Creating a Successful "Girls with Grit" Book Club for Elementary Students—with Teacher Michelle Gajda

Recently I had the incredible experience of meeting with teacher Michelle Gajda’s Girls with Grit Book Club at Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont, Massachusetts. What a dedicated teacher and an amazing group of girls! They were so excited to talk about the trailblazing women they had explored during their fall meetings. It became immediately clear that this book club not only inspired and empowered these students, it changed them in a meaningful way. So I asked Michelle to share with us the ins and outs of creating a successful book club for elementary students.

Meeting with Michelle Gajda and her Girls with Grit Book Club!

Meeting with Michelle Gajda and her Girls with Grit Book Club!

Why did you decide to start a Girls with Grit Book Club?
I have a passion for children’s books, women’s history and bringing the love of books and reading to children. I teach at a school with a very low socio-economical population. Our students have limited access to technology and certain life experiences that most children take for granted (i.e. going to the beach, visiting new places, flying in an airplane, continuing their education, etc). I wanted to find a way to broaden their horizons and have them realize all of the possibilities available to them in the world. I also wanted them to know that they were not limited by their surroundings or experiences. Reading about women who had accomplished all of those objectives, seemed like a great place to begin! A book club where we read solely for the love of reading and learning! I am also lucky enough to work in a school where our librarian, Mary Boehmer, has the same passions as I do, so I had her weekly support and help.

Who did you invite to join? When and how often did you meet?
Because I wanted the members of the book club to be able to independently read about the women of their choice each week, I invited boys and girls in grades 3-6. Our club this year ended up being all girls.

We met after school for one hour, once a week, for what was originally planned to be 8 weeks. Our members enjoyed it so much and we had so many more women we wanted to learn about that we extended it to 10 weeks! Next year, I will definitely plan to meet longerat least one and a half hours each week. Running the club during the first quarter of the school year worked well, since it didn’t compete with after-school spring sports or have any weather cancelations.

How did you obtain funding?
My school district is lucky enough to have an organization that offers teachers the opportunities to apply for grant money to help us offer projects and activities to our students that our regular school budget does not allow for (which is quite a lot!) I was awarded a grant for $240 to get the book club up and running. This was to cover the cost of purchasing some of the books and journals that we used. The rest of the book club was personally funded. If I had not already raised money online to fund an All-School Read project, I would have used online fundraising such as CrowdRise or GoFundMe.

Book club members create a giant "graffiti wall"

Book club members create a giant "graffiti wall"

How did you structure meetings?
My original plans were to “study” a particular topic/field each week, such as women of science, history, sports, education, environmental concerns, politics, civil rights, arts and culture, and adventure. Books would be grouped by topic/field so that each week, members would choose what woman they wanted to read about in that particular week’s field. I soon realized one “topic” often took up to 2-3 weeks!! 

Most of the books I had available to them were picture books so they were easily read in a shorter amount of time. I also had chapter books in my collection and the members were encouraged to take the books home with them to continue reading about any of the women who interested them.  Each week, I also planned activities for them. At the end of each meeting, all of the members came together to share what they had learned in their readings. This was often a time of great discussion and eye-opening moments!

Some of our activities included:

The girls  begin work on their "I Am" vision boards

The girls  begin work on their "I Am" vision boards

  • Each week after reading about their chosen “girl with grit”, I printed images of the woman they had learned about. The members glued them onto black paper silhouettes of themselves (that we made during our first meeting) and using a white colored pencil, wrote the woman’s name and what she was known for under the image. I wanted the girls to have a connection between themselves and all of the women who had blazed a path for them.
     
  • Each week, the girls added information to a journal. After they read about the woman they had chosen, they would draw a picture of the woman and add the statement: “Because of _______________, I can_____________. " For example: "Because of Mary Anning, I can become an archeologist and search for dinosaur bones.”  Again, I wanted them to see what doors have been opened to them.
     
  • During the week that we focused on female inventors, the members created a giant “graffiti wall” that was spray painted with black paint. Using metallic markers and glitter gel pens, they wrote the woman’s name, what they invented and drew a picture of it. They proudly presented their “wall” during an all-school meeting.
     
  • At the end of each meeting, the members looked through magazines and cut out positive words, phrases and pictures that they thought best exemplified them. They used these to create an “I Am” vision board from artist canvas, paint and modge podge.

What were the most successful elements of the club?
By far, the most successful part of our book club was our visit from Heather Lang! The members knew that one of our last meetings would be with an author who had written specifically about Girls with Grit. Teachers in the school each sponsored one of the members and provided them with one of Heather’s books that could be signed and that they could take home to add to their own personal libraries!

I could not have been prouder of how poised each member was during Heather’s visit! Their questions and contributions to everything Heather presented to them and discussed with them was so very satisfying. One of the members said “I can’t believe I actually own a book that is signed by an author who I got to speak with”. I know that her life was forever changed by that one event! I could see it in her eyes and it still gives me goosebumps thinking about it!!

Some book club members share their completed "I Am" vision boards

Some book club members share their completed "I Am" vision boards

How do you think the club impacted its members?
There was not a week that went by where one of the girls didn’t say, “I didn’t know that girls/women couldn’t do that?” One of the members is an avid baseball player and she was shocked to learn that girls were not always allowed to play baseball, either on a girls’ team (because they didn’t exist) or a mixed team (because it wasn’t allowed)! We had some wonderful discussions about the opportunities available to them now. Many of the careers chosen by the women were new to the members (shark scientist, ocean floor mapping, etc.)

It was also a wonderful learning opportunity for me! I was learning right alongside the members each week. When questions came up that were not answered in the books, we researched together and shared. There is something to be said about reading and learning simply for the love of it...and unfortunately, this is too often NOT the case in schools.

I can truly say that the members of the Girls with Grit Book Club learned so much that will stay with them from this after-school book club experience. One of the members gave me a very sweet Christmas card that said “I am so glad you are going to do the Girls with Grit book club again next year. I loved it so much”…from a teacher’s point of view, it doesn’t get much better than that!