Part I: Creating Your Group

Ana Contreras
Julia Delacroix

Before You Begin: The Planning Committee

Getting the Right Folks and the Right Data to the Table

Once you’ve decided to start a social justice reading group, it’s tempting to jump right into conversations with young people about the fights for social justice that are happening around them every day. But you’re reading this guide because you want to establish a group that will be sustainable in your community, something that will bring families, educators and students together to think critically about these topics for years to come. Building such a space takes time and attention. 

When you bring everyone together for your first community meeting, it’s crucial to have the right people at the table. A planning committee of interested parents, guardians and educators can ensure your group includes as many families as possible. As you form your planning committee, ask yourself: Whose voice might be missing from this conversation? Does the planning committee reflect the demographics of our community? 

If not, pause and find a way to include all necessary voices. 

Once you’ve assembled your planning committee, meet together to prepare for the first community meeting. The recommendations in this section—and the workbook activities that accompany them—provide a roadmap for planning a reading group that prioritizes inclusion and access.

In your planning committee meeting, you will: 

  • Discuss group standards and best practices of successful reading groups.
  • Plan and schedule the community meeting.
  • Create a publicity and outreach plan.

Group Standards

Organizers of effective, sustainable groups hold themselves and their members to some common standards. In these groups: 

  • Ideas are generated by children and adults together. 
  • Participation is accessible. 
  • The work is equitable. 
  • The work is challenging. 

Approaching this work carefully and thoughtfully and working together to set goals, plan meetings and select texts will help you build a group that lives up to these standards. 

Activity A: Read more about and discuss best practices. 

Planning the Community Meeting

For your group to succeed, you’ll need as many families to participate as possible. Think about what you’ll need to know to ensure accessibility to all families at your school. Consider transportation, availability, translation needs and so on. Planning ahead can help you anticipate and avoid problems with access.

Activity B: Evaluate your needs and schedule your first community meeting.

Publicity and Outreach

Key to a successful reading group is shared decision-making and planning. Before your community meeting, you’ll need to spread the word about your reading group, encourage educators and families to attend and get feedback from future group members (including children) who won’t be at the meeting. Think critically about outreach and publicity; make sure you are making the appropriate effort to invite participation from across the entire school community. 

Activity C: Create your publicity and outreach plan. 

Getting Started: The Community Meeting

Building the Framework for Your Reading Group

As you begin your community meeting, consider how you’ll manage your time today. Agree on the length of today’s meeting and how much of the guide you intend to cover. You will probably need to plan for follow-up meetings or alternative means of completing the planning process. 

Don’t pressure yourself to hurry; it’s more important to follow the process with everyone’s voice heard than to finish in one sitting. 

In your community meeting(s), you will:

  • Establish group standards and agreements for conversations in your reading group.
  • Select and assign group roles and responsibilities.
  • Decide on a structure for your reading group.
  • Set content goals for your reading group.
  • Set literacy goals for your reading group.
  • Begin the text selection process.
  • Discuss organization for your reading group and review possible agendas.

Standards and Agreements

You can begin by reviewing some standards shared by most successful community reading groups. Organizers of effective, sustainable groups hold themselves and their members to some common standards. In these groups: 

  • Ideas are generated by children and adults together. Educators and family members may help structure meetings or conversations, but children are full participants. Everyone involved has the opportunity to select topics, plan agendas and lead the group. 
  • Participation is accessible. The most successful groups make it as easy as possible for members of the school community to participate. Consider questions like: How often will our group meet? Will we hold meetings at a time and place that work with family schedules? 
  • The work is equitable. Labor—the planning and leading of sessions but also the intellectual labor of participating and sharing during meetings—should not fall disproportionately on any person or group. For example, the group should not rely on people of color to lead conversations about race and racism. Equitable division of labor also means the success of the group isn’t dependent on any one member. 
  • The work is challenging. While the mere act of bringing communities together has great value, a social justice reading group exists to expand the knowledge and understanding of all participants. In the most successful reading groups, members call one another in and challenge everyone—families, educators and students—to learn and grow together.

Activity 1: Establish your group standards and agreements. 

Learn more about “calling in” via the feature story “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down.”

Group Roles

When school or library staff and families work together to manage the group, work is shared, and children observe the value of relying on diverse decision-makers from across the community. How can you build investment among members of the group and the support staff in your school and district? How can you ensure that the work—and the ownership—of your group is equitably distributed? One way to divide labor is to identify group roles. These might include:

  • Communications Manager(s)
  • Text Manager
  • Plan Manager
  • Scheduler
  • School or Library Partner Manager

Activity 2: Establish your group roles. 

Group Structure

There are any number of ways you can organize your social justice reading group, and you’ll want to develop a structure that works for your community. You might begin by thinking of who will be participating in your meetings:

  • Whole-group meetings include children, parents, guardians or caretakers, and educators.
  • Class meetings include children and educators.
  • Home meetings include children and their parents, guardians or caretakers.

