October 22, 2019

Not Your Grandma’s Book Club: Unsettling the Status Quo in Education

By Kara Cisco

Any number of things come to mind when you hear the word “book club,” but sparking disruption the education system is hardly one of them. Nevertheless, over the last two years, I’ve learned that we should not underestimate the power of a book and invested educators.

For the past two years, I have co-facilitated an inter-district book club—Class Hacks—for educators interested in equity with three of my closest peers in education. We seek the opportunity to establish bridges across districts, learn from each other, and grow, so that we may unsettle the status quo in education and innovate together—building toward a future where all classrooms are equitable, demographically unpredictable, and guided by the principles of social justice. Whether we’re discussing Teaching for Black Lives, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or Biased, conversations are moving into schools and planting seeds for change. And while changing the conversation is far from all we need, it’s an ingredient. 

The best part is that teachers anywhere can adopt and build on this strategy for shared learning and growth—and here are 10 of the most salient things I have learned and some prescient lessons that might help you shape a book club of your own. 

1. HAVE A STRUCTURE … BUT BE FLEXIBLE

We try our best to structure our meetings. Generally, we have an agenda, norms, agreements, and an opening spiel our regular attendees probably have memorized. Sure, there are months we adjust because attendance is higher or lower than usual, and teachable moments present segues in the same manner they do in the classroom. For some people, I’m sure, our book club may be too structured, but just as in the classroom, we’ve noticed that the predictability and security of a routine provide pathways for deeper and more courageous conversations to emerge. 

Predictability and security of a routine provide pathways for deeper and more courageous conversations to emerge.

2. FACILITATE AS A TEAM—AND SPECIALIZE

I am far from the sole facilitator of the book club, and I would never, ever want to be; I can’t think of any idea I’ve had on my own that hasn’t been improved through conversation, deliberation, teamwork, and compromise. The skills and talents we bring to the table are valuable in their heterogeneity. And after two years, the best advice I have is to allow your natural strengths and talents to emerge organically. 

3. WE ARE ALL LEARNERS … AND TEACHERS

The turfy competitiveness that can imbue some school cultures just doesn’t play in a space where educators who just met have elected to cast aside their pride and willingly discuss their implicit biases, insecurities, and problems. That alone makes Class Hacks one of the most affirming and life-giving two hours a month of professional development I’ve experienced. I have learned something from everyone who has attended.

4. WE ARE ALL *EXTREMELY BUSY* 

You’ve had a month filled with PLCs, before-school, after-school, IEP, department meetings, meetings about future meetings, and so much more. So our policy is: It’s okay if you haven’t read the book. We organize our book club in a way that is specifically meant to accommodate busy teachers who didn’t finish the book (or maybe didn’t start it). We publish thematic quotes over social media four times a month, prior to the meeting, and provide copies of those quotes at the meeting. It helps us stay focused, and it recognizes that this job is not for the faint of heart when it comes to free time. 

5. MEMBERSHIP IS OUR FEEDBACK

As four white women leading a book club concerning equity in education, we remain mindful of not just the diversity in school roles represented in our meetings, but also in the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of our members. Who comes—and who comes back is our most important piece of feedback.

At our meetings, we have elementary, middle, secondary, university, and pre-service educators in every discipline, coming from district, charter, and independent schools alike. Our members include social workers, specialists, school psychologists, office staff, paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, principals, and even parents. As four white women leading a book club concerning equity in education, we remain mindful of not just the diversity in school roles represented in our meetings, but also in the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of our members. Who comes—and who comes back is our most important piece of feedback. 

6. FEEDBACK MEANS TRUST

Feedback is a sign of trust and a distinct belief on the part of the person offering the feedback that their words will not drive the recipient to anger, silence, or the excuse-making rationalization of white fragility. Now, when people don’t offer their feedback, I worry. My role in Class Hacks has opened doors to countless conversations of great weight, and each has been an opportunity for me to both grow and (I hope) reciprocate the trust and patience offered to me. 

7. WE’RE NOT THAT FANCY 

There’s no such thing as Level 100 wokeness. You don’t get to beat the level after battling the big boss. We distribute no badges. We are all learners, and so are you.

We talk about equity. It can be intimidating if you’re coming in with a level of knowledge you feel may be incomparable with your peers. But here’s the secret: We’re all at the beginning of our journey. Coming with an open heart and mind is infinitely more important than coming with a bevy of knowledge. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the journey we are on—worming our way through the implicit biases that were implanted in our psyches during childhood, never actually ends. There’s no such thing as Level 100 wokeness. You don’t get to beat the level after battling the big boss. We distribute no badges. We are all learners, and so are you. 

8. SAY YES 

Early on, my co-facilitators and I decided that the best thing for us to do was to say “yes.” Yes, to partnerships, opportunities, and adventures. We have facilitated the book club at conferences, for elected officials interested in education, and more. This profession is unnecessarily siloed—by classroom, building, district—and often at the whim of political leaders without a boots-on-the-ground understanding of its complexities. Whatever we can do to break down those walls is a worthy endeavor. 

This profession is unnecessarily siloed—by classroom, building, district—and often at the whim of political leaders without a boots-on-the-ground understanding of its complexities. Whatever we can do to break down those walls is a worthy endeavor.

9. IF YOU BUILD IT (ONLINE), THEY WILL COME

The humble little shared Google Drive where we store each month’s discussion questions and notes might be the least maintained, but most visited online space that Class Hacks operates. It’s incredible! We have members bringing resources back to their own buildings, and visitors from across the country using our materials for their own book club discussions—and we invite you to do the same. 

10. PROVIDE CHILDCARE AND FOOD

Free childcare is always offered during Class Hacks, and my own two children are always there. Providing childcare means that Class Hacks is always a net loss for us financially, but we feel that it’s worth it in terms of equity and access. That emerged as a shared value early on in our planning process. As for food, Class Hack’s members break bread together, and this simple addition has transformed us into a family. 

If you are interested in reading, learning and growing with our little family of educators, come find us at www.classhacks.org or on Facebook and MeetUp. We offer continuing education units, childcare, and food, and we’d love to see you at our next meeting!

The Class Hacks book club for disruptive teachers is facilitated by myself, Cristina Benz, an equity coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools, Jen Goepfert, a school systems consultant for multiple districts across Minnesota and the author of the education blog Teacherly, and Jill Merkle, a Civics teacher at St. Louis Park High School. We meet on the third Tuesday of the month.

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