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?

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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.

Project Runway

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  • Betsey Johnson
  • Calvin Klein
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Anna Sui

Just a few of the names that top the list of celebrity fashion designers.

Fashion is a consuming interest for many high school students, and these are names that brand-conscious teenagers recognize. They’re eager to know more about the industry itself, and for most, the first step is learning to sew.

But here’s a deplorable fact: In many parts of the country, sewing is no longer taught in school.

The rationale? People don’t sew any more. The implication being, who would want to?

Yet, every year at Harrison High School in Lafayette, Indiana, teacher Michelle Coors’ students pull off a runway show that has become an event in the community.  This year, the 28 students in her Fashion and Textile Careers classes took this complex project–the runway show–from an idea in their minds to a full-scale fashion production. On a mid-December evening, 137 different models paraded 159 designs on a 52-foot runway in front of parents, peers, and well-wishers. Stage lights illuminated the runway, and during the show, music and explanatory slides played in the background. This year, every seat in the house was taken and scores of attendees crowded into the little standing room that remained.

I was one of those people standing in the back. I had come to support my colleague, whose classroom I had visited many times and whose students I had photographed as they used a computer program to design wardrobes for “paper dolls”; as they cut cloth for the first time for pants, capes, and tote bags; and as they worked on their fashion merchandising research projects. Cutting fabric

Fortunately for our school district, most of our middle school teachers still have sewing machines and incorporate the fundamentals of construction into their curriculum (License to Sew). In addition, some students learn to sew through 4-H or learn at home from their parents. But about one-third of the students who enroll in Mrs. Coors’ classes do not have prior sewing experience, so she accommodates her instruction to reach students with a range of skills. Students who have never sewn before make tote bags and basic “fancy pants” in the Textiles and Fashion Foundation course first, and then they’re ready for the Fashion and Textile Careers class, the one that puts on the runway show.

HHS2014fashionshow_140Mrs. Coors offers her advanced class students the opportunity to create a magazine, a video, a movie—but they always choose the runway show. That means designing and constructing the fashions; finding the models; planning the lights, the music, and PowerPoint backdrop; constructing the runway; creating the programs; handling the publicity; arranging for a photographer; setting up for the program and taking everything down at the end.

Effective educators are skilled at organization, multi-tasking, differentiating, and sequencing instruction so that every student learns the skill he or she needs just as having that skill becomes a necessity. In Mrs. Coors’ classes, where the comfort level with needles and thread, bobbins and the presser foot varies from student to student, one-size-fits-all lessons will not work. Mrs. Coors plans her instruction so that students are always busy and on task, not all doing the same thing, but all engaged in a construction project appropriate to his or her skill level. Some of the students’ designs are simple; others are more complex. But the students are relaxed, self-confident, and engaged—after all, they are working on a project they have designed themselves, and they meet with success regularly.

And if they aren’t in the midst of a hands-on sewing project, the students are working on their Career Snapshot binder, a research project that more than meets the standards for Literacy in Technical Subjects, another layer of learning required in every subject area across the curriculum.

Students identify a specific fashion industry career that interests them and then explore that job and the  allied careers—the professionals whose job description and skills they’d need to know and rely upon to be successful at their own. I looked at some of these binders: pages of writing, including a reflective piece at the end.

IMG_1768 Croquis DrawingEach binder includes photographs and freehand drawings that illustrate the development of the students’ final design from inspiration to croquis drawing (those sketches of models with elongated—10 heads high—legs, the industry standard) to the sewn item on an actual model.

After the runway show ended, after the stage was disassembled, after the designers had collected their clothes from the models (Some let the models keep them!), the accolades poured in. And for 10 of the young designers, a contract: A local philanthropic organization commissioned them to recreate their “line” to be featured at another runway show, this one to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.WishGala.Poster2015

So, don’t tell Michelle Coors or her students that “no one sews anymore.” Indeed they do, and this Project-Based Learning class more than illustrates the career opportunities that are open to  people with skills in garment design and construction.  In fact, it’s only February, but already many of these students have been accepted into prestigious art and design schools across the country.

Not to mention this: When the audience applauds and the photographer’s flash captures the models showing off the work of these young and aspiring designers, it’s a source of genuine pride for everyone involved.  For that night, Harrison High School students are the celebrity designers–and who knows what will happen in the afterglow?

 

 

The Right Fit

One night this past week I awoke at 2 A.M. thinking about the Parts of Speech Notebook I produced when I was in the 7th grade. Sounds like a school kid’s nightmare. But it wasn’t—then or now. In fact, for me, it was quite the opposite.

