Researching the Implementation of Faculty Book Clubs in an Urban Middle School
Eight years ago, when I made the transition from teaching high school English to teaching middle school language arts, Nancie Atwell's (1987) classic In the Middle became my guide. I decided to adapt the reading and writing workshop program she describes in her book to my own situation-a decision which changed the way that I approached teaching and learning with adolescents at the middle and high school levels. Thanks to a cooperative principal, I had the opportunity to build an extensive classroom library for my reader's workshop. Unfamiliar with adolescent literature, I was served well by the appendix in the Atwell (1987) book as I attempted to start my new collection. One of my colleagues offered a few suggestions as I put together that initial book order, lamenting that she had not taken the elective course in adolescent literature offered at her college. "There are college courses in adolescent literature?" I thought. Neither my own English education undergraduate program nor my master's program in secondary curriculum and teaching had offered such a course. So, as is common with many new teachers, I did some quick "on-the-job training," and began to fill the gaps in my knowledge base. In this case, I had to quickly learn about literature for adolescents. During the next three years as a 7th grade language arts teacher, I discovered the wonderful world of adolescent literature, reading more than twenty wonderful books yearly, often at the recommendation of my young students. In retrospect, I realize that my students and I came a long way together toward emulating the "dining room table" Atwell describes of her own reader's workshop classroom.
When I began my doctoral studies, I finally had the opportunity to take a formal course in adolescent literature. That experience cemented my commitment to the field of adolescent literature. Upon graduation, when I accepted an assistant professor position at Fordham University, I was thrilled to learn that Adolescent Literature had just been added to the list of courses that all students in the Secondary Initial Teacher Education Program were required to take, and that I would have the opportunity to develop and teach that course.
Inspired by the research conducted by Applebee (1993) into the literature that is read in secondary school English classes around the country, I decided to conduct a small scale research study to examine the use of adolescent literature in middle school classrooms in New York City. Through my research, I hoped to get an idea of how the teachers in the schools where my students would do their student teaching incorporated young adult literature in their own curriculum. In particular, I was interested in discovering what young adult novels (if any) were being read in these middle school classes, how teachers selected these texts, how students responded the literature, and which resources teachers used to keep abreast of recent publications in the field of adolescent literature. I figured this information would be helpful as I planned the syllabus for my first course on adolescent literature. In order to gather data to address my questions, I conducted individual interviews with language arts teachers in three of the middle schools where my students were doing their field experience and student teaching.
Similar to the findings of Applebee (1993) and echoing the concerns raised by John Bushman (1996), the results of my research were somewhat disturbing to me. For the most part, teachers in these three middle schools where students in my adolescent literature class would be student teaching (and hopefully attempting to incorporate the literature they read) were not often using young adult novels in their language arts classes. Rather, they were reading the plays of William Shakespeare, classics such as The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, and studying literary genres in traditional anthologies with their sixth, seventh, and eighth grade adolescent students. The few adolescent novels that were being read were "classics" in the genre, such as Tuck Everlasting, The Pigman, The Outsiders, and Scorpions. Only one novel published in the 1990s, Walk Two Moons, was mentioned by one teacher, and she did not read it with her students. The lack of a presence, in general, of adolescent literature in the curriculum alarmed me greatly, and the absence of the recently published award-winning titles, books I listed on my Adolescent Literature course syllabus, caused me further frustration.
My interviews with these teachers revealed that, like me, few had taken a course in adolescent literature in their teacher education programs, and most had to rely on the traditional canon with which they were familiar or on "word of mouth to discover different novels to read with their students. Because they usually found that student reaction to the adolescent literature they read to be overwhelmingly positive, many of the teachers I interviewed were eager to learn more about YA novels they might read with their students. The administrators in each of these schools were open to the use of adolescent literature, and encouraged their teachers to incorporate it. This small-scale research project made me realize two things. Not only was it important for me to introduce my preservice language arts and social studies teachers to adolescent literature, but I also needed to find a way to provide professional development opportunities for the cooperating teachers who were working with them. I set for myself two goals: first, I wanted to introduce notable adolescent literature to these inservice teachers, and second, I needed to model ways that they might share the literature with the students in their classes.
Lois Stover (1996) suggests that adolescent literature should be the heart of the middle school curriculum, and my own experience as a middle school language arts and humanities teacher supports her assertion. There has been a great deal written about the effectiveness of book clubs (also known as literature circles) as a means for reading and discussing literature in the classroom (Daniels, 1994; Harste, Short, and Burke, 1986; McMahon & Rapheal, 1997). Again, my own experience has confirmed for me that this interactive, collaborative, small group approach to literature study should be an important part of any language arts teacher's instructional repertoire. When I was invited by the administration in one of these middle schools to collaborate in the professional development of inservice language arts and humanities teachers, I shared my own personal goals mentioned above with him. His professional development objectives were similar, so we brainstormed ways to accomplish our mutual goals together. Lieberman (1995) points out, "Teachers must have opportunities to discuss, think about, try out, and hone new practices" (p. 592). Therefore, we came up with the idea of sponsoring ongoing faculty book clubs as a means for simultaneously introducing teachers in the school to a wide range of adolescent literature and to the practice of engaging in books clubs to discuss the literature.