Your group needn’t limit itself to just one type of meeting—in fact, talking through texts and ideas with different people in different settings can be an excellent way for children to build their understanding and their communication skills. When structuring your group, you can build on the meeting types that work for your community. These four structures are popular starting points:

Collective Reading Groups

Collective social justice reading groups have one type of meeting: whole-group meetings during which families, children and educators gather to discuss a text or topic. 

Class Reading Groups

In class reading groups, there are two types of meetings—class and whole-group—with the majority of the meetings taking place in class. After children have had several meetings with one another and their educators, a whole-group meeting brings children, families and educators together to share an activity or two and a discussion about the topic.

Home Reading Groups

In home reading groups, there are two types of meetings—home and whole-group—with the majority of the meetings taking place at home. During home meetings, children and their families meet and read together about the topic being discussed in class. 

Families and children may work together on reading activities, but their work isn’t connected with the work of others in the community until the whole-group meeting. At the final, whole-group meeting, all members meet together to share their learning.

Parallel Reading Groups

Parallel reading groups typically consist of all three types of meetings—class, home and whole-group—with the majority of the meetings taking place in class and at home. During class meetings, children read and talk with one another and with their educators, sharing elements from their home discussions, if relevant. During home meetings, children read and talk with their families, sharing elements from their school discussion, if relevant. These meetings often happen in the same week or even on the same day.

Although families work independently for most of the parallel reading group, you can get creative about how participants connect and share their learning with one another after and between meetings. At the conclusion of a parallel reading group, there is a whole-group meeting during which all members meet together to share their learning.

When choosing a structure, you’ll need to balance between the value of shared discussion time and the need for accessibility. In particular, consider how many group meetings are reasonable to build into your plan. Be sure to include any feedback the planning committee has collected from families unable to attend this meeting.

Collective reading groups offer the most opportunities for shared discussion, but they also require significant time commitments from families and may not be accessible to everyone. Class reading groups offer few opportunities for shared discussion but may be easier for families to commit to. Parallel and home groups fall somewhere in the middle. 

Keep in mind that these recommendations aren’t set in stone—you’ll want to adjust them as needed for your community. But whatever structure you choose, you’ll want to consider how you can ensure that no children are excluded, regardless of family involvement. 

Activity 3: Establish your group structure. 

Read about a social justice reading group in action! See the feature “Reading Together” in the Spring 2019 issue of Teaching Tolerance.

Social Justice Learning Goals

You wouldn’t draw blueprints for a building without knowing whether you were building a school, a home or a store. Likewise, you don’t want to start planning the content of your meetings before you’ve agreed on the purpose of your social justice reading group. The best goals answer one simple question: By the end of your reading group, what do you want participants to know and be able to do? 

You might think of goal-setting as a three-step process: selecting a topic, connecting it to social justice and establishing a clear, narrow learning goal.

1. Select one or more topics.
You’ve probably come into this group with ideas of what you’d like to discuss. Selecting a topic is a great starting point. 

Activity 4: Select a few topics. 

2. Connect to social justice learning.
A good place to begin when setting specific content goals for a social justice reading group is the Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards, 20 specific goals for social justice learning grouped under four domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. 

Activity 5: Read and discuss the Social Justice Standards.

3. Establish your social justice learning goals.
The last step is to develop clear goals that bring your topic into conversation with the Social Justice Standards. To illustrate how the different standards can shape our approach to a topic, we can look at the familiar story of Rosa Parks. At its most basic, Parks’ story is this: 

In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, black people were required to give up their seats on a bus and either move to the back or stand if white people requested to sit down. When a white bus driver told civil rights activist Rosa Parks to vacate her seat, she refused. She was arrested. In protest, black people in Montgomery boycotted the public buses for more than a year. Some people filed lawsuits against the racist laws that led to Parks’ arrest. Ultimately, the laws segregating public buses were overturned. The boycott and the lawsuits worked. 

  • Focusing our discussion through the Identity domain, we might think about race, about how Parks’ race was one of the identities (along with the identities of woman, Southerner, activist and so on) that shaped her experiences. We might also ask how her identity fit with the identity of others at the same time.
  • Focusing our discussion through the Diversity domain, we might ask how the experiences of white people and black people might have been different in Montgomery in the 1950s and how they’re different today.
  • Focusing our discussion through the Justice domain, we might ask why transportation segregation existed in the first place, why Parks was asked to move, why she was arrested and whether the law that led to her arrested was a just one. We might ask about which laws we see today that are unjust. 
  • Focusing our discussion through the Action domain, we might ask how Parks worked as a civil rights leader in a larger movement, how her protest connected to that larger movement, how people supported the demand for desegregation, what finally led to change and what actions we can take when we see injustice. 

Activity 6: Establish your social justice learning goals.

For more information, including breakdowns of how the standards look for students in different grade levels, click here

Literacy Learning Goals

While learning about social justice is the primary goal for your reading group, you will still want to think carefully about the types of texts you want to read and how you’ll read them.

