National Writing Project

Book Review: The Book Club Companion: Fostering Strategic Readers in the Secondary Classroom, by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen

By: Jamie Heans
Date: March 2009

Summary: Jamie Heans reviews Cindy O'Donnell-Allen's The Book Club Companion: Fostering Strategic Readers in the Secondary Classroom, whose "book club" approach he has used to enliven and transform his classes' reading experience.

 

My wife thinks I have a serious crush on Cindy O'Donnell-Allen. While "crush" may be overly personal, this much is true: I love O'Donnell-Allen's wisdom and I love the potential that book clubs, as described in this book, have to transform the classroom reading experience. Like anyone with a blooming infatuation, I am giddy and optimistic about the possibilities.

After years of using literature circles with the best intentions of having students learn in an inquiry-based, social environment, I began to see the limitations of role-driven group learning. After a few literature circle meetings, even motivated students were looking for the fastest route to get the meeting over.

Many students were seduced by the illustrator's role as it offered a quick share and a way to bluff if they had not done the reading. Limited by the confines of roles, conversations ended before I could circulate around the room. The division of labor never seemed even, often more forced than collaborative.

Book Clubs: Choice, Response, and Reflection

By contrast, during the past year, I have facilitated the structures described in O'Donnell-Allen's text with rewarding results. The Book Club Companion offers a clear definition of a book club and describes its underlying principles. The purpose of book clubs is to "help students develop into more willing, engaged, and strategic readers" (35).

The underlying principles of choice, response, and reflection do much to keep conversations fresh.

O'Donnell-Allen explains the difference between book clubs and reading groups, small group discussions, and literature circles. In book clubs, students use a variety of reading strategies to decide what they will bring to the table for discussion. The underlying principles of choice, response, and reflection do much to keep conversations fresh.

O'Donnell-Allen provides helpful guidance in the preparation and facilitation of book clubs by answering questions such as "How do I prepare students for choice in texts?" and "How do I support students in using open-ended responses"

Early on, she takes up the challenge of helping students locate books they will find engaging. She suggests book talks in which the teacher reads passages from each book to introduce key characters, capture the narrator's voice, and give a sense of the author's style. Further, she suggests strategies for dealing with texts containing explicit scenes, strong language, and sensitive issues. Anyone who has used novels such as Monster, Feed, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower will appreciate the proactive advice provided here.

Multimodal Methods of Strategic Reading

She then presents engaging methods for developing strategic reading. These strategies and responses foster social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building dimensions of reading. There is plenty of opportunity for self-expression, developing personal identity, choice, and reflection.

Strategies such as 1-2-3-Predict, Mind Map, and Picture This provide visual connections and opportunities for symbolic exploration. The Punctuation Prompt, Quotation and Response, and Real Book Letter encourage student-generated response. The Sticky Notes Bookmark is an easy strategy that students use to keep track of the reading schedule and for quick reference to response prompts.

Students who have struggled to respond in a more conventional question-and-answer format have surprised themselves with their interpretive abilities brought out through multimodal responses.

My teaching experience with these activities has been positive, as students enjoy and are challenged by them. On several occasions, students who have struggled to respond in a more conventional question-and-answer format have surprised themselves with their interpretive abilities brought out through multimodal responses.

Another helpful component of The Book Club Companion is in the area of assessment. In "Assessing, Evaluating, and Grading Students' Book Club Performances," O'Donnell-Allen suggests that "ongoing and culminating assessment of students' literary development during book clubs ought to be performance based," that "tasks should prepare them to produce the culminating assessment" and, based on the work of Peter Smagorinsky, "the culminating assessment should provide an opportunity for new learning based on students' preceding book club experience."

O'Donnell-Allen describes four strategies in "My Favorite Culminating Texts," two of which are based on the visual. The Life Map offers an exploration of textual perspective by having students create "a mural visualizing the most significant events in the life of the book" and a Body Biography that explores the social perspective by having students create "a life-size visual and written portrait illustrating several aspects of the characters' life."

Assessments such as these encourage literary interpretation, as students must make inferences about motivations and themes. Symbolic interpretations provide opportunities to use art and words "to display their interpretive claims." In the quest to make meaning, students are pushed into the realm of new learning.

Over the past year I have leaned on The Book Club Companion in a variety of settings. Implementing O'Donnell-Allen's approach to developing students' discussion and interpretive skills has been surprisingly easy and has done much to transform my classroom. I have seen growth in my students, especially in their motivation to make meaning in new ways. The Book Club Companion is my classroom companion, one that provides much support and irresistible intellectual invitations.

About the Author Jamie Heans is an eighth grade teacher at Albany Middle School in Albany, CA, and a relocated teacher-consultant from the Maine Writing Project.

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