Independent Reading

Book Studies: Home-Grown Professional Development

 //  Mar 19, 2018

Book Studies: Home-Grown Professional Development

Faculty book studies are an excellent way to collectively focus staff on your school’s initiatives. Imagine how your faculty can enlarge their learning and improve teaching practices as they read, explore, and reflect on professional books. Next, add the enhanced communication you can accomplish by using technology. The result? You have professional development and learning for all staff—and it’s happening in your school!

I can recall years ago, staff in my school said they could not change their practice because they were not sent to conferences. Granted, twenty years ago the ability to learn independently was not as available to educators as it is today. The Internet and social media allow any interested person to access information quickly and to connect with like-minded individuals. Below, I propose an additional method to keep staff focused on personal and professional growth: book studies. To focus staff on learning, collaboration and growth when money was tight, we did book studies. And all these years later, we still do them.

Let’s get moving. I want you to bring book studies to your school. Organized book studies can focus the learning of staff while fostering communication and collaboration. Below, you will learn how to launch an effective book study in your school. And to keep this future-focused, I will include how you can incorporate technology into book studies. I encourage you to take my ideas and make them your own!

What Is a Book Study?

A book study is not buying a book for your staff, telling them to read it, and never having meaningful conversations about the text. In my school, a book study is an opportunity for the entire staff or parts of staff to read the same book and have structured conversations as they move through the book.

Once staff and I agree on a book, we set aside time at a faculty meeting to chunk the book into four to five sections, depending on its length. Then we negotiate the amount of time needed to read each chunk and respond on Google Docs or Google Classroom. If, after completing the first chunk, everyone feels they require extra time to complete the reading and responding, we adjust the due dates.

Who Decides on the Topic and Book?

I suggest the principal chooses a book that all staff can benefit from reading, ideally one that aligns with a school focus or theme. I encourage teachers in my school to suggest books, which I read and use as the basis for my selection. The best choice will be engaging and motivate your staff to read and discuss. I have used books like Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. In general, I have found that overly academic books are not ideal for staff book studies. I recommend you choose one that leads readers to reflect on their practice.

How Long Is a Book Study?

Three months is the maximum time for a book study. When the book study is too short, staff feels rushed. When it is too long and drags on, excitement fizzles out. I have failed on both ends, but based on my experience, three months—give or take a week—is the way to go! In my school, we usually do one book study in an academic year.

Tips for Launching a Book Study

Before Starting the Study: Prior to launching the book study, send staff a list of the dates for reading specific pages in the text and the deadline date for responding. Providing staff with the due dates they negotiated with you reminds them of how much time they will have to read a section and respond on Google Classroom. This enables everyone to build the reading and response requirements into his or her personal schedule.

Finding the Time: It is challenging to find time for staff to gather in a room and formally discuss a book. Technology allows communication to happen in new and exciting ways! For your book study, I recommend staff offer comments and feedback, making the process interactive. Google is an excellent platform to make this happen, and I suggest two options for you to consider.

  1. Post five to eight reflection questions in a Google Doc after staff have read a section of the book. Invite staff to select quotes from the book, post these, and offer comments.
  2. Set up a Google Classroom and invite staff to write their comments/questions in the Classroom. If the group is large, Google Classroom is the way to go because it’s easier to find many comments in that platform.

To initiate a top-notch comment activity, add thought-provoking questions and a few responses as these can motivate readers to join the conversation. This year I had an enthusiastic staff member who asked to lead the chat! Empowering others to lead is your opportunity to develop leadership. Always embrace such an opportunity!

Ready, Set, Go

I have found that when launching book studies, participants fall into one of three groups: some are enthusiastic; some are not real sure but try to remain open-minded; and some don’t want to do it.

It’s important for you to believe in the book you're reading, so you can communicate excitement about learning from it. Let your reading community know that everyone will have opportunities to respond, raise questions and react to comments of colleagues after completing each section. To get all on board, suggest that they pilot the first book study and then hold a debriefing session so participants can discuss the process and celebrate their learning.

Change Takes Time

Book studies will succeed or fail depending on the motivation and participation of the principal. When you participate with teachers, you send the message that book studies are important professional learning experiences. Two books my staff and I studied have changed the teaching practices of a few teachers: Teaching Reading in Middle School and Differentiating Reading Instruction, both by Laura Robb.

Change did not occur the year of the study. What I discovered is when one teacher announced a change in instruction at a team meeting, she raised the curiosity of others. Here’s what she said: “I organized my reading unit around a theme and genre. Now students read books at their instructional reading levels, and my read aloud is our common text.” What followed were ongoing conversations among teachers. Those teachers thinking about change observed her class. Still, there wasn’t a groundswell of change. Over time, teachers risked trying a unit to test the concept.

Be patient, because change takes time. If you maintain the momentum of conversations about a book, continually support integrating new ideas into teaching practices, embrace and honor the transformation when it comes, and encourage teachers to observe one another, change will follow.

Spring is a great time to reflect on how the year has gone and where your school needs to head. What books might help everyone grow as teachers and leaders?

Final Thoughts

Continually encourage staff to take some of what they have learned and integrate it into their teaching practices. Motivate staff to communicate with each other and other educators in new ways by using Twitter. This year in my school, our culminating book study activity was a staff Twitter chat that we opened to the world. You can check out what we said about our book study by going to #jwmsstaffinnovates.

This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:


Image via Sebastien Wiertz