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Friday, May 22, 2009

Bagels & Books: Book Discussion Group Promotes Culture of Reading and Development of Metacognitive Strategies

By Cathi Howell, School Librarian, Livermore Falls, High School

It is 6:30 A.M., the sun has not quite made its way up in the eastern sky and the halls are dark and quiet. Light beams from the library, a treasure trove beckoning from the center of the long hall on the second floor of the high school. Scents of freshly brewed coffee and warm bagels and muffins, complemented by the smell of new books welcome the first visitors of the day, the early risers who trickle in, some bright-eyed, others looking sleepy-eyed and slightly disheveled, all eager to grab a bite to eat and talk about our latest Bagels & Books read.

Are you wondering where this library is and who these people are that gather at the crack of dawn to talk about books? Bagels & Books is a community literacy program I started four years ago at Livermore Falls High School, a small rural high school in western Maine. The idea for Bagels & Books began to evolve several years ago when I was working at local public library while completing my bachelor's degree. This library had a lavish budget and was able to provide copies of books, free of charge, for the members of their book discussion group. Knowing that some day I would work as a high school librarian, I thought to myself how exciting it would be to have a book discussion group for students and to be able to give them books they could keep – for free! Living in rural western Maine in a town with a high percentage of low income families and with the closest bookstore located over twenty miles away, I thought this could be a real incentive for students to become excited about reading.

Two years later, while working as the library assistant at LFHS, I attended the annual conference of the Maine Library Association and participated in a session presented by the librarian of Freeport High School. This librarian was dynamic and she talked about many exciting things she was doing at FHS, including a book discussion group that she lead. This group met in the morning and was open to students. Sets of books were borrowed from other schools and libraries to use for reading and discussion. Of course, this got me thinking again about that book discussion group at the public library and about how I could make this work for students at LFHS. I liked the idea of meeting in the morning because many of our students participate in sports and other activities or have jobs and responsibilities that make it difficult to schedule meetings after school. I knew that serving breakfast would be a bonus; generally any time we offer food, students will come. Still, I wondered how I could do this; I wanted to provide students with books they could keep for themselves and make it all happen without any cost to the students.

I decided to discuss my thoughts and ideas with some teachers and the media specialist I worked with at the time. The response was overwhelmingly positive; the excitement was contagious. Teachers wondered if they could participate too and I thought, why not? What better way to bring together students and teachers than in the library participating in a book discussion group together, reinforcing the idea for students that adults around them are reading for pleasure and continuing to enhance their lives through reading? As I continued to fine tune how I would present this program to the school community, it continued to evolve until it looked like this: Bagels & Books would be open to students, faculty and staff members, and community members as a way to promote literacy and reading for pleasure in the school and in the community. All members would receive a copy of each book that they could keep for their own collection or pass on to a friend or family member to promote literacy in the community. We would meet every six to eight weeks, depending on the length of the book, in the library at 7:00 A.M., prior to the start of the school day. The library would be transformed with tablecloths and elegant paper goods . We would serve carafes of coffee and hot water for teas and hot chocolate, juices, and muffins and bagels from the local Dunkin Donuts shop. Everything had to be just right; and then we would talk about the book. The discussion would be informal and participants would be free to talk or just listen. It was important to me that students view this as a pleasure reading opportunity, as opposed to more assigned readings where they would be expected to provide all the right answers. I hoped for engaging conversation about books between teenagers and adults. What I got, and what the school community got has far exceeded my wildest expectations!

Bagels & Books has grown from its initial membership of twenty students, faculty and staff members and community members to a range of thirty-five to forty people reading each selection. Participation peaked last fall when a record fifty-six people squeezed into the library one chilly November morning to discuss the popular vampire novel “Twilight” just days before the release of the movie based on Stephenie Meyer's debut novel. More importantly, Bagels & Books has helped improve the culture around reading at LFHS; reading is becoming the cool thing to do here. The selection of books offered through Bagels & Books has included a broad range of genres, featuring both fiction and non-fiction titles, and has exposed our readers to numerous authors. Recent selections include “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, and “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult. Our lively and engaging discussions, involving students, teachers, secretaries, administrators, parents, community members, and occasional guest speakers, enrich the reading experiences of every participant. In addition, these discussions complement what teachers are emphasizing in classrooms; metacognitive strategies that improve students' reading comprehension. Discussion questions are designed to encourage participants to talk about what they were thinking as they read the book and to relate what they read to prior experiences in their reading and in their lives. The group dynamic of Bagels & Books lends itself readily and naturally to adults sharing and modeling their thinking and students learning from the experiences of these master readers.

What is next for Bagels & Books? We will explore the possibilities of an online experience through a Bagels & Books blog. My hope is to continue to grow and to reach out to more members of our school and community. My expectation is that a Bagels & Books blog will appeal to two distinct audiences; first and foremost our students who already thrive in the online environment and secondly to faculty and staff members and community members who are not able to make our early morning meetings. Discussion questions on the blog will encourage lively discussion between readers, both teenagers and adults, and will inherently supplement our students' metacognitive development. Bagels & Books will provide the best of both worlds; an opportunity for enriching dialogue between students and adults around reading and an online opportunity for written communication and discussion about books that encourages students to think about their own thinking.

You can check out Cathi's blog at: https://lfhsbagelsandbooks.blogspot.com/

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