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Literature Circles: An Authentic Way to Make Room for Every Student Voice
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.
The passage Andy found most important?
The one in which Daniel mended the pigeon’s wing with popsicle sticks and an old T-shirt.
“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?
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The following Books from the NYPL catalog will give you more information about Literature Circles, Book Discussions, and content-area reading strategies.