In the face of an increasingly competitive academic landscape, “well-roundedness” is the buzz-word to look out for. To that end, Honor Academy offers a variety of extracurricular classes to ensure that students are equipped with a wide variety of skills that can be applied both inside and outside of the classroom. One of these classes is our book club program.
But what exactly is “book club” and what benefits does the class offer? It’s easy to assume that the class only helps struggling or reluctant readers – after all, it’s just about reading books, right? Why would a middle or high schooler need it? However, book club is more than just reading. I sat down to interview Jessica Mendoza, Honor Academy’s book club tutor, to learn more about the class and its benefits.
Although their relevance in popular culture has dwindled over the years, the basic idea of a book club is still well-known: a club where people read the same book and meet regularly to discuss the text. The Honor Academy book club works the same way. Mendoza explains it as a place where:
“[The students and I] come in together, we talk about the chapters we read this last week… we talk about character, we talk about theme – and it’s really just a collaborative environment for all of us to sit together and talk about books and talk about the process of reading.”
The key component of book club is the discussion and analysis of the books the students read. Not only are students encouraged to express their opinions, but they are given the space to discuss and compare their thoughts with their peers. This “collaboration” is particularly important to Mendoza who explains that by riffing off of each others’ ideas, students are able to push themselves to think at a more complex level than if they were to read on their own. This mimics the kind of work that students will do later in their academic career at the high school or college level.
Mendoza explains that:
“[Students are given] the space to be able to come up with their own opinions and their own thoughts and their own feelings when it comes to these books. And that is something that is often very difficult for younger children especially, because up to a certain point they are told exactly how to feel about the books and stories that they are reading and writing… I am not going to tell [them] how to feel about the book… I want [them] to extrapolate the theme based off of the text. I want [them] to read between the lines…”
To put it simply: book club class is a place where students learn how to read actively by looking beyond the surface level information and coming to their own, deeper interpretations of the text. The reason why Mendoza emphasizes discussion in her book club classes is because these discussions give students the space to explore their ideas with support from a tutor to help guide them. Like she mentions above, Mendoza does not want to tell students how to feel about a book but always pushes them to give a reason why they feel that way.
Because most of Honor Academy’s book club students are elementary schoolers, they have not been exposed to this kind of deeper engagement with text. However, the skills they gain through these discussions are vital to the work that is expected of them at the high school and college level. Mendoza explains that by discussing the books she had read with her older sister she was able to “uncover hidden depths inside of the books” she was not getting in the classroom at that age. Rather than focus on the “nitty gritty academic side of things,” Mendoza utilizes “a series of structured discussion questions… [but] let[s] the conversation branch out if needed.” That way, students can approach complex literary concepts like authorial intent at their own pace, keeping them challenged without being overwhelmed.
But reading isn’t the only focus of book club class. In between discussions, Mendoza also incorporates a variety of written prompts, from analysis to creative writing. For Mendoza, reading and writing are inseparable:
“When [the students] are writing, they are incorporating the same theories, the same techniques as these professional writers whether they know it or not… And so, a huge part of creating reading awareness is creating writing awareness as well… I want them to have firsthand experience in the– the act and the art of creating a story so that they can better understand why an author created a story the way they did.”
By reading actively, students must examine the techniques used by authors and that helps them better understand the ways that they themselves are writing. The books they read and discuss serve as models for what they themselves must do. But it is important to note that without the structure offered by Mendoza’s class, this exercise can actually perpetuate deeper problems like mimicking without understanding why these techniques are effective. As Mendoza explains, “it is very difficult to understand what you’re reading if you don’t understand how or why it was written” and vice versa. Thus, rather than see ELA and book club as competing classes, Mendoza believes they work the best together in tandem to emphasize writing and reading skills respectfully.
Book club also introduces students to a wider variety of books than they would find inside the classroom. Honor Academy’s book club covers everything from old classics to contemporary work, with a specific interest in highlighting diverse voices. However, many of the books that are used in the class include topics that can be difficult or sensitive – in fact, it is precisely because they tackle these topics that they are so well regarded by critics. Mendoza describes this as “the universal struggle of every English teacher” but explains that:
“By being able to discuss [sensitive topics] and break them down in an academic class setting and by allowing [students] the freedom of discussing these topics appropriately, they are able to grasp the importance of these things and to… come up with their own approaches to these subjects… by being able to tackle these subjects and discuss them seriously, they will take them seriously [in real life].”
It is not all serious academics all the time in book club class, however. Mendoza smiles as she talks about her students and says that they “laugh a lot” because everyone participating is genuinely enjoying the class. She explains how her book club students are “excited to have these academic discussions because they know that they are going to gain something from it, [and] they are also going to have fun.” While entertainment and education can seem like opposed forces, their integration is a real concern in discussions of pedagogy at all grade levels. By creating a positive energy in the classroom, Mendoza’s book club students are more motivated to participate and learn.
Honor Academy’s smaller class sizes also help create a close-knit, familiar atmosphere that lets the students relax and focus. They know they have the teacher’s attention in a room of four students compared to a room of 30, and that makes all the difference. Students can ask questions they cannot in a typical classroom and Mendoza can get to know each student on a personal level, specifically tailoring the classes to the student(s) needs and skills. She explains that while all the book club classes share the same long-term goals, she “[tries] to be flexible with each individual student, each individual book club, each individual book.”
Throughout our conversation, Mendoza emphasizes her belief that book club classes are not only about reading or writing – though it does incorporate a lot of both – but the improvement of critical thinking and communication. When asked if she has any final comments, she laughed and simply said: “Well, I guess reading is fun! It’s extremely fun and you’re never too old or too young for a book club and for discussion – I’m in a book club right now and I’m an adult.”
Listen to the full interview with Jessica Mendoza here:
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