Book Smarts

Using Book Studies to Create a Culture of Growth

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: May 16, 2022

Do you remember when you first walked the moors with Heathcliff? Did you journey down the Mississippi with Jim and Huck? How often did you retreat to the refuge of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe? Here at SchoolCEO, we love books. We believe in allowing ourselves to seek solace between pages, in the importance of learning new things, and in a story’s ability to start conversations. Our bet is you believe the same, that you already know books are critical for lifelong learning. But what does that look like when your learners aren’t your students, but your staff?

It’s no secret that it’s difficult to be in education right now—but maybe books can help. In Georgia’s Barrow County School System, a team of leaders is working through Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar. Barrow County’s principals meet in groups to discuss the book, which provides a practical framework for managing the stress educators face daily. Then, they take their learning back to their school teams. When it comes to making an intentional effort to integrate social-emotional learning, “we felt the best way to do that was to start with our adults,” one Barrow County team member says.

Chances are you’ve heard of or participated in a book study like this. Maybe it was great—or maybe it fell flat. Book studies may seem old hat at first, but we think they’re worth a fresh look. Here’s why: School professionals are burned out. More and more educators are asking for quality professional development. But even if that’s the solution to keeping educators on the payroll, individualized PD can be difficult to manage on a districtwide scale.

So why not lean into something you already love: books? Facilitating valuable learning for your staff doesn’t have to depend on expensive outsourcing. Creating a culture of growth can be simple. All it takes is a stack of books and the right approach.

Why book studies?

Lebanon Public School District in Connecticut has only 965 students total, so going off-site for PD is a challenge. “We try to learn from one another,” says superintendent Andrew Gonzalez. “We try to capitalize on one another as experts and leaders.”

When Gonzalez took his seat in Lebanon, he asked his administrators: What are you looking for from your superintendent? What are your own personal goals for growth? Then, he assigned each of his administrators a different book based on their answers.

At a retreat held inside the school library, Lebanon’s administrators each gave a 15-minute presentation on their assigned text. “Our meetings may not be formal professional development,” Gonzalez tells us, “but I do think there are informal opportunities for growth when you have the chance to learn from your teammates.”

While Gonzalez’s approach may be unconventional, the great thing about any book study is that the learning doesn’t stop at the door. When implemented well, book studies can spark ongoing conversations that thread their way into every part of your district. Lebanon, for example, held their district goal-planning sessions right after finishing their book studies. “Toward the end of the retreat, we segued into asking questions like: How does this learning connect to where we want to go?” Gonzalez says.

To have that ongoing conversation, though, you need more than just a great book—you need relationships. If you elect to have all the members of your study read the same book, you’re giving them a common language and common ideas to center around. You’re establishing a foundation for them to develop their own community.

If, like Gonzalez, you decide to have your participants read different texts, book clubs are still a great opportunity for team building. You might come armed with icebreakers, for example, or even just set aside five minutes for chatting. Books can be an avenue for approaching otherwise difficult conversations, and establishing relationships is crucial to creating an environment where everyone feels safe being vulnerable.

We know that sit-and-get learning isn’t effective for students, so why do we settle for it in our PD? Book studies are an easy way to elevate the learning of your staff while tailoring the content to your district’s specific needs. In fact, they’re so easy to implement that you could begin building a culture of growth in your own schools tomorrow.

Start smart.

As you plan your book study, your unique goals should determine whether you choose your text or your group members first. If you select your participants first, why not let them have a say in the book they read? In “Speaking Volumes: PD Through Book Studies,” researchers at the University of Tennessee compare professional book study experiences to traditional PD. Of their 12-member focus group, 10 said being able to choose the book they read was vital to a successful book study.

If you already have a book in mind that aligns to one of your district goals—great! You can still give your staff an element of choice by inviting only those who are interested in participating.

Listen and plan.

Just as you can ask participants for feedback on what to read, you can also ask what meeting structure will work best for everyone. For some staff members, meeting during planning time may be best. For others, after-school meetings might be preferable. Will it be mandatory to attend every meeting? Would your team prefer to discuss asynchronously using a tool like Google Classroom? Consulting your participants when making these decisions will help set your book study up for success.

Book studies can also be great opportunities to develop leadership skills in your staff. Try asking a staff member who wants to grow as a public speaker to lead a session, or rotate leaders week by week. Whatever your approach, it’s important to talk with your group about what makes a good facilitator. In their investigation of book studies, University of Tennessee researchers found that 80% of their focus group members mentioned facilitator impact. One participant said that “the facilitator did not dominate the discussion,” and another said that “the lack of rigid expectations allowed everyone to relax and feel comfortable enough to participate.”

