When I conduct workshops on leading book discussions, one of the things I ask my students to think about is how they would like the book discussion they are preparing to lead to actually turn out.  You can’t tell if you’ve achieved success with a project unless you have an idea of what that project would look like if it were successful.  This is harder to do if you are leading a group for the first time and you don’t know exactly who will participate and what they will bring to the discussion.  But if you are working with a familiar group, you will probably have some sense of how particular individuals will respond to certain characters, themes, and situations in the book, and so, whether the book will please them or offend them, and what the result of their reaction will be as far as contributing to the discussion.  Being able to predict some of the responses –if not precisely, at least generally — can help you to decide how you are going to try to move the discussion in terms of your questions. 

 I think it makes sense to try to imagine what the participants may expect from the discussion experience.  If you have some idea of what they are looking for, you will be better able to create that effect, and therefore provide them with a more satisfying discussion.  You quickly learn with a group what they like to talk about, and as long as it’s appropriate, that’s what you should be working to make happen. 

 In my own case, I want everyone in the group to participate — at least once during the discussion hour.  I also want individuals to talk one at a time, so everyone can be heard.  I want the group members to be courteous to each other, and listen, and respect each person’s right to contribute, even if they don’t agree with the comment.  I want there to be humorous moments, where people laugh and enjoy themselves.  I want the discussion to be lively, where people care very much about the opinions they are expressing, and also, care to hear the ideas of others in the group.  I want knowledge to be shared — not just what I bring in from researching the author or the reviews — but it’s especially wonderful when someone in the group can talk authoritatively about the book’s setting because they lived in that area at another time or when someone can tell us about actually meeting the author and sharing what that worthy individual is really like, up close and personal. 

These are probably many of the things the group members are hoping for, too.  I know most of all, they seek to be intellectually stimulated.  They like to be pushed to think, and to be urged to express themselves clearly and completely.  These are the characteristics of a satisfying book discussion, that contribute to the kind of experience participants are grateful for, and keep them coming back for more.



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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