The Nitty Gritty of Lit Circles

Maybe it's not aboutthe happy ending.I love Wikipedia’s definition of literature circles:

A literature circle is a students’ equivalent of an adult book club, but with greater structure, expectation and rigor. The aim is to encourage thoughtful discussion and a love of reading in young people. The true intent of literature circles is “to allow students to practice and develop the skills and strategies of good readers” (DaLie, 2001).

Unfortunately, over my last ten years as an educator I have found that lit circles have less and less to do with students discussing books and more to do with filling in packets. Where did all the discussion go?

I did not fall in love with reading until I was in college. There were two stand out catalysts for this change:

  1. Marking up text. Who knew highlighting and writing notes in a margin could be so engaging?
  2. Other people wanted to talk to me about what I read.

Is it reasonable that students make it to the collegiate level before having an honest conversation about text? Should the opportunity to talk about a book really be such a novelty?

Below is the skeleton outline of a literature circle plan that worked best for my classrooms. I settled on this outline, because it offered an appropriate balance of necessary time frames and direct instruction, while still offering an abundance of student choice and control. I would love to hear about other educators making student centered discussions happen in their classrooms.

Identify Objectives

Your literature circle unit will most likely last four-six weeks, so select multiple objectives (4-8) you can spread out across the reading.

Selecting Texts

Successful literatures circles are built around themes. Themes provide students common language for their discussions, while not requiring each student to read the same text. This is especially helpful if you do not have the budget to mass purchase book sets. Select a theme you and your students will feel passionate about and work with your building librarian to select texts to meet your students’ needs.

Day 1

Book talk each text. This can include book trailers!

Examples: The Unwanteds and Wonder 

Your energy and enthusiasm are essential here!

Allow students choice (to the greatest extent possible) to select their book.

Have reading groups meet and peruse their text.

Provide the students the end date of the unit.

Students plan the reading timeline and meetings.

Allow autonomy over planning their readings and discussions.


 In Class Reading Time:

Emphasizes to students that reading and reading stamina are important.

Provides time for the teacher to conference with students.

Conference

While students are independent reading, move around the room and hold brief meetings with each student.

Create an objective checklist.

You could use a clipboard or a student observation binder for this task, but there are also some valuable technology tools to enhance your anecdotal notes:

Google Drive – a Sheet or Form could streamline your data entry.

Evernote – You could create one note and use it as a checklist or create an entire notebook and keep one note for each student.

Class Badges – Students earn badges for reaching objectives.

Ask questions targeted at identifying the student’s understanding of the objective.

Indicate when the student has reached the target.


Day 2

10-12 minute mini lesson.

This could focus on a reading strategy or a grammar skill. When focusing on grammar, remember to use authentic texts (Jeff Anderson does a great job explaining how to teach grammar through authentic text in Everyday Editing) whenever possible.

Independent Reading Time/Conferencing

Day 3

10-12 minute activity (possible follow up from yesterday)

Independent Reading Time/Conferencing

Continue with mini-lessons and independent reading time, until students are ready to meet with their discussion groups.

Model

Model, model, and model again.

Do not rely on just telling the students what the Lit Circle should look like. Show them.

If you want them to lean in and whisper when they are working with their groups, have a group come to the front of the room and practice in front of the class. Discuss their behaviors. Demonstrate examples and non-examples.

If you want students to respond to other group members instead of just moving on to the next discussion question, bring another group to the front of the room and practice again. Provide strategies or sentence starters to help students expand on their classmate’s contribution.

If you want students to make notes or mark up the text, facilitate a think aloud. Share your “reading thoughts” with your students and indicate what you would highlight or include in your notes.

Focus on one aspect of the discussion at a time. You may need to spend a few days modeling, before really digging into the discussions. Investing this time early on builds capacity for the rest of the year.

Group Meetings

Group meetings in your classroom may take on multiple formats:

Roles: everyone has a job

Questioning: everyone asks a thick question

Save the Last Word

Conversation Roundtable

Regardless of the format, the focus should be on the students leading the discussion. This may need to be scaffolded at first. Some groups may require additional prompting or questioning to keep their conversation moving. Plan some questions ahead of time to ensure the groups are making quality connections.

Packets

WARNING: A packet should not be used as a fill in the blank experience for your students.

Effective Use of Packets:

Build theme specific content knowledge.

Examples:

Include non-fiction text that pairs with your theme. If your students are reading War and Conflict historical fiction, include a current event in your packet related to a real world conflict.

Introduce theme specific vocabulary. A “shade” is a common recurring character in fantasy novels. You may want to introduce that word your students because it is specific to the genre.

Refrain from creating exhaustive vocabulary lists associated with your novels. Focus on just a few words that are relevant to your overall theme or genre. Do not create an endless list of words and require memorization.

Include Literature Circle expectations.

How do you get kids talking about books in your classroom or school?

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