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The Best Book Clubs Aren’t Always Just About Talk, But About Response: The Power of Listening

by Emily Strang-Campbell

When I think about the people I most enjoy in my life, they are usually people that I love to have conversations with. The word “conversations” can be tricky, because what used to come to my mind when I thought about rich conversations was lots and lots of talk! But now, maybe with age, I realize that great conversations actually also involve just as much listening. And, if I think even more about the conversations that rejuvenate me, I realize they actually involve responsive talk. If I go even deeper…they also include lots of pauses (sometimes even awkward pauses), dips of silence and lots of thinking about what the other person has just said. I’ve come to realize that inside the quiet moments of these conversations, true listening, processing and responsiveness was taking place. The person I was talking to was really taking in and thinking about what I had just said. Their ability to listen and then respond is what made the conversation feel so fulfilling. I began to realize that the same ingredients that make a powerfully, rich adult conversation, can be applied to classroom book clubs. We’ve all been a part of conversations that felt one-sided and empty – like the person we were talking to was more interested in the sound of their own voice than anything we had to say. The truth is, many kids might feel that same emptiness after a book club conversation, especially if the goal is solely on talk, rather than responsive conversations. The good news is, there are supports that can help lead kids away from talking AT each other, to talking TO and WITH each other. Here are some of my favorites…

  • A favorite at TCRWP when I was a Staff Developer, was called “Jot Hot Seat”. This is when each member of a book club would put their favorite “golden jot” in the middle of the club’s table. (BTW – this jot doesn’t always need to be a post-it. It might be a powerful character sketch from last night’s reading, or a timeline, or a powerful sentence from the chapter.) After the club member put their jot in the middle of the table, club members would have to elaborate on their idea for at least 2 minutes (timers are highly recommended). If after 2 minutes they still wanted to continue on the club member’s idea, they could discuss it for another 2 minutes, or move to another club member’s “golden jot”. Of course, lots of pauses (where kids are processing the ideas of their club members) are encouraged.

  • Some “Jot Hot Seat” talk frames that helped students respond, build on and elaborate on their fellow club members “golden jot” include:

§ “Yes, and…”

§ “Building on this idea…”

§ “This really makes me think about…”

§ “This idea connects with…”

§ “You’re making me see a new side to…”

§ “I used to think….but your jot is making me realize…”

  • Another great set of responsive conversation strategies comes from one of my favorite professional books of all time, Breathing New Life into Book Clubs by Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen. Chapter 4 of the book is stock full of tips around listening and responding in clubs. One mini-lesson that I return to time and time again is 4.5: Creating Spaces for Loud and Quiet Voices. The strategies in this lesson aim to bring all kids into the conversation, and is inclusive of both dominate and quieter voices. One reason I appreciate this lesson is because it doesn’t shame the louder voices in the group, which can often be a pitfall when coaching into the more talkative members of a club, but it gives them an empowering strategy with COUNT THREE BEFORE ME. They write on page 99, “The louder voice pulls back and waits for three club members to speak before he or she does. This strategy encourages the louder voice to also be a stronger listener.” I’ve seen clubs transformed by this simple but powerful strategy in ways that allow all voices to be heard and all club members leave feeling in affirmed, no matter what their talk style might be.

They follow up with a physical strategy of asking quieter students to lean in when they are ready to speak. This physical signal not only provides a safe, non-verbal entry point for students into conversations, but it helps other members begin to recognize and read subtle physical cues and body language, an essential life skill.

  • Unlocking The Power of Classroom Talk: Teaching Kids to Talk With Clarity and Purpose by Shana Frazin and Katy Wischow is another go-to for me whenever I’m heading into book clubs. In Chapter 4: Talking to Play With Ideas, they remind us that when we make conversations fun, more kids will join in and responsive conversations will often happen naturally. Their strategy EVENT-O-METER, epitomizes how a fun club “activity” can bring all voices to the table, stimulate critical thinking and thoughtful responses. Book club members think of events in their story and then rank them from BIG DEAL to NOT REALLY A BIG DEAL on the meter. Not only does this often activate organic debates (a great way to encourage listening and responsiveness) the physical actions of placing the cards on the meter can ignite both their bodies AND their minds. This strategy always reminds me about the power of the mind-body connection in triggering rich, complex thinking and conversations. Plus, kids love it and it’s super fun!

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