Striving and Thriving in Virtual Book Clubs During a Pandemic

“The power is not in the book itself, but rather in the readers who create meaning or co-construct meaning through dialogue, develop empathy and are inspired as change agents”.

-from Reading to Make a Difference by Lester Laminack & Katie Kelly, p.xxi

Connecting readers for in-person book club conversations is difficult due to the safety restrictions limiting social interaction during the pandemic. However, technology allows us to connect to engage in rich discussions and to deepen our thinking and our humanity. 

It’s been a full year since COVID began and school as we knew it completely shifted to a fluid combination of online and face-to-face learning with masks, plexiglass shields and desks in isolated islands spaced six feet apart. Many headlines across media sources suggest learning loss and children falling further behind in reading. We reject this deficit view and instead acknowledge the innovating ways educators and children have engaged in meaningful learning experiences. By partnering preservice teachers in Katie’s literacy methods class with Alyssa Cameron’s fourth graders for virtual book clubs, we witnessed first hand the joy and growth that comes when readers have a space to connect and discuss their thinking. Even in the midst of one of the most difficult school years ever, there is much learning and thinking and growing happening albeit occurring in different ways and through different contexts BUT still present and strong nonetheless.

Choosing Books and Establishing Book Clubs

Because we believe that all children should have opportunities to read books that matter to them, the partnership began with Alyssa providing a list of suggested chapter books based on her students’ interests, identities, and reading histories. The preservice teachers in Katie’s class then selected a book to read and created a book trailer for the fourth graders to view and then choose the book they were interested in reading.  

Virtual Book Clubs

With book clubs established, the preservice teachers and fourth graders connected at least twice a week for four weeks using Edmodo, Flipgrid, and Jamboard to discuss the self-designated chapters. They brainstormed ‘words to live by’ or a set of norms and expectations for participating in online book clubs and developed their own reading schedules to hold themselves accountable. 

For the first post each week, Alyssa offered personalized, needs-based guiding questions to scaffold the discussions and modeled for the preservice teachers various types of open-ended questions to facilitate discussion. The first posts often pulled in supporting resources to deepen understanding of topics within the books: non-fiction articles, guest experts, parallel read alouds and video clips. The second post each week was more open-ended in nature with the fourth graders sharing their thinking and the preservice teachers responding with a ‘nurture and a nudge’. For example, when a student posted that “Nya (from the book A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park) cares about her family because she goes and gets water for them,” the preservice responded as follows:

“This is a very thoughtful observation in the text of the book of how Nya cares and takes care of her family. What questions or other thoughts do you have as to why Nya, being a child, has to do such hard work for her family?”  

Some groups created multimodal Jamboards with images and links to Google Earth to explore the settings and learn about geographical contexts for the books they read, while others conducted research to understand the cultural and historical contexts within their book. Students and preservice teachers alike were empowered to take control of their own learning directions and use their voices, openly and honestly.

For the culminating discussion, Katie and Alyssa surprised them with a synchronous gathering using Zoom. Before heading to book club breakout groups in Zoom to discuss their post-reading reactions to their books, they blew up the chat box with their excitement to see their reading buddies in real time.

Good morning book buddy!!!!!

this is so fun

This is a fun surprise for us!!

The preservice teachers facilitated post-reading conversations using co-constructed thinking stems they brainstormed together using Jamboard. As the fourth graders met in breakout groups with their reading buddies in real time, Alyssa observed the pure joy and excitement filling her classroom. Every single child was engaged… talking, smiling, and participating fully in the book club conversations. 

Book clubs are for everyone! One student who is deaf signed her thoughts while her translator translated for her reading buddies in the Zoom breakout. Her college buddy from Katie’s class made this completely normal. When Alyssa popped into the breakout, she commented, “Hi Miss. Cameron, Right now Emma is talking and sharing her ideas.” Her entire group was glued to the screen, listening, nodding and ready to respond. Her voice mattered, just as much as everyone else’s even though we “heard” it in a different way. 

“Kids are often limited by what adults think they can do, especially in schools right now. And these book clubs proved so clearly that kids are ready to talk, ready to grow and able to have BIG conversations… reading DOES make a difference… and so will these humans – big and small!”

-Alyssa Cameron, 4th grade teacher

Read more about Alyssa Cameron’s work in chapter 5, Advocating for Change in Reading to Make a Difference.

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