Murphy and Lick (1998) have advocated whole faculty study groups as an effective vehicle for bringing about philosophical, instructional, and curricular change in schools. Likewise, Flood and Lapp (1994) describe a faculty book club they participated in at an elementary school in California, and report great success with these literature discussion groups. With this framework in mind, I set out to collaborate with the administration to establish faculty book clubs in this urban middle school, and to collect data on the effectiveness of this approach to professional development. Thanks to two research grants, one provided by the ALAN Foundation for Research in Adolescent Literature and the other by Fordham University, I was able to engage in this exciting action research project.
Description of the Research Project
The purpose of this research project was to explore the use of faculty book clubs as a way to introduce middle school teachers to acclaimed adolescent literature, including recently published novels, in hopes that they might incorporate the literature read into their language arts and social studies classes. By conducting survey questionnaires, interviews, and informal observations before and after initiating faculty book clubs, and analyzing the data collected, I hoped to determine if this would be an effective approach to literacy professional development. Sparks and Hirsch (1997) point out that, "Staff development's success will be judged not by how many teachers and administrators participate in staff development programs or how they perceive its value, but by whether it alters instructional behaviors in a way that benefits students" (p. 5). Therefore, I examined the extent to which the book club participants incorporated the novels we read in faculty book clubs into their own curriculum, and the extent to which they implemented student book club discussions in their classes. Finally, I interviewed students in these teachers' classes to determine if the experience of reading adolescent literature and discussing it in book club discussion groups had a positive impact on them.
Situated in an urban school district in Manhattan, East Middle School serves approximately 1400 students in grades 6-8. The student population is 38 % White, 13% Black, 19% Hispanic, and 29% Asian or Pacific Islanders. The administration of the school is extremely interested in improving literacy instruction and is supportive of teachers who want to implement innovative teaching strategies. There are approximately 75 full time faculty members in the school, with 22 of them serving in the language arts and social studies departments.
Because the school has an open-campus lunch policy, giving all teachers and students the same lunch period, we chose to hold the faculty book club meetings during lunch in one of the seventh grade teacher's classroom. A fairly aggressive advertising campaign announcing the faculty book clubs was undertaken shortly after faculty and staff returned from the year-end holidays in January. All faculty members were invited to participate, but we especially encouraged language arts and social studies teachers to attend. The meetings were to be "brown bag" affairs, and we provided beverages and dessert for the participants. After an initial organizational meeting, we held our first faculty book club in late January to discuss the Newbery Award-winning novel, The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Six teachers of language arts and social studies, an assistant principal, a staff developer, two student teachers, a librarian, and I spent a most pleasant (and productive) lunch period discussing that amazing book. While everyone did not love the book (a couple of teachers were really bothered by the ending) the discussion was provocative and engaging. One teacher announced that she was going to use the book as a read-aloud in a sixth-grade class beginning the next week. Instant success! At the end of the meeting, I did a book talk on two recent books: Ruth White's Belle Prater's Boy, 1998 and The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg, 1998. The group decided to read Belle Prater for the next meeting (which they insisted be only two weeks later, rather than the three we initially suggested) and The View from Saturday two weeks later. We were off!
During that semester, the faculty book club continued to meet every 2-3 weeks. Thanks to the enthusiastic response of the participants, and an ongoing campaign (weekly invitations in mailboxes, posters around the building, announcements over the intercom) our group grew significantly. One week we had 21 participants, including seven teachers, a school psychologist, two assistant principals, three student teachers, a staff developer, the librarian, and an administrative intern. When some students suddenly saw their teachers reading the same books that they chose to read in their independent reading, they asked to become involved in the faculty book clubs. Therefore, we expanded our reading community to include three or four students each week. It was amazing to see seventh graders engaged in serious literary discussions with their teachers and administrators alongside a college professor and his students! Even before all of the data were collected and analyzed, it was clear that faculty book clubs were an extremely effective means of literacy staff development in that school. During the semester, and continuing into the next school year, enthusiasm for the faculty-student book clubs remained high. Participation in the group was on a voluntary basis, and some members chose to drop in sporadically. To date, our book club group has read twenty books together.
