A Different Kind of Book Club
By Gerard Lesperance
Becoming acquainted with the pleasures of reading while attending parochial school in Brooklyn during the 1950s was a simple matter. Once the good sisters "suggested" that a trip to the local library would be beneficial, my arrival there was ensured. Since my world at that time consisted of a five-block radius around the school, the thought of leaving this safe zone for a half-mile walk along unknown streets was daunting for a fourth-grader. Little did I know that walking this path would change my life intellectually as well as geographically.
The library, located on Bushwick Avenue, appeared imposing in a neighborhood of frame houses. I was proud to have successfully negotiated the solo journey as I climbed the stone steps and entered the building. Approaching the desk, I attempted to make eye contact with the librarian. This, however, proved difficult, as she appeared to be deeply involved in a weighty novel. Finally, she lifted her eyes, "Can I help you young man?" in a voice seasoned with just a tinge of annoyance. "Yes, I would like to take some books from the library." "The word is borrow," she shot back.
In spite of her annoyance, she quickly generated a temporary library card and provided a brief tour of the building, amazingly, without ever leaving her seat. I listened, wide-eyed, my head moving in tandem with her arm as she animatedly pointed around the room, "You will find fiction here, nonfiction there, children's section over there, select two books and return to this counter." This completed, her head immediately dropped into the reading position as if some internal battery had suddenly gone dead.
With a combination of luck and persistence, I located the two assigned books but was oddly drawn to continue my exploration of this new realm. As I moved through the aisles, I chanced upon a book entitled, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The drawings and the description on the inside cover interested me more than the two I had been assigned. I wondered, should I ask the librarian if I could take out a third book or eliminate one assigned by my teacher—both unpalatable thoughts. I decided to defer the decision and squeezed Tom Sawyer into my back pocket.
After exploring the stacks for several more minutes my stomach reminded me that getting home was a priority. I warily returned to the desk and once again engaged the librarian, who stamped the date on each book with a thump-thump. Relieved, I turned and slowly began my exit when suddenly the words, "Young man!" shattered the silence, striking me with high-voltage intensity. As I turned, the librarian spoke slowly, pronouncing every syllable distinctly, "What-is-that-in-your-back-pocket?" I slowly contorted my body to verify and to my horror saw the book. As I was attempting to explain in a nervously incoherent babble, the librarian slowly closed her book, left her seat, removed her glasses, and stared down at me. Inexplicably, her face softened and, with the slightest hint of a smile, she accepted the book from my outstretched hand. "I am pleased to see that you are eager to read, but only two books on a temporary card."
In spite of this harrowing experience, I returned to the library within two weeks and borrowed Tom Sawyer. Each time I returned for a required assignment I picked up other books that piqued my interest and quickly became an avid reader—Greek mythology, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Ernest Hemingway, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and James Michener.
Becoming immersed was strangely pleasing. I could open a book and transcend my cramped apartment, arriving at locations I could never hope to visit and participating in events exciting beyond my imagination. At times I stayed up until 3 a.m., fighting sleep for just one more chapter or a few more pages. Many mornings I awoke with the lamp still lit and my book lying where it had fallen. If the book was particularly interesting, the pages turned too rapidly. I reacted by consciously slowing the pace in an attempt to delay the inevitable.
This behavior did not go unnoticed by my parents, who were somewhat perplexed at the sudden surge of literary interest. Over time they also noticed that a strange phenomenon was occurring. My grades began to improve. A direct correlation? Most likely. But at the very least they were witnessing the creation of a lifelong habit that was to affect me positively in many ways.
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Run the clock fast forward to the late nineties. I had recently begun working at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington, N.Y. Whitman, a suburban school located on the North Shore of Long Island, provided an environment that was open to new ideas. My arrival here coincided with the publication of an issue of American Educator, entitled "The Unique Power of Reading and How To Unleash It" (Spring/Summer 1998), which contained a series of articles devoted to the benefits of reading. Although the idea of a book club had been rattling around in my head for several years, it was this confluence of factors that coaxed my thought into action. With no model to emulate, I hoped that common sense and experience might carry me through.
I still remained hesitant because the concept might be perceived as too anachronistic in the electronic age of the 21st century. Also, times had changed: The Internet, TV, sports, clubs, jobs, and new learning standards now competed with reading for the minds and hearts of young adults. Recreating my experience for the students at Whitman seemed risky. But, after consulting with the high school principal who told me to "go for it" and hearing the encouraging words of the math and science chairs, "even if you inspire one student to read you will have succeeded," the Walt Whitman Book Club was launched.
The club was to have no meetings (students were already busy with countless other tasks and this would allow a wider range of participation), no required book lists, or club officers. Just reading for enjoyment. Eligibility was simple—students would read a book on any topic and submit a book review, which was then placed on the book club bulletin board alongside the names of all the members. The rewards for this effort would be the full benefits of membership—a free book for each one completed and eligibility to attend book club sponsored trips.
