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The art of moderation. (books N clubs).

Diane Brooks has attended all but one of the monthly meetings of the Sisters Reading Club of Dayton, Ohio, since joining in 1999. An enthusiastic participant in the group's book discussions, Brooks wanted to do more than simply talk about the group's selection, Pipe Dream, a debut novel by Philadelphia author Solomon Jones, after reading it. "I wanted to moderate that book discussion," she says.

Brooks, who is affectionately known as the chatterbox by her fellow club members, muttered to herself, "How difficult could moderating a book discussion be?" Very difficult, she discovered. "I thought it would be a breeze, but it's definitely not easy," says Brooks. "There's an art to leading a book discussion. It's much harder than it looks."

The Moderator

In most discussion groups, the moderator is also the discussion leader, or the facilitator. That person launches the book discussion and keeps the conversation flowing. For a "chatterbox" like Brooks, directing the dialogue was a major problem. "Somehow the conversation got away from me," she explains. "Before I knew it, we were having a totally different book discussion."

To avoid having the discussion go astray, a skilled moderator reels in long-winded group members and engages less talkative ones. The moderator thoroughly reviews the reading selection, keeping track of dates, names, places and specific story details that may escape other group members. The success of a book discussion does not depend entirely on the moderator; but as the person responsible for facilitating the conversation, the moderator can influence how smoothly the group discussion runs.

Choosing Talking Heads

Though Brooks volunteered to moderate the book discussion for Pipe Dream, other reading groups employ different methods. Some use the "you-name-it-you-claim-it" method, in which the member who recommends the book moderates the discussion. With the "pass-the-hat" method, discussion questions are tossed into a hat, bag or similar object, and group members pick a question as the hat is passed around the room. Some groups ask each member to submit at least one question to the group for the discussion. Other groups select a single member to moderate all the discussions. Other reading groups rotate the task among members, or the meeting host serves as the discussion moderator. At some reading groups, the "jump right in" approach is extremely popular because everyone feels free to jump into the conversation at any time.

Preparing for the Book Chat

Before she led the book talk, Brooks took plenty of notes, read many of the passages twice, and analyzed pages of text and dialogue until she fully understood the story. "I had to read differently to moderate the discussion," she says. "Reading for myself and reading to moderate a discussion are two totally different reading experiences. I wasn't prepared for that fact."

As Brooks soon discovered, there's much more to moderating than simply reading a book in its entirety. In preparing for a discussion, a moderator should:

* Obtain background information on the author and tell the group about other books written by the author. You may also want to point out other resources for additional information on the book or the author.

* Avoid questions that elicit yes or no answers.

* Formulate specific questions as you read the book. Although questions provided for reading groups or posted on the publisher's website are helpful, a moderator should never rely on them to get the group talking.

* Listen closely to the conversation and pick up on ideas that pop up in the discussion. Doing so may uncover fresh topics for evaluation.

* If someone in the group is an expert on a particular subject, recognize that person and tap into their expertise.

* Engage all the book-club members, especially those who refuse to read the book. Although it can be a major irritant to group discussions, the person who doesn't read the book probably has a specific reason for doing so. Does the reader find the subject matter upsetting? Is the book written by an author the person dislikes? In the hands of a seasoned moderator, these issues may very well lead your book club to a heady discussion.


To evaluate your skills, ask yourself the following questions after you've moderated a book discussion.

1. What areas of my performance could I have improved upon? (e.g., preparing for the task, engaging group members, providing background information, etc.)

2. Did I uncover hidden layers of the story that would have led the group down a different path? If so, what other topics of conversation could I have explored?

3. In guiding the conversation, did I bring everyone into the discussion? Did I hear from most of the participants, including that reticent member sitting in the corner? Did I steer the conversation away from topics not related to the book, and reel in those long-winded members?

4. Did the group understand and easily respond to my questions, or were they reluctant as if I was pulling their teeth?

5. Am I better at moderating a certain genre than some others?

6. Did I consider how people would connect with the book on a human level, and bring that element to the foreground of discussion?

7. How did I really feel when I moderated the discussion?

8. How do I think others perceived me?

9. Did this feel like fun or more like work?

10. Is this something I would like to do again?

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Article Details
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Author:Houser, Pat
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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