While setting norms for your leaders is important, they’re not the only norms your book study will need. What are members expected to do before, during, and after meetings? What does it look like to come to a meeting prepared? How will you ensure the time you set aside for your book study remains protected?

The idea is to plan at the beginning, knowing you’ll have to adjust as you go. The more planning you do early on, the better. But remember: Consistency doesn’t mean inflexibility. Set your norms and adhere to them—but, as always, monitor and adjust.

Keep it fun.

Now, for the best part: holding your book study! As you get started, keep in mind that as excited as you might be, expecting your readers to show up eager to participate could be a mistake. For many, speaking during discussions can be intimidating. Try to think of ways to lighten the atmosphere and get everyone talking.

Luckily for you, the members of your book study are educators. Recognize them as a resource and lean into their pedagogical skills. Before your first meeting, try asking the administrators and teachers around you for their best facilitation techniques. How do they develop strong questions? What strategies can liven up discussions when no one is engaged? Push yourself to make every book study session meaningful—or even invite another participant to facilitate every now and then.

Plus, asking your staff for facilitation strategies serves a twofold purpose. Think back to Gonzalez’s approach with his administrators in Lebanon. Assigning unique texts was a way to differentiate learning for his administrators. Having them teach one another about their reading is a great example of “jigsaw,” a cooperative learning strategy in which participants master different topics to bring back to the whole group. Gonzalez’s administrators weren’t just learning about best practices; they were practicing best practices.

The more engaging your book study is, the more your staff will learn—and they’ll walk back into their schools and classrooms stronger because of it.

Don’t let it fizzle out.

Unfortunately, a lot of PD never goes beyond the projector clicking off or the book snapping shut. We get busy, we get tired, and we fall back into the same old practices. Why is that so often the case? And how can you prevent it?

“Teachers often complain about PD that is too theoretical and not usable in the classroom,” write Patricia Sturko and James Gregson in their article “Teachers as Adult Learners: Reconceptualizing PD.” With such full plates already, your staff should never walk away feeling overwhelmed. Instead, they should feel encouraged by new ideas and tools. According to Sturko and Gregson, “they want practical strategies and ideas that they can immediately apply in their practice.”

But relevance alone isn’t enough. When it comes to application, specificity is the name of the game. “Most professional learning design still tends to leave the responsibility for application of ideas to participants,” says Allison Rodman, founder of educational consulting group The Learning Loop. “Teachers need prompts and activities that encourage them to grapple with strategies, learn from implementation gaps, and make new practices their own.” According to Rodman, “a critical part of the professional learning design process—and one that is often overlooked—is defining what between-session application will look like.”

So if you really want your book study to be successful, be explicit about how your participants can implement what they’re learning. Then, follow up. Checking back in with your participants shows them that the book study is an effective use of their time. “Time is so valuable to people,” Gonzalez tells us. “If you want your staff to invest and dedicate a lot of effort and time, you have to follow up. If you don’t set up systems for continuous feedback, for check-ins and reflective opportunities, no one is going to buy in fully.”

The right approach to application, follow-up, and reflection will ensure that your participants get as much out of your book study as possible. You can even invite your participants to discuss their experiences at meetings and brainstorm how to improve in the future.

Model growth

Encouraging curiosity, honing best practices, and developing relationships around a shared love of learning will empower your educators to lean into challenges. Book studies not only do this, but they can also help you build strong, individualized PD—without breaking the bank.

Schools across the country are working with wildly insufficient resources. But the most valuable resource in your district—your staff—has the potential to make quality learning available to everyone.

As Lebanon’s administration settled in for their book study retreat, Gonzalez himself came ready to discuss his chosen book: Learning from Lincoln by Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins. Gonzalez assigned himself this book based on his own goals and what his staff told him they wanted from a superintendent. “I’m challenging myself to grow and be a model of continuous improvement,” he tells us. Gonzalez read about and reported on Lincoln’s lack of experience and his need to lean on those around him in order to lead most effectively.

Educators deserve to be recognized as experts who are integral to student success. Effective book studies give them the chance to learn from and teach one another, all while doing something they love: reading. So go ahead. Crack open a book, indulge your love of learning, and have the hard conversations. Book studies can be powerful. And when you use them well, you’re affirming that the professional growth of your staff is important, good educators are valuable, and lifelong learning is necessary—for everyone.


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