Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
Are we ever back after the holiday break! Adam Shaffer (@MrShafferTMCE), 5th grade teacher at Ten Mile Creek Elementary in Everson, Washington (he can see Canada from his classroom), has a ton of great stuff to share about starting a boys’ book club. Our first order of business, as usual, is to snoop around in Adam’s past:
The young Mr. Shaffer ready to read!
Favorite school lunch as a kid:I didn’t buy lunch very often, but I always bought when it was “Breakfast for Lunch.” I love everything that has syrup.
Best friend in grade school: Dana. He lived over the hill from me. I probably rode my bike over that hill a thousand times.
Times you were the new kid in school: I was lucky enough to stay in one place all through public school.
Teacher who inspired you to stretch: I was very shy in school; good at working hard and doing well and sliding by without much attention. I never had to stretch, though some teachers tried. Here’s the truth: I’ve never been stretched as much as I have in the last year, by Twitter friends and teachers like Mike Hutchinson, Colby Sharp, Mr. Schu, Donalyn Miller, and all of the #nerdybookclub. This last year has transformed my classroom, my teaching, and even my worldview and philosophies.
The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: I always thought I should have been able to pass that danged Presidential Physical Fitness test. I think I always got stuck because of the flexibility part.
Okay, let’s get to how you work to connect kids and books. You started a boys’ book club at your school. What prompted you to do that?
I started Guys Read eight years ago because our librarian was running a Mother-Daughter book club and I wanted in on the fun. I then found the wealth of resources Jon Scieszka has collected for Guys Read, and felt like I found one of my callings. Things took off from there. I will never stop doing it.
What do you think are the key ingredients of a successful book club for boy readers?
Here’s what one of my guys, Abbas, said once: “I like Guys Read because the leader is Mr. Shaffer, the coolest person ever. He is not strict like most teachers, and he is childish but grown up at the same time.”
If we dissect that statement a little, I think we can get a sense of what might be needed. I’ll gloss over the “coolest person ever” part and point out that Guys Read clubs shouldn’t be burdened by rules or requirements. No “can’t come if you’re missing homework.” No “can’t attend if you haven’t read the book.” It must be welcoming and open to all. The only requirement for Guys Read is showing up. And you don’t even have to show up every time! So that’s the ”not strict” part.
Now, “childish.” What did Abbas mean by that? Here’s my take: it’s important to understand what your guys like, what they’re interested in, how they think, what makes them laugh. “Childish,” in this case, doesn’t mean immature. It means truly understanding children.
Other than that, all you need is a place to meet and a great book! Oh, and delicious treats help, too.
How often do you meet?
Our club proper meets at the end of each month, in the evening. During the month we read a book, preferably with an adult, preferably a dad or brother or other guy. I want boys to have male reading role models. In the last few years I’ve had more and more dads come. In the beginning it was very rare—we often had all moms (which is fine! I love moms!).
Describe a typical meeting.
We talk about the book, eat snacks (often connected to the book in some way), and have fun with books. I really try to let the guys roll. I’ll ask questions when there’s a lull, and parents chime in, too, but I want the guys to be doing the bulk of the talking. Things get pretty silly or gross sometimes; these are 4thand 5th grade boys, remember. I know the guys are starting to feel comfortable in the club when we start talking about farts. It’s a role that allows me to step slightly to the side of “teacher.” I’m always a “reading friend” as a teacher, but there are a lot of strings attached to what we do in a classroom, whereas Guys Read is about nothing except fun. Sometimes we get some parent eye-rolls.
How do you select which books to read?
It’s kind of a mix between some old reliables and new stuff. There are some books—Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Wringerby Jerry Spinelli, Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos—that I will always keep in the rotation. But I’m always on the lookout for new titles. I read a lot, often with the eye of a middle grade boy, so I’m always adding books to my list. I also try to have a mix of genres. Always a sci-fi or a fantasy, some realistic and historical fiction. I always include something nonfiction.
I usually look for books with male main characters, but not always. When we do read books with girl main characters (Jackie’s Wild Seattle by Will Hobbs, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt), it’s something we discuss in our meeting, just as we discuss how well female authors write boy characters.
I’ll be honest, book selection also depends a bit on whether we can get enough copies for the library. Our budget is tight, so we don’t read too many brand new books. We’re a paperback kind of club. I always keep those new books in mind, though, for later years.
What are your thoughts on a female teacher/librarian leading a boys’ book club?
I’m all for it! Be brave and jump in, ladies!
This actually came up recently. Some of my guys who moved up to the middle school approached the (female) middle school librarian demanding the establishment of a boys’ book club. She tried to find a male teacher to take the lead, but couldn’t get any takers. The guys agreed to let her lead it on a “trial basis.” I’m sure it will be a success.
That said, I think a big reason why some boys grow up to be non-readers is that they look around and don’t see any men reading. I do think it is veryimportant that boys have adult males reading role models, especially males they perceive as cool. “He’s cool, he reads, so reading is cool.” But I’m also a realist. In our middle school with several male teachers, not one volunteered to lead the Guys Read club. So I’m in full support of enthusiastic women taking over when the men in the house don’t step up.
Guys Read, or any kids’ book club, isn’t about the leaders. It’s about the kids. Different leaders can have different impacts, but being there is the only impact that truly matters. Without you, there’s nothing!