The Parts of Speech Notebook was, naturally, eight pages long. Mine was bound in a green presentation folder with brass fasteners. Each page was labeled at the top—Noun, Pronoun, Verb, etc.—and illustrated with words and pictures cut from magazines and glued down with white library paste. Mine was messy and aesthetically unpleasing, I am sure (I was not a neat child), but no matter. The task served its purpose: Suddenly, unexpectedly, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, sticky with paste and covered with the colorful confetti that cut-up magazines generate, I got it. Parts of speech, I mean.

What I remember is that electrifying moment of revelation when all the bits of information (not the paper) coalesced and the whole thing made sense. And then came the worry that my grasp on the topic would slip. Did I really understand? Could I rely on this new knowledge? Would the clarity continue? I remember reciting the definitions over and over again in my head. Yes! The mystery had evaporated!

Next day, I sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of my junior high school, raced through the classroom door with my finished notebook, and nearly knocked over my teacher, Mrs. Moeller, a rather stern individual who was, I thought, as old as Methuselah’s wife, demanding that she affirm my brilliance—and more importantly—share the excitement of my epiphany. I remember that she did.

Once I had the building blocks, the rest of it came easy—sentence patterns, clauses, phrases, verbals. I caught on quickly to diagramming—we did that in my day—and eventually I became an English teacher.

But this is not a story about a 7th grade assignment sparking my career—heaven knows, I had been on the path to becoming a teacher since I’d learned to read. Nor is it a story about how a single teacher sparked my love of English—no, I already loved English when I entered Mrs. Moeller’s class. Rather, it’s a story about a galvanizing moment in my education and how it happened and what I hope for, for every child in every classroom: Revelations that last.

I have been thinking a lot lately about differentiation, the term we use in the education world to describe the purposeful design of instruction to meet the varied needs of our diverse clientele. That is, the need to provide instruction that will help all kids have “notebook moments.”

No doubt some of the kids in my class understood the parts of speech just by reading about them in the textbook and identifying them in sentences. Some had luck with the “drill and kill” workbook that accompanied the text. For some, diagramming—that elaborate and either cherished or despised graphic organizer—did it. And for others, like me, it was the notebook. Today we’d label all that cutting and pasting a “hands-on” learning experience, designed for kids who are kinesthetic learners—the ones who can’t sit still, the ones who need to touch things and move them about, the ones who like to learn by doing.

I can’t begin to know if Mrs. Moeller was ahead of her time in realizing that not all children learn the same way. Did she know instinctively that children have learning preferences, ways of comprehending information that are as complex and various as children themselves?  Maybe she required the notebooks because she was tired of grading papers or maybe just because she thought they’d be “fun.” I rather doubt it was the latter, remembering Mrs. Moeller, but whatever her motivation or pedagogical reason, the notebook was the right fit for me.

As teachers, we’ve been schooled for a long time in the need to structure tasks that appeal to visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners, but differentiating our instruction is so much more than that. These days we think about grouping strategies, about whether a child understands things that are laid out logically and sequentially or understands them in non-linear ways, about attention spans, about creativity and conformity, about reflective learners versus action-oriented kids. We think about multiple intelligences and ask ourselves if a student is analytical or verbal or musical or artistic. We even think about the learning environment we create in our classrooms and the impact our seating arrangement might have on our students. Round tables encourage collaboration, but not every child wants to work in groups. Rows represent order and calm—but they can stifle learning for very social students.

The task of the teacher is to know every child’s learning profile well—and then to capture each student at the point of readiness and offer content that challenges but is not too much of a stretch to be defeating. Of course, we have to interest students in the first place in the topic we are studying or the skill that we are teaching. An uninterested student won’t learn much and won’t carry the lesson beyond the classroom walls or past the perfunctory quiz on Friday.

Knowing the students, structuring the lesson and designing activities that appeal to all these variations is no mean feat. Sometimes we “mix it up” serially—something for the visual learner one day, something for the kinesthetic one the next. Other times we provide a number of activities simultaneously—through learning menus or learning stations—sometimes we group kids and sometimes we have them work alone. Computer programs offer variety—though they’re no silver bullet for learning—and so do games and art activities.

But it’s not just mixing it up for “fun,” and it’s not just mixing it up for variety. Differentiating instruction is about intentionally designing learning activities to offer all the kids in the class the chance to experience those “notebook moments.”

If Mrs. Moeller had only had us do workbook pages, I might never have learned the parts of speech. Oh, that’s not true. I would have learned them, but painfully, slowly, and without that wonderful moment of sudden clarity when everything fell into place. If she’d only done diagramming, three-quarters of the class would have been permanently lost in space and rolling their eyes to this day. But she didn’t. And even though the Parts of Speech Notebook sounds today like a pretty conventional assignment, it wasn’t conventional then and it wasn’t conventional for me. For me, it was the avenue to understanding.

Mrs. Moeller, you weren’t old at all. You were wise. More likely related to Solomon than Methuselah.