  • What voices do you want to include? What genres? 
  • Will you be reading in a group or individually? Aloud or silently? 
  • What scaffolding will you use? How will you support young readers?

As with your content goals, you may want to use literacy standards to help guide your group planning. Ideally, these choices support what’s happening in the classroom and can build on standards that students are already working on in class. (This is a great way to bring more teachers into the collaboration and get their buy-in!)

Think about the speaking, listening, reading and writing skills you want students to practice and why. The texts and activities you select should support these goals. 

Activity 7: Establish your literacy goals.

Text Selection

Choosing texts is one of the most fun parts of planning a reading group, but it can also be one of the most challenging. When selecting texts, you’ll need to consider the relationship between your texts, your learning goals and your group members. You might think of text selection as a three-step process: determining your needs, gathering prospective texts and checking the texts.

A note about “text.” Because each reading group will be a little different, some will discuss books while others discuss articles, stories, chapters, essays, poems, videos, audio clips, cartoons or even songs. The term “text” is used throughout this guide as a catch-all term to describe the reading, listening or viewing experiences that participants plan to discuss. 

1. Decide on your group’s needs.
Before you begin selecting texts, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss a few very general questions about the kinds of texts you’re looking for. Your reading group members may have different reading levels, different home languages or different accessibility needs. Remember that there are many ways to organize a social justice reading group, and the key is finding a structure—and finding texts—that work for your members. 

Activity 8: Decide on your group’s needs. 

2. Pull together a list of books based on topic and reading level.
There are several ways to go about setting a reading list. You might consult with staff members in your school or district library. You might make use of online text libraries. Or you might review online book lists. 

Activity 9: Develop a text list. 

3. Narrow your list based on your learning goals and your group members.
After you’ve established a list of suitable books, it’s time to narrow. Generally, children’s books are written with some kind of “moral” in mind: to look on the bright side, for example, or be kind to others. Social justice children’s books are similar in that they typically fall into two categories: They work toward reducing prejudice (reflected in the Identity and Diversity domains) or toward encouraging collective action (reflected in the Justice and Action domains).  

While much children’s literature honors identity, values diversity, prioritizes justice and encourages action, there are also plenty of children’s books that reinforce stereotypes. You might divide the responsibility, asking group members to evaluate possible texts for alignment with the Social Justice Standards and with the identities, experiences and knowledge of group members.

Educators often discuss texts using the metaphors of “mirrors” and “windows” (a term coined by educator and scholar Emily Style). Texts that are “mirrors” reflect our own identities and experiences back to us. Those that are “windows” offer a view of identities and experiences different from our own. Many texts are both “mirrors” and “windows.” Because identity is intersectional, readers can sometimes find their identities reflected in a text, even if their experiences aren’t. Keep in mind the range of identities in your group—identities such as age, gender, ability, race, ethnicity, religion and more—as you select your texts. 

Activity 10: Narrow your list.

The Learning for Justice Student Text Library 
Free to access through (log in after creating a free account), the Student Text Library includes student-friendly short texts, images, videos and audio files, all leveled and accompanied by text-dependent questions. Users can search by grade level, topic, text type and social justice domain. Tier I and Tier II vocabulary words are also clearly identified within each text. 

Planning Your Meetings

Now that you’ve developed a clear framework for your group, you’re ready to start planning meetings. Every group’s whole-group meeting will look different depending on its content, literacy goals and group structure. To wrap up your community meeting, plan your logistics and then work together as a group to complete a sample meeting agenda.

1. Plan your logistics.
There are a few logistical questions that every group can answer before setting the agendas for their meetings: 

  • Who will lead each meeting? A key benefit of reading groups is that they offer the opportunity for students and family members to take the lead in discussions and share their knowledge with educators. They also offer the chance for children to practice leadership skills. Most groups find it efficient to have the group leader for each meeting also plan the activities for that meeting.
  • When and where will your group meet? It may be helpful to consider your community meeting—what changes (if any) could be made to ensure that all families in your group will be able to attend your regular, whole-group meeting(s)?
  • Will there be reading time at your meeting? Reading before the meeting allows more time for discussion, and reading one-on-one with family can also benefit children building their literacy skills. However, if children and families don’t have time to read before the meeting, the discussion may not be as rich. On the other hand, for parents and guardians with busy schedules, it may be preferable to meet a little longer and read together rather than to require reading before the meeting.

Activity 11: Set logistics for group meetings.

2. Plan a meeting.
Many groups leave it to the meeting leader or facilitator to set the agenda for each meeting. However, you may want to plan one or more whole-group meetings together to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute. In the workbook, you’ll find recommendations for activities you can try during your meetings and templates you can use to plan meetings for each of the four group structures. You’ll also find recommendations for which template(s) you can complete together for practice.

Activity 12: Plan activities and a sample group meeting.

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