As news of school closures spread throughout New York City, I frantically took books off of shelves and shoved them into my students’ arms, explaining, “You can take out six books now!” On every table in our middle school library, I piled book sets, urging students to check out the same book as their peers and form book clubs with their friends. Students were confused and grateful—unsure of why, exactly, I was urging them to stockpile, allowing them double the usual amount of checkouts.
That was mid-March, when both the students and I were sure we’d be back in the building before June and that those stacks of books would be returned within a matter of weeks. As our school remained closed and I adjusted to remote learning, I’ve grappled with the same difficult, existential questions most librarians have: Can the spirit of a library exist beyond its vessel? Can I be a librarian without a library?
From March through June I Zoomed with students, and somehow, probably through the magic of kids’ resiliency and flexibility and imaginations, we created a space that felt not completely like a library, but close to it. We wrote and read and drew and laughed together. We recommended books to one another. We bookmarked passages and read them out loud.
Most importantly, we kept our beloved book clubs going. I host a recess and after-school book club for students in grades four through eight. These spaces—of shared literary love, deep conversation, and casual hanging out—proved a very important part of students’ remote learning experience, because they were one of few opportunities where students could bond socially.
There are barriers to fostering shared reading space on-screen. Below are tips for librarians to help them create connected, joyful virtual book clubs.
Encourage student preparation. I have found that the most engaged discussions are sparked when students actually read fewer pages per week but have done some discussion preparation. Assigning shorter sections of the text allows students to easily recall the section they read. Asking them to do the work of the facilitator readies them for facilitating! I ask students to prepare discussion questions or track character development and themes. Not only does this mean you’re no longer the only facilitator (teacher trick) but it means that students are better prepared to engage more deeply, even if it is with a shorter section of the text.
Open with a go-around. Begin with an opening question where students call on one another. Go-arounds, which can range from silly to serious questions, have always been a core element of the book clubs I lead. Their importance became clearer in the Zoom classroom, where some shyer students hide behind their mute buttons. When students begin by responding to a question or providing their opinion about a book, they are primed to talk. The group hears everyone’s voices and adjusts to expect everyone’s voices. Students calling on one another keeps the discussion flowing and spontaneous; it also makes them keep tabs on the people who have or haven’t spoken yet (another teacher trick).
Bring the book alive. I have found that the main challenge of a virtual book club is incorporating the sensory elements of both the in-person book club and the book itself. One key element of book clubs at our school is serving tea. This low-budget act fosters a casual culture of tea and talk, indulging in a beverage while chatting. To continue this tradition, I have urged students to bring a cup of tea to our virtual classroom. Another sensory element of the book clubs I facilitate is art making. I always provide students with the opportunity to bring elements of the book alive through two- or three-dimensional design. I have continued this tradition by encouraging students to bring markers and paper to every digital club. We usually draw and doodle a scene or character from the book for five to 10 minutes: a simple, tangible activity that students love. I have also incorporated Nearpod, a digital learning platform, where students can draw digitally.
Incorporate multimedia. Usually, when I lead book clubs IRL, I maintain a space that is focused on the book, never involving screens nor digital media. Now that we’re connecting online, I’ve completely switched this stance. Multimedia can enhance and offer delightful surprises to students. I’ve asked students to create book-related playlists. We’ve recorded and edited videos and then sent them to authors. We’ve tweeted at authors; students are ecstatic when we get a response!
Unfortunately, it seems that virtual book clubs will continue to be the norm through the fall. Nonetheless, I look forward to meeting the challenge of supporting virtual connection, joyful socializing, and thoughtful book discussion.
Laura Winnick is a middle school librarian and writer whose work has appeared in 'Literary Hub' and 'Women’s Review of Books.'