Junking It: Literature Circles

Man. Silver bullets stink.

Literature circles, for the uninitiated, have the curse-like blessing of being effective. This nearly guarantees them being extrapolated wholesale to educational environments where they won’t work well. Case in point? My classroom.

Now, I have to admit up front a deep, deep personal bias against fads. (This goes right back to tiny metallic Jordache purses decorated with feathered clips in 4th grade.) Consequently I was already looking at lit circles askance, and doing my damndest to balance this out against the positive testimony of my two 7th grade colleagues. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of tamping down my suspicions– particularly when I consulted with my buds recently, and found that they were working around the same kinks I was. Here’s a few of them:

Issue

What’s Happening Now

Pacing

Slower readers are dragging down speedy readers. Assigned “jobs” also depend upon the speed and comprehension of student, which holds up real conversation.

Time

56 minute periods

-5m transitions

-10m free reading

= 41 minute lit circles

=NOT ENOUGH TIME.

Contrivance

Assigned “jobs” within lit circles limits the spontaneous responses a student can make to the reading, and does not build a true group dynamic.

Choice

We chose 5 biographical books, targeting different levels of reading and focusing on male protagonists for “roping in” our boys. Did so over the summer by educated guess. Not engaging a significant minority of students.

And, of course, to top it all off, I found the smartest and most concise resource on lit circles out there–two weeks after I started the unit. Sigh.

Remember the theme, however, children: silver bullets suck.

Thankfully, it is made clear by Ms. Brownlie that a specific set of circumstances are required to make her approach to lit circles work. Let’s see how they stack up against my givens.

Issue

What’s Happening Now

Recommendation (Brownlie, 2005)

Pacing

Slower readers are dragging down speedy readers. Assigned “jobs” also depend upon the speed and comprehension of student, which holds up real conversation.

Everyone moves at their own pace. Group discussions center around the teacher-guided Say Something Strategy, which is not dependent on kids reading the same pages at the same time.

When a kid is finished with a book, they choose another and move into that group—groupings are fluid.

Time

56 minute periods

-5m transitions

-10m free reading

= 41 minute lit circles

70-90 minute blocks. (Not even my entire period comes close here.)

Contrivance

Assigned “jobs” within lit circles limits the spontaneous responses a student can make to the reading, and does not build a true group dynamic.

Say Something strategy and individual journaling. Assigned jobs are junked.

Choice

We chose 5 biographical books, targeting different levels of reading and focusing on male protagonists for “roping in” our boys. Did so over the summer by educated guess.

Wait until the middle of the year to start lit circles so that your book choices (6 titles minimum) hit the levels and interests of every student, based on a few months of observation.

Yikes. So what’s a girl to do?

Junk it.

Yep. The bottom line is, what I’m doing isn’t working, and I have to get it working.

So here’s the plan. Much like the beloved Wall-E, I am sifting through the garbage mound that I have created by hoping I could slap down literature circles without modification, looking for something salvageable. I’ll keep the general aims and essential questions (which is a unit on biography), but tinker with the insides.

Issue

What’s Happening Now

Recommendation (Brownlie, 2005)

Modification

Pacing

Slower readers are dragging down speedy readers. Assigned “jobs” also depend upon the speed and comprehension of student, which holds up real conversation.

Everyone moves at their own pace. Group discussions center around the teacher-guided Say Something Strategy, which is not dependent on kids reading the same pages at the same time.

When a kid is finished with a book, they choose another and move into that group—groupings are fluid.

Adopt fluid grouping and guided meetings each class period with Say Something strategy. Put up a large poster with names so students (and teacher!) can keep track of who is reading what.

Time

56 minute periods

-5m transitions

-10m free reading

= 41 minute lit circles

70-90 minute blocks. (Not even my entire period comes close here.)

Cut free reading by 5 minutes.

Tighten transitions to 2 minutes.

Then work with what I’ve got.

Contrivance

Assigned “jobs” within lit circles limits the spontaneous responses a student can make to the reading, and does not build a true group dynamic.

Say Something strategy and individual journaling. Assigned jobs are junked.

Can’t give up jobs—this wanders too far from what my colleagues are doing. Instead, create a journal where kids are required to rotate through job-related activities for each class, but at their own pace.

Choice

We chose 5 biographical books, targeting different levels of reading and focusing on male protagonists for “roping in” our boys. Did so over the summer by educated guess.

Wait until the middle of the year to start lit circles so that your book choices (6 titles minimum) hit the levels and interests of every student, based on a few months of observation.

Drat. Now what?

Changing books is not an option this time around. Instead, check reader’s surveys done in Sept for patterns of interest, do an additional survey of famous lives kids may want to learn about, and choose 2 or 3 alternate texts to round out choices.

In this way it is my sincere hope to meld the goals of engaging in the collaborative doppelganging prized by my administration, and working to make things better.

I suppose if there’s a life lesson in this, it’s what the angelic multitude says to the shepherds.

