Under Discussion: Literature Circles

P1010150Literature Circles are old hat now. English teachers everywhere–from the elementary grades through high school—use this strategy to group students by interest or by reading level. Harvey Daniels, who popularized the concept and brilliantly refined it, has published at least five books on the topic. How-to websites abound, and Pinterest is a rich resource for the props that go with establishing literature circles: the “role sheets,” question cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, choice boards, discussion guides, and rubrics.

I came to literature circles quite by accident sometime in the early 90s—before Harvey Daniels and before roles for participants in the circle had been devised. I am sure I was not alone in figuring out for myself what to do when faced with a wildly disparate group of students. All these years later, I’m still a believer in literature circles—and I encourage the use of Harvey Daniels’ role sheets (plus some of my own devising) although I’ve learned that some educators think the role sheets are limiting.

But that year, whichever year it was, I was still fairly new to teaching high school English. The course, called “Trails West,” featured books about the American West.  My class was hugely mixed in readiness and in student interests.  A few students, whom I’d had in Honors 9 English, consumed books like cookies and cake; others read poorly, infrequently, and under protest. The course was nine weeks long and the curriculum specified that the students would read three books within that time frame.

Essentially, I decided to teach thematically and, for the first unit, selected three books on aP1010623 single topic: The Western Hero (aka, the Epic Hero). The books I chose (from what was available in the bookroom) were The Virginian, the classic by Owen Wister that established the cowboy as an epic hero; True Grit, in which a young girl sets out with a grizzled old lawman to avenge her father’s murder; and Shane, a book about as close to the epic pattern as anyone could imagine. The second “unit” was about the pioneer experience; the third, the Native American experience.

Every three weeks, students chose the book they wanted to read (Miraculously, I thought, no one tried to “read down” and a few challenged themselves to “read up”). Initially, they met in groups of four or five to lay out a plan for the number of pages they’d read before the three meetings I had pre-established for them to convene and discuss the book. I supplied the questions for these meetings—the same ones for each group since the themes were the same—and in between meetings, the students read, kept a list of self-selected vocabulary words, did a mini-research project, and took direct instruction from me on topics related to the book or on other relevant English class topics.

I made bookmarks for everyone, with spaces for page numbers, so they could establish daily reading goals. They divided the number of pages in their book by the number of days to completion. Some kids didn’t need that—they could hardly put down a book they liked—but the reluctant readers enjoyed checking off the little boxes on their bookmarks that indicated they’d accomplished their 10 or 15 pages for the day. They might stop mid-chapter rather than read one more page, a mind-set I admit drove me crazy, but the bookmark served as a kind of time clock for them. When they’d completed their number of pages, they could congratulate themselves, check off a day on their bookmark, and close the book. The strategy worked. One boy, a junior, told me at the end of the year that Shane was the first book he’d read cover to cover in his entire schooling experience.

I’ve seen literature circles work when all the students are reading the same book and in Lucy, Henry, Taylorsituations like mine where students chose a text, based on their interests or their reading levels. I’ve seen literature circles work in subjects other than English and with articles rather than whole books. The online Encyclopedia Britannica presents leveled versions of its topics, and NEWSELA, a free online leveled reading site, (www.newsela.com) sends daily articles relevant to science, sports, history, the arts, current events—all kinds of subject areas—each article written at as many as four to five grade levels. The site also offers complete text sets on topics of interest to teachers of every discipline.

However you choose to implement literature circles, at the heart of the strategy is the discussion: Kids talk about what they have read. The questions the students ask and answer  go way beyond study guides and recall and comprehension recitation. Nowadays, I’d have them take turns making up their own questions, trading around the responsibility for being the discussion leader. Another person’s role is usually to summarize the pages under consideration so that everyone in the group has the facts right, but eventually, questions about the author’s purpose, concerns  about the motivation and credibility of characters, and conversations about style emerge.

Lit circles are more like adult book club conversations than teacher-directed Q and A. They’re effective at drawing students in because the conversations are genuine and everyone gets a chance to say what they think. They work as a vehicle, too, for developing fluency in academic conversation and for inculcating the manners that are necessary for civil discourse (Hence, the sentence starters and conversation rules you see on Pinterest).

I had good luck with lit circles with Honors students and struggling readers alike. In fact, my favorite memory from those Trails West days is of Pencilhead (see my blog post:       https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/pencilhead/), at that  time a reluctant reader and would-be class comedian, pulling his chair up to another group deep into discussion of the same book his group had already discussed: He wanted to hear more.

Literature Circles get kids to read more. Literature circles get them to talking more. What could be better?

_________

This post presumes you know all about Literature Circles. Perhaps you are just getting started or even still thinking about the idea. If so, here are some starter websites:

http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr259.shtml A straightforward explanation of Literature Circles—what they are, how they work, why they work.

http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/litcirclemodels.php Teaching suggestions including variations on the basic model of roles, role sheets, information on working with multi-leveled books.

http://www.litcircles.org/Overview/overview.html This site provides an overview of Literature Circles—structure, benefits, outcomes over time—in chart form.

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