Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's New with Literature Circles Workshop

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop entitled "What's New with Literature Circles?" led by Harvey Daniels.  When my department head offered me the opportunity to go in his place, I was pretty psyched as I had two of Daniel's books on my shelf at home, Minilessons for Literature Circles and A Community of Writers.

I tried literature circles / book clubs when student teaching and they could have gone better.  I took away some new ideas from this workshop that I'll try this semester.

There were some pieces of the workshop that acted as helpful reminders - things that I knew or had read but forgotten when planning.  One element is the direct instruction of social skills when starting students in book clubs.  Building classroom community is important, but also teaching students what friendliness, piggybacking questions, extending discussion, and peer support look and sound like.  Another is the use of short text before moving to full novels.  A new resource for me mentioned was the book Micro Fiction , a collection of super short stories for students to quickly respond to and discuss.  I had used short stories with my students to practice group discussion, but even these were too long to start with.  The final element is one I will favor a great deal: having silent literature circles where students write and pass their discussion of the book to different members.  I won't ask students to do it more often than discussion aloud, but I like the amount of control it gives me of the classroom, the record of discussion taking place, and that no one person can dominate or withdraw from the conversation.

Daniels also emphasized a few revisions to what had been considered book club requirements when I was in college.  The biggest difference as Daniels saw it was the decreased use of role sheets for book club meetings, especially those that assign cooperative learning roles to the various group members because they are inauthentic.  For me, the greatest change came in the new forms of assessment.  Instead of using book talks, body biographies, or multigenre projects, Daniels suggests assessing the actual book club time for student preparation and participation, also for the sake of authenticity.  Final projects are fine, but Daniels suggests reducing the weight they carry.  How many real-life book clubs involve a culminating final project?

For me, however, the greatest blow to my current thinking was when myself and others asked Daniels whether literature circles were possible with district required reading.  His answer was absolutely and that it could even aid students who are doing book clubs for the first time.  I had attributed part of my previous failures to the district requirement that students had no choice in what they read; however, I now will drastically revise my design and try book clubs again with To Kill a Mockingbird .

In spring 2006, my students practiced literature circles with one short story before beginning a novel; this year they'll meet six times before beginning Mockingbird.  In 2006, they had no more than four minilessons on comprehension tools and zero minilessons on social skills; this year the count is six and five (with some overlap, and I want the second number to grow depending on how I can fit it in.  Social skills minilessons take about 10 minutes each, so I should be able to throw some more in at the beginning or end of some classes).  In spring 2006, our prereading tool was a fairly schooly anticipation guide and one period of discussion; this year I'm reading aloud part one of Mockingbird while we practice with short pieces of text and then setting them loose on part two.  I'm sure I'll be reflecting on my experiences a great deal, and I'll share my thoughts here when I can.


  1. Teaching 5th grade, one of my goals is to teach my students how talk about literature using their own experiences. They are so used to answering questions without a lot of thought. The idea of them playing "written telephone" within their circles should definitely help. I will be using that in January.

  2. Mr. Teach,

    Thanks for your response. I'm hopeful about the silent/written literature circles too. I think it's a good structure to get them practicing talking about the literature before letting their spontaneous speech guide the conversation.

    Harvey Daniels suggested saying "I'm going to give you one minute to jot down the thoughts you want to share." Then he really gives three minutes. He also cautioned that the students he worked with would have very tired and cramped hands after three rotations of the papers, so that might be a good limit to stop at.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I like the idea of Lit Circles, but they are difficult to implement with the usual problems:

    1. Students are not going to be on task
    2. Students won't be able to think on a deeply critical level

    I'm trying them, but hope they turn out better than they are going now.

  4. Mr. Lopez,

    I had similar issues the first time I did literature circles. How do you ask your students to prepare for literature circles? I eventually required my students to complete a double-entry journal (quotes from the book on the left; questions, connections, or agreement/disagreement with the character's action on the right). If they didn't do the journal, they didn't sit with their group, they worked on the double entry journal instead.

    I would definitely recommend the book Mini-lessons for Literature Circles by Nancy Steineke and Harvey Daniels. Good luck! I'd appreciate hearing more about your experiences as I'm still figuring them out as well.

  5. I teach 5th grade Language Arts and tried Literature Circles for the first time last year. I love lit. circles! Even my reluctant readers enjoyed choosing a book and discussing within their groups.
    I made it very clear my expectations for on-topic discussions and they had activities to correlate with the passages they read as well, but I did find it difficult to keep some groups on task. I am curious about the double journal - was it as effective as you had hoped? I felt that lit. circles really connected my students into a 'community of learners'. However, there were some groups that just didn't seem to get along, any ideas/suggestions? Thank you for the resources/books on Literature Circles.

  6. Teacher's Pet,

    I'm glad you've found literature circles successful. It is impressive how much more students want to read when they have a choice in what they read.

    I've only taught my own classes for about a semester and a half now, so take my response with a grain (or cup) of salt. The first time I required double entry journals, I had a number of students who didn't do them. Those students were not allowed to participate in the literature circle discussion. I'm beginning a literature circle unit next week and this time I'm hoping the students can put together their own ground rules for how much unprepared members can participate. I do grade the students on two things each day literature circles meet. The first is preparation, and that's when I check to see if they did a double entry journal. I give them a length to aim for, like one page front and back. If they have a full page front and back, they get the full points; if they have less, they get less. The second is participation. I make my way around to each group during the discussion and listen in and contribute to the discussion. I give each student a plus, check, or minus on giving their attention to group members, contributing respectfully and that sort of thing. So in my limited experience, I've had some success with double entry journals.

