Virtual Book Clubs: Connecting Adolescent Readers

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Not long ago, I witnessed something strange as I wandered through my local bookstore: teenagers talking to each other—and their parents—about books. As students sifted through the books on tables highlighting middle and high school reading lists, they grabbed the usual suspects: The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. Intermingled with the classics were newer novels like The Hunger Games, Shadow of the Wind, and Tinkers. And students were also snatching up nonfiction: Fast Food Nation, Columbine, On Writing. "I've got to get this one, Mom," I heard a teenage girl plead. "Everyone has already finished it. And it's required!"

Yes, many of the books were required. And yes, these adolescents seemed to be outside of their natural habitat. But they were excited. Many teachers have become accustomed to writing off adolescents as apathetic or reluctant readers. Maybe we just haven't figured out how to help the iGeneration make the most of reading as both an independent and shared experience.

As I looked over the books, I noticed some "Oprah's Book Club" titles. That's what triggered my epiphany: I should try virtual book clubs. If I couldn't conquer my middle schoolers' need for virtual connectivity—which they constantly seek through social networking, video games, and smartphones—why not join them?

Since then, I've discovered that virtual book clubs (VBCs) can be fun and easy complements not just to language arts class, but to any curriculum. Here are some tips on how to implement a VBC at your school:

Decide the role and focus of the VBC. Will taking part in a VBC be a requirement, an extra-credit opportunity, or an optional, fun way to extend student learning? How closely linked will it be to your curriculum? Will you mandate the titles, allow students to choose from a menu, or enlist them to nominate titles? Whatever your curriculum, be it English or orchestra, you can find great books. Want to address the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs with your P.E. class or football team? Give them Gym Candy or Crackback. How about giving social studies students exciting, yet palatable, glimpses into the lives of major historical figures? Try Wicked History biographies.

Prepare to bridge the digital divide. As you plan for the VBC, consider how you will accommodate students who do not have Internet access at home. This may not be a big problem if students have opportunities to use school computers. If the VBC is going to be part of a class, offer extra credit for participation rather than making it a requirement—and come up with other extra credit opportunities for those who cannot participate.

Choose a forum. Many websites enable educators and their students to collaborate safely and privately. Most wiki sites offer a simple account setup process for teachers and allow you to invite others or direct students to accept requests. Wikispaces, PBworks, and Wetpaint have user-friendly sample pages and demos. There is also Moodle, which is intended to be an all-inclusive virtual classroom. On Voki, a free site that offers upgraded private classrooms, you can even add a speaking avatar that delivers 60-second messages in your own voice.

Communicate with parents. Before kicking off the club, be sure to communicate your expectations clearly with parents. Many are leery of teacher-student social networking relationships. Inform them of the book club's purpose and what you expect from participants. Give parents access to the site—you might even encourage them to read along and drop in on the discussions! Keep in mind that technical glitches may occur, like account-creation problems. Just let parents know upfront that the VBC is a work in progress, and then try to resolve issues quickly.

Establish norms and guidelines for participation. Build student ownership of the VBC by asking them to help decide key questions such as, "What types of comments are appropriate?" Others should be outlined in advance like, "Is this optional or required? How many people can participate in one group? How often should students contribute to virtual discussions?" Anticipating student behaviors will make for a smoother experience, just like in the classroom.

Preview several books. Before turning students loose in a virtual discussion environment, generate background and excitement around the books. Book trailers are great ways to do this with young adult fiction: You can find good ones on YouTube, Book Trailers for Readers, and the University of Central Florida's Digital Booktalk.

Demonstrate a sample page. Walk students through the site and create a sample page with them. Don't feel you have to be a digital native. By stumbling around a bit, you'll anticipate problems students might have—although they're likely more technologically savvy than you are! Part of the fun comes from watching how your kids will collaborate and add creative content to the site. Once I outlined a skeletal procedures page with instructions on how to invite club members, I was amazed at how quickly my 6th graders transformed the website into pages of smaller book clubs, complete with trailers for additional titles, preliminary discussions, reviews, and links to author blogs.

Model for students what you expect of them—and help spark productive discussion. Students will love demonstrating autonomy as they take part in the VBC, but you will probably still need to scaffold early discussions. During the first few weeks, you should model discussion techniques, guide higher-level thinking, and ensure appropriateness of content. Monitor class conversations by checking in regularly and responding to student posts. It's critical to keep the site fresh. Not only does your presence demonstrate your commitment to the club, it satisfies students' need for timely, relevant information and feedback.

Let students take ownership. Avoid the temptation to micromanage. This is an opportunity to teach students to monitor and take responsibility for their own learning. Younger students may do better if they have specific, assigned VBC roles. For example, assign someone to be the Bridge Builder, or the person responsible for drawing out group members' personal connections to the text. Have students design their own reading schedules and rotations of roles.

Develop a culminating activity and celebration. Ironically, the highlight of your virtual book club may be a face-to-face culminating activity. Students will want to share what they've discovered in their own creative ways. So why not let them film their own book trailers and have a screening party? Last year my 6th grade students created a wax museum: They dressed as their favorite characters and invited the school to tour "exhibits." Visitors could press a button and—presto!—a character spoke. Options are endless, but here are a few:

• group dramatizations of scenes from books
• Skype interviews between students and authors
• book/film comparisons
• service-learning projects linked to VBC titles

Reflect on the experience. After your trial run with virtual book clubs, you'll want to reflect on what worked and what didn't. You might ask for students' feedback, too. Keep in mind that one year's VBC can feed the next: Student-produced trailers, podcasts, and book reviews can be ready-made attention grabbers for next year.

Virtual book clubs can engage students in independent reading by giving them opportunities to stay connected beyond the classroom. If you decide to give them a try, you should anticipate some stumbles but also take pride in watching students get out there and talk about what they're learning.

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