Do not be afraid.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For a terrific article on literature circles drifting from their intended origins in middle school from the National Council of Teachers of English, try the file below.

Literature Circles

UPDATE: Tried “Say Something” for the first time today with a group of kids; explaining it to them, and seeing their bright and engaged faces, set free from page constraints, literally sent chills down my back. We’ll see how this works with my more emergent readers next week, but for now, the evidence is sick encouraging.

SECOND UPDATE: I roped my colleague Kim in at lunchtime today. In a show of bravery I can only hope to emulate, she junked her plans for the next period and tried the alternative model with her neediest class. She came into my room afterwards with lips tightly pressed together and welling eyes; I thought someone had died until she hugged me. “THANK YOU,” she said.

Now we’re gunning for our third colleague. I love teaching.

13 thoughts on “Junking It: Literature Circles

  1. I really like the charts you made comparing the stages of your inquiry because they so clearly demonstrate the stages of a teacher-as-researcher approach to practice. If you arranged the categories in a circle, you’d see that they can cycle endlessly.

    We should all be mindful of the need to modify curricular models to suit the particular needs of our students, and our own goals and limitations.

    I haven’t read the Harvey Daniels article you linked to yet, but I look forward spending some time with it. I read his book, and have used book discussion groups on and off for several years. I’ve run into many of the problems you mention here, and I’m curious to see how some of your solutions work out. Thanks for posting this.

  2. What a wonderful post! What healthy skepticism and perseverance! What an example of the notions of “adapt, don’t adopt,” the need to work through an “implementation dip” in any change, the messiness of change. And, agreeing with the comment by Doug Noon, thanks for the building tables organizing your reflections for us. I’ll be sharing your post with several colleagues. What a nice way to start my day. Thanks

  3. @Don: Welcome. It’s a tribute to the usefulness of blogging that most of my adaptive thinking occurs in a big blur in my head. Sometimes I achieve the clarity purely mentally that I get by writing it out, but usually not. Writing is thinking. This is what I tell my pre-service teachers when they complain about writing everything out for me.

    @Doug: so far, so good. Honestly, the biggest problem now is feeling like I’m not doing enough work when a) kids are engrossed in reading and journal responses for 45 minutes at a pop and b)I am so thoroughly enjoying “Say Something” conversations that it doesn’t feel like teaching.

  4. Hey Pal,

    Thanks a ton for this post…We’re working with literature circles this year, and they’re something I’m deathly afraid of.

    I’ve never been very good at facilitating small group activities primarily because of pacing issues, so I’m as excited about literature circles as I am about another multiple choice, standardized assessment.

    Your post made me feel normal—and gave me a few resources to check out along the way.

    Rock right on,
    Bill

  5. @Bill: I highly recommend the Brownlie book– it’s concise, totally pragmatic, and less than 100 pages. You’ll be able to run through it in an afternoon. An additional and truly powerful option she gives which I didn’t address here is three differentiated versions of response journals, gradually increasing in complexity.

  6. I hate using lit circles because they are not that effective in my classroom. (that doesn’t mean every classroom, just mine) I have never done any of the contrived activities that go along with Lit Circles in my real life as an avid reader. I really take issue with reading “activities” that take up more time than reading. In math we do math, in science we do science, in reading we should read.
    Maybe I am old school, but Nancy Atwell’s book, In The Middle, is still the ultimate resource for teaching reading and writing in a middle years classroom. I think it should be required reading for every administrator who walks past a classroom and wonders why their is so much “silent reading” going on.

  7. I’m with you – if it doesn’t work either modify it or junk it entirely.

    I tried literature circles my class hated it. They whined about the jobs, the reading, whatever. Then last year I set out a bunch of sets of books and let the kids choose. I told them they had so much time to get the book read and that they needed to figure out how to organize it so that everyone had done the reading. Every day I checked in with the groups, talked with them about what they were reading, checked over their observation jounral, etc. I also did a fluid-type group for the kids who had shorter books / read quickly / etc. When they had finished all they could say was how much they enjoyed the experience.

  8. dina –

    thanks from the future for this post. came back to it and am leeching off of your experiences as i get my g7 students going into lit circles.

    not quite sure how the “say something” strategy allows you to let students move at their own pace and in / out of reading groups…

    also, the harvey daniels article is clutch. going to mine that for extra strategies as well!

    cheers from hong kong,

    -jeff

  9. @Jeff: Hey there, friend. “Say Something” only requires kids to come to group with a meaningful quote and a reflection on it from wherever they are in their book of choice. That way, when you call all the kids reading a certain book together, your kids don’t all need to be on the same page, as long as you remind them not to spill any plot beans as they discuss their thoughts on the quote. I’d HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on the Brownlie book if you can. Does a much better job of explaining this. Trust me, it works.

  10. I plan to share this with several lit teachers in my district.
    The “jobs” in lit circles idea has faded away quite a bit; even Daniels doesn’t really advocate it anymore.

    The “lit circle” idea (actually, student discussions) really is relevant to any subject, not just reading!

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