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Literature Circles: An Authentic Way to Make Room for Every Student Voice

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 Roof reading room," 1910, Digital ID 94640, New York Public LibraryLeading with the Punchline

I’m going to lead with the punchline, which isn’t really to a joke -- more to a poignant, endearing story about student wisdom, and how much we can learn from listening. And the power of the Literature Circle.

In Literature Circles, students in small groups  take on a number of different roles that allow them to explore and talk about the text in conversational ways that clarify and deepen comprehension.

So here’s the end of the story:

Andy said “It’s a shining example of what you can do with everyday household objects.”

The class, including the special education teacher and myself, stared at him and waited for an explanation.

And here’s the beginning

In an effort to teach Literature Circle roles in my 6th grade classroom, My co-teacher and I had students read a story. We used the same story to teach each role individually. We started with the  “Passage Picker,” in which students choose the passage they find the most important, or interesting, or exciting— that stands out to them for some reason.

The story was this: Daniel, a young boy in the 1900’s found a pigeon with a wounded wing that he took back to his apartment to nurse back to health. Once at home, he tore a t-shirt and used popsicle sticks to set the pigeon’s wing. He planned to give it to his grandmother as a birthday present, to replace her pet goat that had been burned alive in front of her, when she lived in Romania during the pogroms. As the pigeon was mending, the boy was approached by leaders of the gang he’d always wanted to join. They invited him to their next meeting, and told him to bring the pigeon. At the meeting was a huge fire, to which the gang members said he had to sacrifice his pigeon. Daniel was torn, and held the pigeon above the fire in his hands. At that moment, the pigeon flew away. Daniel relayed this to his grandmother, sad that his birthday present to her was ruined. His grandmother comforted him by saying the pigeon got what she wanted for her goat: freedom.

Passage Picker

The passage Andy found most important?

The one in which Daniel mended the pigeon’s wing with popsicle sticks and an old T-shirt.

The reason?

“Because it’s a shining example of what you can do with everyday household objects.”

Who would have thought?! It wasn’t the pigeon, the fire, the grandmother, the gang. It was the use of household objects. But who can argue with Andy? And why would we want to? Obviously he read carefully and thoughtfully, sifted through what he read, and then made a choice as a reader. A strange choice perhaps, but a choice nonetheless.

Developing Life-long Readers

If students are actively “Passage Pickers” rather than more passively responding to a passage we, as teachers pick, they are free to respond to what intrigues them, what interests them, what engages them. This is what “real” readers do isn’t it? So this is what we should have our student do.  We want to build the skills for lifelong reading and learning: autonomy, confidence and curiosity.

Roles of the Reader

Literature Circle roles vary according to what method you use and the size of your groups, but in general there is a Passage Picker, an Illustrator, a Discussion Leader, a Question Asker, and maybe a Vocabulary Guru.

The fact that there are roles lets students prepare, which is a gift for our shyer students and the ones that don’t do as well “on their feet”—who need a little time to think and reflect. The Lit Circles allow them the chance to shine. The fact that these roles circulate means that students can practice new skills and feel good about the ones they already have.

Be Prepared for Some Awkward Silences and Then, Too Much Talk

In an earlier post I wrote about Wait Time and "thoughtful, generative silences." The silences that occur in the early days of Lit Circles are just plain awkward. Teachers and students just need to bear with them and push through. Be transparent and honest though—tell students that the beginning of any book group (or any discussion for that matter) even among adults, can be tough until people get to know each other and the book itself. One way I tried to ameliorate this was by having the time student met in their Lit Circle groups start off short. Really short. Slowly the students have more to talk about and are better at talking about it.

Once the conversations do take off, expect them to veer off. It shouldn’t happen too much, but consider a “real” book club, and how often a conversation can lead to a tangent. This is how discussions really happen. The Discussion Director’s role is not just to facilitate conversation, but to keep it on track.

Fiction or Non Fiction

Lit. Circles don’t just work for novels. Try them with Non Fiction articles. It is a wonderful way to get some life and some careful reading into what students may otherwise dismiss as boring and/or just skim.

Teachers, have you used Literature Circles? What was your experience with them? Non-Teachers, what has been your experience talking about books with other adults? What makes those conversations successful or unsuccessful?

* * *

The following Books from the NYPL catalog will give you more information about Literature Circles, Book Discussions, and content-area reading strategies.

Literature Circles and Response

Talk About Books! A Guide for Book Clubs, Literature Circles, and Discussion Groups, grades 4-8

Subject Matters: every teacher's guide to content-area reading 

Comments

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Book Groups

Great post!  I love the idea of having what is essentially a book group for kids. Do you have any suggestions for techniques to keep big kids (aka, adults) on topic? I imagine many of the students, as likely to follow tangents as they may be, would be more "on task" in book discussions than many of my book group friends! I also imagine teaching methods would go far in regulating this. Thanks.

Book Groups

It's a really good question-- keeping adults on topic. I think the reality is that adults go off topic. What is interesting is that often what spawns the tangents are discussions of the book-- which makes them pretty relevant. According to research, we make meaning of what we read by making connections to the text and ourselves, the text and other texts, and the text and our world knowledge. Usually someone brings the talk back on topic. But if conversations stray past even these connections, and we just have to roll with these. Thanks for reading and responding! Janna

Thank you for such wonderful

Thank you for such wonderful ideas! I downloaded all the repsonsibilities for the lit. group members. I may be teaching a pull-out reading/writing class next year to seventh graders and am excited to use these strategies! It sounds like you and your co-teacher had a great working relationship and I am sure the kids benefitted!

Great approach! I am mulling

Great approach! I am mulling applying this to a college level psych class... Which criteria of a specific diagnosis do individual students find most meaningful. And for what it's worth, I completely get the 'household objects' response. If the character had not used the Popsicle sticks and t shirt the way he did there would have been no story, and the bird would have died. It is also the non-emotional part of the story. If the child happens to fall into the very broad category of children who struggle to understand emotions, then the clever problem solving would be the part of the story he could understand best... we all tend to feel that what we understand best is the most important element of what we experience. Brava!

Passage Picker

Hi, Jana, I am reading your blogs non-chronologically. I have not been a participant nor a leader of Book Discussion Groups at NYPL or elsewhere. I imagine this is sage advice for Adult Book Discussion Group Leaders as well.

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