How has the book club evolved in the past eight years?
I’ve tried to add some extra-curricular fun to our extra-curricular fun. We made rockets to launch to the moon after reading Hugo Cabret. We were lucky enough to be asked to make an intro video for Patrick Carman at the WWU Children’s Lit Conference. We’ve Skyped with Mac Barnett, Tom Angleberger, Stephanie Tolan, and Stephen McCranie. I’m always looking for new ways to connect reading with the idea of “fun.”
Last year, I started a cross-continent Guys Read offshoot with Mr. Hutchinson’s 6th graders at Salem Middle School in North Carolina. Mr. H and I had been following each other’s GR blogs for a while. We named our new joint club the Intercontinental Ballistic Reading Group. It was a lunchtime club, and we read a common book and made videos back and forth. It was a lot of fun, and allowed some guys who can’t make an evening meeting to join in the Guys Read festivities. We just restarted the IBRG this year, and it’s a ton of fun.
Has social media impacted the club in other ways?
Joining Twitter marked a milestone for the club. Suddenly, we’re communicating with authors, 140 characters at a time. Even in small doses, it blew the boys’ minds. Twitter and Skype have opened up whole new worlds.
Why do you feel a boys’ book club like Guys Read is important?
For me, Guys Read is a
ll about getting books into the hands of boys, connecting reading with fun, and showing that reading is cool and that we are cool for reading. It’s a fight against the stigma of reading, of being a little nerdy. I remember a “cool” student who I once asked why he hadn’t joined Guys Read.
Student: “Ehhh…I just don’t think it’s my thing.”
Me: “What do you mean? I definitely think you’re cool enough to join us. We’d let you in!”
He didn’t join.
I know that all the “cool” kids hear about the fun stuff we do. They see the fun swag we get. They salivate over the delicious treats we get. A few of them join; most don’t. Book club? Can’t, I’ve got to go play sports.
Everyone wants to find a place where their interests and ideas are valued. For some kids, that’s sports. For some it’s choir. Guys Read is that place for anyone who wants to join in (they don’t even really have to love books—we can work on that). For some kids, it’s the only place they feel that way. Where would they be without it?
What impacts have you seen on your students?
My bond with Guys Read members is pretty strong. It’s a relationship I enjoy building. And a lot of them are readers already—for them, there’s not much academic impact. But I noticed something really different last year, when I started the IBRG during lunch. Suddenly, I was reaching some kids that seemed unreachable. Students were joining who couldn’t come to Guys Read proper—either their parents couldn’t manage it or they weren’t interested. They were socially awkward. They weren’t even readers, necessarily. But they were coming to lunchtime book club, demanding that I read more, wanting to participate and be involved in a way that didn’t match their classroom behavior (task avoidance, disruptive, etc.). These were kids that other teachers griped about constantly. In the whole school there was nowhere they felt welcome, accepted, valued. Always a weirdo to their peers; always a problem to their teachers. But, wait! Fun videos? Wacky puppet shows? Hilarious read alouds? Maybe a lunchtime book club… Thatwas a place for them.
For a couple of them, it was hard to transition to a place where they would be treated with respect and where they were expected to be respectful (instead of adults assuming misbehavior). I kicked a boy out one day for being rude; told him to try again the next day. He came back and never acted that way again.
These are the types of things that make me wish I could just do book clubs all day, every day. I love teaching, but I love my book club.
What has most surprised you about running a boys book club?
I wish this wasn’t a surprise—that I’d expected it—
but I’ve been really encouraged and excited by the increase in dads participating in Guys Read. For the first few years, we often had only moms and boys. Most of these were not split families; the dads just weren’t interested.
In the last few years, that’s been shifting. Now, dads outnumber moms quite easily. During our meeting this month, there wasn’t a mom in the room. I said before, I love moms. I would never turn them away! But I also mentioned the need for male reading role models. I’m glad to see so many dads recognizing the importance of reading, and valuing it. Even more, I’m overjoyed to see so many dads recognizing their sons’ love of reading, and valuing that.
What are some of the club’s favorite books?
Oh, so hard to pick favorites! Here are some that we’ve really loved:
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. The ultimate boy book.
Replay, by Sharon Creech. Silly, crazy family fun.
The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander. Time for the name pronouncing game!
Ben Franklin’s Almanac, by Candace Fleming. Read “Fart Proudly” with a straight face.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. ‘Nuff said.
Aliens on Vacation, by Clete Barrett Smith. A hometown author’s hilarious sci-fi.
The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, by Mac Barnett. Clever and funny—a reader’s mystery.
To name a few…
Why would you encourage other teachers to launch a book club, be it for boys or girls or both?
It is the most fun you will have all month. It’s a chance to connect with kids on a different level.
What other resources could you recommend, in addition to Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read website?
There are a lot of Guys Read clubs around the country (and world). A lot of them have blogs. I’ve utilized them when selecting books. James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead.com is also great for finding books. And of course, just hop on Twitter! Use the hashtags #titletalk or #nerdybookclub and you’ll tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience. Not many people use the #GuysRead hashtag, but I do! We could start a revolution with a conversation.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about Guys Read?
Yes. We’re cool because we read, and we read because we’re cool.
Adam, thank you for kicking off this new year with such a passionate post. Your enthusiasm gives me chills. And hope. Read on! And here’s the link to the Guys Read blog!