Book Club: Day one

Seventh graders Lindsay Alter (left) and Emily Yamron (right) at Turn of River Middle School participate in the school's Book Club in Stamford, Conn. on Tuesday April 26, 2011. Photo by Kathleen O'Rourke

Today was my first “real” book club at Turn Of River.

Sure, I spent a class period in the school on Tuesday, but we basically just picked our books. I’m reading The House of the Scorpion, along with five seventh-grade students. Yeah, I picked the thickest book. After we were split into groups according to which book we chose, we all finished out the period with SSR (finally, a term I remember from my school days: Sustained, Silent Reading). “My” teacher, Wendy Carpenter, also handed us our homework assignments. I had two days to read 74 pages and write at least nine responses.

I admit, I procrastinated a little on the reading, finishing off the chapters after the clock struck 1 o’clock this morning, and waking up early to finish my responses. I guess I just forgot what it’s like to actually set aside time for homework in the evening when it’s so nice and sunny outside. I’ll be better this time. Promise.

But I finished it. And I’ve got to say, I really like this book. But honestly, who cares whether I like the assignment. What’s really important here is how the students are responding to it. And from what I saw today, I think it’s pretty obvious that the students I was working with are really engaged in these book clubs.

We split into our groups the second the bell rang (at 9:32 this morning — coffee, please), and after a quick moment of instruction at the Smart Board in front of the classroom, we were on our own to discuss the text and our responses.

Emily Yamron, 13, opened up our discussion. Her first impression of the book was that it seemed a lot like George Orwell’s 1984, she said, and asked if we agreed. I did. As a matter of fact, I kept thinking of Orwell throughout the first seven chapters, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. I had only read it for the first time in 12th grade, and figured the students wouldn’t get the observation. Mark that down as the first time they exceeded my expectations today.

We spent the rest of the period talking about our different reactions to several points in the book, including our theories as to what it means to be a clone, and the harsh treatment they receive in their society in this book. It led us to overarching themes of racism and ignorance.

Soon, we were discussing the philosophy behind what it means to exist. Most of the clones in the book have their intelligence blunted while they’re still swimming in a Petri dish. And the students debated whether with no intelligence actually exist. What makes a human? Is it intelligence? A brain? A soul? No one had a finite answer.

The questions continued to pour out as we (yeah, I actively participated in all the debate) put forth personal anecdotes to help guide our understanding of the characters’ motivations. They also threw out examples of other books they’d read that reminded them of central themes we were beginning to see. Lindsay Alter, 12, brought up My Sister’s Keeper, while Emily mentioned Unwind — both books involve characters whose bodies are intended to be used to provide organs or other parts to other characters in an attempt to save their lives. How did those characters feel? Is that how our protagonist would feel when he discovers his true purpose on the planet is to supply parts of his body to El Patron? There were points where members of our group disagreed with each other, but always in a diplomatic way.

And there was not one minute during the entire hour-long class period when no one had something to add to the conversation. In fact, when Carpenter told us to wrap it up so she could put our upcoming homework on the board, I heard groans from my group as well as the other three groups around us.

That’s all I’ve got for today. I’ll try to take a video on Tuesday (8:36 a.m.), when we discuss the next 81 pages. In the mean time:

I'm getting a head start on the next assignment!

Maggie Gordon