Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

The idea for a history book club came to me a few years ago when I was teaching my AP Euro class and I used to assign a historical fiction reading list for extra credit that very few students actually read! We approached our school librarian, who connected us with a librarian specializing in young-adult fiction in the area, and between us we hammered out the logistics of a quarterly history book club.

Students participate in Mt. Si High School’s student book club. Photo courtesy Ben Tomlisson.

The idea is to target a particular age/grade each quarter. This quarter, we have our freshmen reading Sapiens, by Noah Harari. We had used some of this book in our Big History class last year and students were fascinated by the questions it raised, so we decided to use it for our book club. The books are acquired by our library service and we try to supplement using PTSA funding to top up this supply.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari. Fair use.

At the first meeting of the book club, students produce the group’s rules and expectations for the discussions we’ll have. We limit the number of students to 20 per lunch session, and every Wednesday we meet, eat, and discuss the questions raised by our reading. Students are assigned a set reading for the week and they generate discussion questions for the following week (you can view examples of these in this post in the BHP online teacher community). The last week of the club, we have an “Ask the Expert” session, to which we invite a special guest speaker. It hasn’t been difficult to convince students to do more work. Yes, we do offer extra credit, but this is based on their participation in discussion rather than an extra assignment.

Students have been re-energized by the questions raised by their readings. I have one student who waits by my desk at the start of every period to ask questions—not about her grade (!) but about a quote from the book or an issue it raised. This is energizing for my own teaching and I’ve tried to adapt some of my lessons to these questions. We have students already asking what the next book will be. To determine what we’ll read next, we’ll use a list of age-appropriate materials from our library service and will get student feedback on what they want to read.

My advice for anyone trying this is to start small (limit the number of students), choose a book that you think will capture your students’ interests, and get help from other departments and your local library service.

Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.

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