Skip to main content

Midvale Journal

Midvale Middle book club empowers students to make connections through discussion

Feb 09, 2024 01:03PM ● By Julie Slama

Midvale Middle School students circle around at lunchtime each week for book club discussions. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Every Wednesday, every lunch period, Midvale Middle students come to the library to discuss the book they’re reading that month. They may talk about characters and their interactions, the writing, the plot or how it ties into their own lives.

One particular day, they talked about the Wednesday Book Club itself.

One student voiced liking being able to have discussions about books and then, being able to keep the books afterward. Some said that they’ve appreciated reading different genres of books, including books they normally wouldn’t read. Someone else appreciated the good writing in the books. One student said she appreciated it as a break from homework and “reading simply for the joy of it.”

Teacher Librarian/Media Specialist Judy Rembacz has overseen Midvale Middle’s Wednesday Book Club the past four years.

“I select different genres; this year, I stayed with some classics I thought they’d enjoy,” she said. “Last year, there were more popular books, but I’m finding students are really enjoying these.”

Students have read novels such as “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and were planning to read “Call of the Wild” and “The Hobbit” in the winter months. “The Princess Bride” and “The Hound of Baskervilles” were among their spring reads.

“We started with ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ with 15 students, and most of them loved it after thinking they wouldn’t,” Rembacz said. “They all were bawling and connecting to this story even though there’s a generational gap between the book and the students who are reading it. That’s what is so great about the classics; we all can connect through the protagonist or the character in the book. We all still have the same issues as they did in the book. We still have that emotional connection. It’s all about relationships. In ‘Where the Red Fern Grows,’ it’s about the relationship with your dog and about coping as a person and these kids get that. It’s that foundation we are teaching our kids about coping with life and how to handle whatever’s going on in their life.”

Rembacz said the initial group told their friends about it, and the next month, the book club doubled in size. She gave each student their own copy of October’s book, her all-time coming of age favorite, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

“They get to take the book home with them to keep and to help build their own library,” she said. “We do that every month.”

They also explore different cultures in the books. For example, in November, they read “The Light in the Forest.”

“The kids have loved this one,” Rembacz said. “It teaches about racism and cultures, and acceptance and tolerance between other cultures. These kids picked up on that; I never said anything. They came back to book club and said, ‘The author truly shows the difference between each culture and acceptance of them.’”

She has students of different cultures participate in book club, sharing different viewpoints. Some are English language learners, and they are welcome to belong to the group and often, soak up the English language.

Sometimes, Rembacz acknowledges that a student hasn’t read the entire book or may not like it.

“I ask for a fair try of the book, like 50 pages before abandoning the book,” she said. “They have that freedom; nobody is being forced to read it, but I ask them to tell us why you don’t like it.” 

Discussions aren’t preplanned; students direct the conversation.

“Sometimes when we meet, we may not get to discussing all the book,” she said. “We’ll be making a connection between what they’re reading and something else going on in life, and that’s OK too. What I love is the difference between this and being in a classroom setting. Often with curriculum, we teach the kids what they have to say and what’s different is this book club is allowing them to lead it themselves through conversation. It’s not me coaching them or saying, ‘Hey, you need to say this about this book.’ Instead, they’re discussing it on their own and making those connections and making inquiries into the book and its meaning. Through this, they’re all building relationships and connecting with each other, and sometimes that wouldn’t have happened outside this group. Making connections is really what this book club is about; it’s not just about reading the book. It’s about coming together and connecting with one another and creating human kindness with each other.”

Rembacz said she steers away from having a “checklist” with the book club or knowing the points to write a report. 

“I want them to read the story, understand it and discuss it,” she said. “I want them to enjoy it and to have fun. That’s something I love about our library. I have the freedom to offer these kids a place where they can find themselves whether it’s in a book or hanging out with friends playing in our Makerspace here. They can have a break, even if it’s a few minutes, to have a refuge from everything else going on in their world.” λ