    There are a few reasons why I do them despite the limited success I had during student teaching. For one, I was student teaching, and a lot of things I did as a student teacher were pretty lame. And as I introduced double entry journals to my students this year, they do seem more willing to do them and understand their purpose better. Another reason is that research shows that direct, intentional instruction of comprehension skills like questioning, clarifying, connecting, predicting, visualizing, etc. helps dependent readers become independent. Double entry journals give me a written record of a student's "discussion" with the text. It's important that students have someone model these skills using different genres and that they have time to practice the skills with someone who can give them feedback. Hopefully I get a post up later this week on reading comprehension, but all this stuff I just wrote is from Kylene Beers' excellent book When Kids Can't Read

    As for groups that "didn't get along," do you mean they didn't discuss the reading, or that they wouldn't work with each other? In one of my preps, I asked students to write down the names of the top 10 students they would want to work with in class. Since all the literature circles are reading the same book, I'll use those lists along with how students performed on a baseline reading assessment to form the literature circles for the unit. I'll probably post on the blog how well that ends up going.

    So, my short answer to your questions is, yes, I think double entry journals are helpful in driving discussion and help students remember what they read when book club day comes around, and tell me more about the groups that aren't working well together.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment.

  7. Mr. Beckley,
    Thank you for such a quick reply! I am a novice at blogging to say the least! I formed my groups similar to how you form your circles. DODEA/DDESS schools give the SRI test and ,therefore, we as Language Arts teachers have Lexile scores as data to use in the classroom. I based the lit. circles on their Lexile scores, however, I was flexible with the groupings. I don't want to say 'ability grouping'! I wanted to also pair them based on their strengths/weaknesses, interests, and personalities as well. I wanted strong communicators paired with those that needed 'modeling' in this area.I don't know if this way to pair was the right decision, but I figured this was the first time trying lit. circles and I had only been teaching for four years so this would be a learning experience for all of us! To answer your question, some students just argued with each other or were not partaking in 'appropriate' discussions. There are those students who always need to be right or have the last say! I felt that they didn't get as much out of the discussions. Of course, I did teach only Lang. Arts so out of 110 children, maybe 1-2 groups that didn't get along isn't that bad! Part of our Lang. Arts standards was also to evaluate students on Listening/Speaking skills. Literature Circles was a great way for me to walk around and 'check off' those standards that were being met by the students. I just don't know how to reign in those few students who (while I appreciate strong leaders!) feel they need to take over! After each quarter when the SRI was given again, I did 'reorganize' the groups and surprisingly those students who weren't strong communicators were fantastic leaders in their next groups!
    I don't know why Literature Circles aren't given more credence in their ability to significantly improve students' attitudes towards reading. I totally agree with you that you can't force or tell students what to read - they will hate reading. We are as teachers to bring the human dimension to teaching and get to know our students interests, teach them how to develop a love of reading, choose appropriate books, and how to connect with Literature beyond the basic grammar and vocabulary drills! If they develop that love of reading, they will want to consume more and more knowledge. We have to 'hook' them! Although I feel like I'm preaching to the choir, thank you for listening to my ranting! I am passionate about being a Language Arts teacher and love to see my students get excited about reading! My students learned more from their peers modeling higher-order thinking skills, connecting, and discussions than they would from me.
    I have thought about applying more modeling into my writing. I like to teach the 6+1 Writing Traits method and of course that is what our school adopted, so I teach it! I am currently reading an article that discusses cross-age peer tutoring which shows significant gains in student writing because the tutor and tutee are cognitively closer - makes sense. Just as 'modeling' works in Lit. Circles, I'm curious to try this in the area of writing as well! Do you pair students to teach/tutor them in writing? I have only had them proofread/review each others work samples and, occasionally, had my stronger writers 'conference' with other writers. I like to allow my students to work together as much as possible in the most effective way that I can to help students. I am going to read the book you suggested, When Kids Can't Read.

  8. Teacher's Pet,

    You are preaching to the choir, but I don't mind! While discussing teaching with colleagues who I disagree with may help me grow, it is so great to be able to hear from someone who reaffirms my philosophies!

    I'm glad you chose to create your groups using a number of different factors. I grouped one of my classes by reading ability, and while I think that is helpful for three of the groups, my fourth group has all the students who read okay (sort of semi-dependent?) but think reading is a waste of time. You can imagine how motivated they are to get things done.

    That's awesome to hear that so many groups benefited from literature circles. As for your two or three groups who were arguing, I think it's probably better that they were arguing than some other possibilities. At least that means that they did their reading and felt passionate about their interpretations. There's another book I'm using a lot: Minilessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke. The have a number of minilessons to use while leading up to starting literature circles with whole books that model appropriate behavior in book clubs. They have a series where the instructor will make a two column chart on the overhead with one column labeled "Looks Like" and the other labeled "Sounds Like." Each day, the instructor covers a different literature circle skill, like "Listening Respectfully." The "Looks Like" column might have things like "eye contact," "mouths closed," "hands not moving," and the "Sounds Like" column might have things like "thanks for sharing." You can identify the skills your groups need to focus on the most, or the ones you've had trouble with in the past, and then cover them each as a 15 minute minilesson before groups meet, asking students to practice those particular skills. It may seem fake the first few times they do it, but as they practice it more, it will become second nature.

    There's another activity in that book called "Save the Last Word for Me." One student shares their quote or section of the story they want to address, but before offering their insights, everyone else in the group takes a turn saying why they think that person chose the quote. The person who chose the quote has the last word on it after everyone else has had a chance to say something.

    That's an interesting idea having students conference with their peers - that might make the peer revision step more meaningful to my students. I might try it with this set of essays I'm grading right now - some are going to need additional revision.

    We seem to have some of the same ideas about teaching reading. I've blogged some of what I think you've said here and here. Are you blogging? Are you on the educational communities on Twitter or Plurk? If so, my user id is bleckley.