Our discussions were quite lively. In addition to discussing our aesthetic responses to the book, we critiqued the authors' writing styles, discussed important universal themes, and made connections between the texts and our own personal experiences, to other texts, and to current events. We reacted to portrayals of gender, race, and religion in the various books we read. Mostly, we responded to the books as readers, rather than as educators. From time to time, however, we did don our "teacher hats" and discuss activities and strategies we might use if reading these books with our classes. When the students participated in the book club discussions, they gave us invaluable insight into adolescents' perspectives on and responses to the books. In short, we engaged in meaningful, relevant, thoughtful discussion of these wonderful works of adolescent literature: exactly the kinds of discussions we want to engage our students in as we study literature in our classes.
Table 1 provides a list of the books our community has read and discussed in faculty book clubs during the last year and a half. In choosing books, several things were considered. Because of budget constraints, we were sometimes limited to books available in the school book room. This was not a problem, as one of the goals of the administration was to introduce to teachers some of the adolescent literature titles that were sitting unused in the language arts book room. We also used textbook funds and some of the grant money to purchase sets of books, and even solicited a generous donation from Random House in order to add titles to our group. We tried to select a wide range of books for a variety of reading levels, as well as books set in various places, books with both male and female protagonists, and books written by authors with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. We included books that were recommended by teachers, students and other members of the book club community. By the end of the semester, the sets of adolescent novels available to teachers at East Middle School had more than tripled from the beginning of the year. The social studies department decide to use their textbook money to purchase historical fiction beginning their own departmental adolescent literature book-room-which currently houses over 70 titles.
How Faculty Book Clubs Influenced Participants
At the initial meeting of the faculty book club group, questionnaires were distributed to all participants. In addition to basic demographic information and data on past experience studying and teaching adolescent literature, the survey questionnaires asked teachers to list the literature that they had read with their students the previous semester, and to describe to what extent they had used the core novels, text set independent reading, and book clubs or literature circles. A the end of that first semester, a follow-up survey was administered to the same people, in order to determine to what extent they had taken the literature we had read in faculty book clubs back to their classrooms. Finally, midway through the following year, the participants were again surveyed in order to determine if and to what extent they were continuing to integrate the adolescent novels we had read in faculty book clubs into their classrooms. In addition, information was gathered through regular observations and interviews to determine if teachers were utilizing student book clubs in the classrooms as a result of their experience with the faculty book clubs. While a number of people participated in the faculty book clubs irregularly throughout the year and a half of the study, six teachers formed the core of the group, participating consistently.
Table 2 summarizes the findings of the study. After seeing the effectiveness of the book club format, four of the participants integrated the strategy into their study of literature in their own classrooms for the first time, while two of them who had previously held book clubs with students once or twice augmented that practice. Diane, the only regular participant from the social studies department, began integrating historical fiction in her curriculum, and used book clubs with her students in "advisory," a weekly class in which teachers explore important issues facing the adolescents in their classes. All of the participants took the books read in faculty book clubs back to their classrooms by recommending them to their students for independent reading. Most of them included titles from the faculty book club reading list into their own book club text sets.
Our first book club experience, which has lasted one and one-half years, has been overwhelmingly positive. My student teachers now have classrooms where they can teach the adolescent literature they study in our university course, putting into practice the book club approach they learn in my course. In a relatively short time, at least six teachers have made significant curricular and pedagogical changes. All six teachers attribute these changes to having participated in the faculty book clubs. As an assistant principal pointed out, these changes in teachers' attitudes and practices have resulted in changes in students' reading behavior, causing them to read more and to be more enthusiastic about what they are reading. Indeed, faculty book clubs have shown to be an excellent approach to providing staff development in the area of adolescent literature for inservice teachers at the middle school level.
Marshall George is an Assistant Professor of English Education at Fordham University, and is a member of the Editorial Review Board for The ALAN Review.
Table 1 Books Read in Faculty Book Clubs 1998-2000 Lois Lowry The Giver Ruth White Belle Prater's Boy E. L. Konigsburg The View from Saturday C. P. Curtis The Watsons Go to
Sharon Creech Walk Two Moons Jerry Spinelli Wringer Sharon Creech Chasing Redbird Karen Hesse Out of the Dust Jennings Burch They Caged the Animals at Night Patricia Reilly Giff Lily's Crossing O. T. Nelson The Girl who Owned a City Paul Fleishman Seed Folks Louis Sachar Holes J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the
John Marsden Tommorow When the War Began Jamaica Kincaid Annie John Michael Dorris A Yellow Rift in Blue Water C. P. Curtis Bud, Not Buddy Esmerelda Santiago When I Was a Puerto Rican
Table 2 Teacher # of Books
# of Books
# of Books
# of Times
0 8 7 2 Amy
1 12 11 4 Diane
1 0 5 1 Milicent
1 0 13 3 Eileen
0 4 7 3 Sally
1 3 7 2
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Reference Citation: George, Marshall. (2000) "Researching the Implementation of Faculty Book Clubs in an Urban Middle School." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 1, p. 22-25.