Talking about texts

Hoffert’s article introduced me to many different ways of orchestrating a book club.  I was aware of “we all read the same book,” of course, but even within the thematic approaches there appears to be a lot of variety.  I love the idea of thematic book clubs/discussions.  While it is great to converse with others who have read the same thing you have, especially with difficult and/or thought-provoking pieces that really benefit from deep discussion and sharing, the idea of coming together with different source readings to discuss a shared topic or theme or author is really intriguing.  It seems more authentic to me:  we all bring totally unique perspectives to a reading or a discussion anyway by nature of our own experiences, so bringing our own interpretations of various readings seems like a natural extension.  That is also why I really, really love the idea of bringing in different media.  Life is about making connections between our experiences—what we read, do, see, watch, think, talk about, etc.  Incorporating a variety of other media, formats, and activities into the traditional book club concept opens up so many possibilities for engaging with others around a concept, topic, or text to make meaning and stretch ourselves.  I want to participate in a book club like those discussed by Hoffert!

 I wonder how I could incorporate a thematic reading/book club in a school library.  I think it would fit better in a high school than with younger students, since high schoolers’ brains are developing the ability to philosophize and think more abstractly.  A safe environment for discussing ideas is something a lot of teens are hungering for (though convincing high schoolers to voluntarily spend more time reading and in school may be a challenge).  I think it might be more challenging with younger students, but still possible with modifications (discussed below).  As a fourth or fifth grader, I was in “Junior Great Books” at school and I have very positive memories of discussing questions and ideas about literature that I may not have asked when reading on my own, but which were really provocative and have influenced the way I read to this day.  One of the texts we read was Cinderella, which incidentally I just used for a lesson with fourth graders in my student teaching.   One of the students posed a question that happened to be one that my Junior Great Books group discussed and which has intrigued me for the past fifteen years or so:  why didn’t her shoe/slipper turn back to normal at midnight? The questions my students raised about a familiar text (and an unfamiliar version I shared with them) confirm for me that even elementary students can enjoy and engage in meaningful discussions about their reading.  Why not have a book club for students at almost any age level? Once kids move past storytimes or read-alouds, meeting them with a book club can keep them continually engaged with others about literature.  I definitely like the idea of having a student-contributed book blog through the school library.  With appropriate monitoring of contributions and comments, it could be a great way to validate students’ ideas about their reading and let teens share reviews of books and other media with their peers.  As an added bonus, reading students’ blogs and reviews could really help teachers get to know their students and what media is important to them!

With younger students, I probably would not go the thematic route.  Having a shared text helps get everyone on the same page (literally and figuratively).  The discussion can start with the assumption that everyone has read the same text and jump right into considering the meanings and ideas.  I probably would not move into a thematic book discussion with elementary or middle school students, except perhaps using different versions of the same story (such as folktales) or within a very narrow theme or topic with middle school students. Otherwise, we might end up with a book club that consists mostly of students vying for their chance to summarize the books they read in great detail to the peers, who are each just thinking about what they want to say when it is their turns. (Admittedly, it depends on the group of students—this could happen with a group of adults just as easily as with eight-year-olds, while a group of elementary students could certainly surprise me with their sophistication—it happens all the time!)

