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.