Book Club Lunches

When I was a second grader, my teacher would take us outside on mild afternoons to relax with whatever book we chose. We’d munch snacks and chat as we read together. Those lovely times celebrating books and ideas are cherished memories and something I wanted my own students to experience. How, I wondered, could I bring some of the joy of reading for pleasure into the jam-packed school lives of my second graders? I found a way to do it by creating a weekly classroom tradition: book club lunches.

For twenty-five minutes each Wednesday, book club lunch gives a small group of students a chance to relax, eat together, and share thoughts about books they love in a setting free of any direct focus on building specific literacy skills. Each week, I invite a handful of children to participate, making sure that every student is included several times a year, and varying the groups so the children get to make connections with many different peers.

Building excitement about books and reading

I don’t start book club lunches right at the beginning of the year. I wait until November, when routines and expectations are well-established and the classroom community has begun to take shape. From the very beginning of school, however, I communicate constantly about how special books and reading are to me. I share thoughts about what I’m reading nearly every day. “Oh, friends,” I might say, “I’m reading the most wonderful fairy tale. What a description of dragons! Would you like to hear it during snack?”

I also pay close attention to the children’s reading choices, and when I notice that they share interests with classmates, I tell them. All of this builds a constant buzz of literary excitement in the classroom, preparing us for the launch of book club lunches.

Doing the “big sell”

The week before our first book club lunch, I begin my “big sell” with the children. To spark their excitement, I tell them about my grownup book club and emphasize how similar our own gatherings will be. “Just like grownups,” I say, “we’ll be eating and talking together—not reading, writing, or studying for a test!”

“Do we have to come?” asks Kim-Ly skeptically.

“Oh, no,” I say. “You don’t have to. But I hope you will want to, because I can’t wait to hear about the books you love—and I think you’ll enjoy hearing about the books others choose, too.”

I explain how it will work: Each Monday, I’ll list that week’s invitees on the board and check in with them about what book they might want to bring. They may choose to share any book, at any reading level, including a book that has been read aloud to them. It just has to be a book they’ve enjoyed. The book club group will eat lunch in our classroom at a specially prepared table. Everyone will have a turn to share.

Tips for Hosting Successful Book Club Lunches:

  • Early in the year, enlist support from home. Besides helping choose books and make lunches, families can help set the tone by talking with their children about books.

  • Send home an invitation to let families know that it’s a book club lunch week, and check in with invitees about their book choices.

  • Especially for a child’s first lunch, include a friend in the group to boost the comfort level and encourage sharing.

  • Vary groupings to nurture new friendships, bring together children with similar interests, and let children with differing skill levels learn from each other.

Putting skills in place

During the week before the first lunch I model and guide the children’s practice of skills that will make our book club successful. Doing this whole-class work in several brief sessions, rather than one or two longer ones, keeps the tone light and excitement high. These mini-lessons include:

Choosing a book to share
I model with a book I know most children will recognize. Hugging Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, I say, “I chose this book because I love reading about people who do things they really want to do.” Turning the book slowly around, I show the cover to cries of “Miss Rumphius!” and “My mom read that to me!”

“So,” I ask, “how might you choose a book to share? Tell me some ideas and I’ll put them on our chart.”

“You could pick a book about something you like a lot,” says Daniella, “the way Miss Rumphius likes flowers.”

“If you like a book,” offers Luis, “you could pick other books by the same writer.”

Sharing thoughts about a book
I also model how to tell what makes a book special. For this, I choose a longer children’s book or a suitable adult book, such as Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing. “What a wonderful book!” I say, holding up the hefty hardback. “It’s a big, thick book, but I’m not going to try to tell you the whole plot. Here’s why I love it: It’s about Irish people, and I’m Irish, too. Also, the writing makes word pictures showing me what Ireland looks like.” We talk about what the children noticed about my sharing, and then I ask for volunteers to show how they would do similarly brief sharings about other books.

Eating and talking
By now, the children know our classroom rules for respectful small-group behavior—listening actively, hands to self, waiting your turn, etc.—so I concentrate on specific skills needed for eating lunch together. First, I state my non-negotiables: No bathroom talk or talk about topics that others might find offensive, and swallow before you speak. Then I ask the children to add to the list.

Finally, as the first invitations go out, we review responsibilities: The children attending must choose and bring a book and a lunch, be prepared to share their thoughts, and help with table-setting and cleanup. My responsibilities as host will be to make my guests feel comfortable, keep time, and make sure everyone gets a turn.

Meeting day

On the morning of book club lunch days, the books to be shared are displayed on the counter where we store our lunches. Classmates cruise past, ogling: “They’ve got a Beverly Cleary today,” says Mandy. “She’s great!” “Goosebumps! That’s one I haven’t read!” says Darrin.

Once the other children leave for lunch with an assistant teacher, my book club guests gather and set the table. First we lay our books at our places and enjoy just gazing at their covers. “I see wonderful choices,” I tell the children after a few moments. “Now put your book in your lap or under your chair, and let’s munch a bit before we start sharing.”

Once each child has eaten a little, we begin sharing. As we’ve discussed in practice sessions, any sharing is good, as long as it comes from the heart. Recently, Kajari, a Bengali child, shared a book about her homeland. She loved the book, she said, “because this is who I am.”

At the same lunch, José told us he enjoys Laura Numeroff’s circle stories (such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie), “because it’s the littlest character who’s the most important.” He told his appreciative audience that “when we’re growing up, we’re the littlest ones, but we still do and say important things.”

As lunch ends, I sit back and sigh. “That was wonderful—such good books and conversation! Thank you all for coming.” As we’ve practiced, the children thank me for hosting and say goodbye to each other. Then we tidy our lunch table and prepare to welcome our classmates back.

Growing through book talk

Throughout the year, the children grow more excited about gathering for our book talks. They become more thoughtful in their book choices and share more complex ideas.

The children also invest more in knowing and being known by their classmates. Gillian, for example, whose father is English, loves everything about England. For several lunches, she brought books about England, until we all thought she’d always bring books about England. At the next lunch, though, she surprised us. “What does everybody think my book is about?” she asked playfully, keeping the book hidden. “England,” we all answered. “No!” she told us, bringing out a book of mysteries. “Here’s something else I’m interested in!”

When the children show such eagerness to share themselves with their peers through books, I know that book club lunches are accomplishing what I hoped they would.

Mary Tsacoyeanes teaches second graders at Conant School in Acton, Massachusetts.

Tags: Engaging Academics, Language Arts, Lunchroom, Small Groups