Some of us read Elena Aguilar’s Onward last year and we’d like to have another book club, so looking for books of both inspiration and practical advice. Thanks!

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