This was, however, easier said than done because books are expensive, and with no budget the club would lose its major incentive. Fortunately, I soon received a call from a community member whose aunt, an avid reader, had just passed away. When the caller told me she was searching for a home for her aunt's library, I immediately enlisted the help of a staff member who owned a Bronco and raced to collect what turned out to be a treasure trove of several hundred titles. A short time later, I was delighted to receive generous funding from the Teacher/Parent Resource Center (twice) to further enrich our collection. Our school technology teacher collaborated with a student to construct a bookcase and made this collection of new and used titles more attractive. Apparently, the book club was ready to go. But the question remained, what kind of response could I expect from the students?
I began to promote the club by the usual means—letters and public address announcements—but the best advertisements were the books themselves. Many students who passed by the bookshelves each day were curious about the titles that were on display. It was heartwarming to observe them pick up a book that caught their attention, skim through it, and inquire about the club. In this manner, membership began to build slowly as the book club became a part of the landscape of the school. But oddly enough, it was the secondary benefit of membership—eligibility to attend trips—that provided the greatest stimulus. It proved not only to be an effective incentive for students to read, but also generated a force for teacher involvement that was to transform the book club into a more broadly based student organization.
This all came about quite serendipitously while planning our first trip to the home of Teddy Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill. I received a tip that a member of the social studies department was not only an avid reader and a frequent visitor to Sagamore Hill, but was also a TR enthusiast. What better way to organize a trip and simultaneously promote the book club than to use the expertise of a member of the teaching staff? Within the next few weeks, he compiled a list of recommended titles for the students, provided them with book review forms, and acted as promoter for our club. The trip was an overwhelming success, introducing many new students to the book club and prompting subsequent trips to the United Nations with the English as a Second Language department and to the Brooklyn Museum of Art with the art department. Since I was a relatively new member of the staff, these trips became a collaborative experience and, as such, accelerated building relationships with teachers as well as interest in the club. This success caused its rapid evolution from an organization with a small focal point to one with universal appeal and potential as a curriculum support mechanism.
I soon learned that trips and free books were not the only motivators to club membership. Since many of the students at Whitman were already involved in recreational reading, they were attracted because they found validation in their love of the written word. The book club inspired them to increase their reading volume and to experiment with a broader range of literature. They proudly submitted their book reviews and delighted in spending an entire period selecting their free title. Some appreciated the weathered look of the donated classics while others were attracted to the newer hard- and soft-cover editions. Some students joined because it offered an extracurricular activity that they easily found the time to enjoy; since neither great athletic prowess nor above average grades were necessary for membership, its appeal was universal.
In fact, the club draws a disproportionate number of members from special education and English as a Second Language students who are welcomed through class visits and the acquisition of appealing book titles. As a result, club membership, which is now above 100, developed into an eclectic mix of students from throughout the social and ethnic fabric of Whitman. It was quite interesting to observe students from all the diverse segments of the school population "see" each other for the first time and have some limited interaction through the book club and its trips. It was not uncommon to observe students in my office dressed totally in black alongside others in baggy pants standing next to students in full Muslim dress.
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As we begin our fourth full year, we have managed to attract a steady flow of new members to replace those who have graduated. We are enhancing our appeal by creating a page for the school's Web site so students and parents may log on to read about the latest books of interest. The club has received further funding from the South Huntington District and a most generous donation from a prominent family in the community.
Enthusiasm continues to build as the club affects different groups within the school. The librarian has noticed an increase in usage; in fact, she has supported the club by producing colorful displays that promote book club activities. The president of the PTA has become an ardent supporter and managed to secure a free slice of pizza and a soda from a local restaurant for the first 50 students to read a book. Although this was a limited offer, it came at a critical moment in the history of the club. This was not only another incentive, but also proof that the community values reading as an educational tool. As for me personally, I discovered that the desire to grow through reading is a trait that has not yet disappeared from the human genome. This point was driven home when selecting titles for the free book library. I hesitated before buying books of poetry and essays believing that there would be few takers; but to my surprise, these books were among the first volumes to be selected.
The little adventure I undertook those many years ago transported me beyond my known world and stimulated a lifelong habit of reading. The creation of the book club has been an equally important journey. Not only has it promoted interactions that have benefited me emotionally and professionally, but the book club has opened an avenue through which I was able to provide enrichment for our school. It has been a gratifying experience—working with administrators, teachers, parents, and most of all, students who clearly recognize the centrality of recreational reading in the educational process.
Gerard Lesperance is the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington, N.Y. He has taught science in middle and high schools in New York City and Long Island.