I appreciated reading Metzger’s and Tredway’s perspectives as school teachers concerned with reading comprehension and student engagement.  Metzger’s observations of the difficulties many students have with reading comprehension rang true to me, based on my own experiences in high school and as an undergraduate, as well as on conversations with my high-school-age brother and sister about their reading for school.  Students do not really engage with texts, think there is one “right” interpretation that they are supposed to “get,” miss the subtleties, etc., largely because of how literature and reading comprehension are taught and reinforced in schools.  From elementary school, students learn to repeat information directly from texts in order to indicate their comprehension, whether through assignments asking them to identify the character, setting, and plot or worksheets asking them to find and copy down information found in a textbook.  When they move on to identifying themes or processing more complex texts, the teacher often has a predetermined lesson plan with certain objectives and right answers—the meaning of specific symbolism, etc., has already been “discovered” by scholars and accepted by the curriculum, so what is there for students to discover for themselves?  Even with canonical texts, the opportunity to explore different meanings and ideas in more creative or innovative ways can be supported by using questions that do not have established/accepted answers.  Or, if it is important that students learn what the red A symbolizes in The Scarlet Letter, start by introducing the scholarly community’s ideas and invite students to add their own ideas, interpretations, or challenges.  Since the Socratic Seminar places the responsibility for comprehension and puzzling out meanings in the students’ hands, it sounds like a great way to push students toward deeper processing of texts while learning how to work cooperatively and learn from each other.  The amount of participation from the teacher sounds rather negotiable, as Metzger aimed to remove herself almost completely from the discussions while Tredway sees the teacher as a more involved “facilitator and participant” (28). It probably depends on the goals of the seminar and the individuals involved.  Metzger’s reflections on her own participation through watching videos of her class, as well as her students asking her to butt out, helped her realize that her participation and leading was not necessary or beneficial, but as a good teacher she also realized when and where she needed to step in to provide more feedback, modeling, and other forms of scaffolding so her students could be successful.  Tredway seems more aligned with the idea that adults/teachers know more than students and are there to help them figure out what they need to know.  Though she acknowledges that teachers’ agendas are not always best and that students can reach and puzzle through complicated and high-level ideas on their own, her format for Socratic Seminars sounds far more involved for the teacher.

When taking the Socratic Seminar out of the classroom and into a more open discussion environment like a book club, I suspect there would be some new issues to deal with. The voluntary book club participants would need to be willing to learn a new technique and to return to the book club several times before the Socratic Seminar format really got on its feet and became effective. How do you convince book club members to keep trying? In the public library or other open settings (unlike classrooms), how easily and quickly can new people join into a Socratic Seminar discussion group? Are Socratic Seminars possible or useful if the book club consists of only a few people?  What issues arise from working with different age groups?  Hoffert discusses teen book clubs and Tredway suggests that Socratic Seminars are possible and effective with children, teens, and adults, but I wonder how the format and role of the leader would need to change in relation to different groups of people in terms of age, culture, environment, education level, complexity of text, and other factors.  I am interested to see how it works in class to get a better idea of how to facilitate a Socratic Seminar with different types of texts, with adults, and with first-timers. 

This article was to prep us for the Socratic Seminar demo, so I will reflect on it more thoroughly in my post about the upcoming class.  For now, it reminded me of a lot of the focus of some other core library courses, such as the reference course and the collection development course.  Figuring out how to balance the commercial side of publishing with the freedom of information side is a tricky issue.  We do need to keep the scholarly discourse alive, support the publishing of a wide variety of informational and entertaining texts, etc., but keeping the industries healthy is an important element, too.  One of my best friends has been seeking a job in the publishing industry for the past year or so, and he has shared with me the dismal state of publishing houses (especially small, independent ones). I have a deep affinity for the role libraries play in providing “free” access to information, but I definitely also recognize that in a capitalist society it is idealistically simplistic to push for a complete and free digital library.  Darnton did get around to discussing some of the trickiest parts of creating a free digital archive, including the legal issues, and I think he is on the right track.  I also think we still have a long way to go in figuring out how to make it work for the best of all parties.


Darnton, R. (2010, December 23). The library: Three jeremiads. New York Review of Books. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from

Hoffert, Barbara. (2006, July 15). The book club exploded:  Buffed, blended, and hooked up to other media, today’s book club looks nothing like yesterday’s modest tea party. Library Journal. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from

Metzger, M. (2010, December 23). Teaching reading: Beyond the plot. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(3), 240. Retrieved January 8, 2011, from Academic OneFile.

Tredway, Lynda. (1995, September) Socratic Seminars: Engaging students in intellectual discourse. Educational Leadership.

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