Kathy Hempel
404 LE
Spring, 2005

Literature Circles


My book discussion project is a real life project that has sprung out of my library job at the junior high. We are working on developing literature circles, using the novel sets that we have in our library. We are fortunate to have many novel sets at different reading levels. Our school has a diverse population, 20% non-English speaking and 3 rooms with severe physical disabilities so we need to provide reading material at a great variety of books to insure success experience.

Our goal is to create literature circles with different levels of difficulty within the grade level. This will lead to success in reading the books, and create a welcome environment to encourage discussion, and further exploration of other novels in the same genre.

For our first literature circle, we chose the theme of alienation, since young adults rarely feel like they fit in. They are always concerned with whether they will be liked by others and will have friends, much less find a kindred spirit or be accepted as they are.

The students' choices will be:


What are Literature Circles?


In literature circles, groups of students gather together to discuss a book or books in depth. Discussion is led by students rather than the teacher. Students are encouraged to talk about characters in their books and compare them to each other, as well their own personal connections to the stories by their own experiences. Literature circles provide a perfect venue for critical thinking as they read, discuss and respond to their books. The linchpin to the success of this program is the collaborative effort of the students. They have to feel confident in their freedom to absorb and exchange ideas about their book(s). By sharing their thoughts on their book, they expand the way they think about their own book(s) and allows them to look at their book in a new light. Literature circles guide readers to a deeper understanding of what they've read through structured discussion. Frequently, literature circles are not assessed in standard means through tests and quizzes, but by short and/or extended written responses and creative artistic responses.

Literature circles are vibrant, changeable entities. The appearance of a circle one day may change vastly from day to day. The teacher provides the skills for the circle to grow, change, and perhaps mutate all within the guidelines provided. A gentle hand guides them from outside to keep them on task if they should stray. Bringing the groups together to discuss their findings for the day keeps the groups focused.

Literature circles take their place in a comprehensive literacy program. It is not the only way to approach literature. It nests well with read aloud time, shared reading and writing segments, independent reading and writing opportunities and guided reading and writing sessions when the teacher gives them tools with which to analyze what they are reading. Learning to read critically is a skill carefully developed that will serve a reader well there whole life. The skills attained in literature circles are useful tools that will give students the edge to truly become lifelong readers. And what more lofty goal can a teacher have than to create a classroom full of hungry readers?

Embracing literature circles and the changes in the classroom is difficult for teachers who are used to being in control and knowing what will come next. Frequently they are coming from the idea there is only one way to teach reading and it has to be done the "right" way. The teacher has to open their mind to the many options available for literature circles and be willing to try different ideas, trying them out and weeding out the ideas that don't work with the individuals in the group. By trying different approaches, they can be evaluated, notes taken for the next circle as to what worked and what didn't with angles to what might be tried next for greater success. Teachers have to keep in mind that both they and the students are learning.  Since this is a living, changeable experience, we have to be more malleable and willing to adjust on the fly if we see a strategy isn't working.

How to begin


Since the concept of literature circles in foreign to the students, we will introduce the concept through a one book, one school experience. All the students will read one book and we won't form small groups until we teach them how to engage and discuss in a meaning way. Initially, the teachers will lead the large groups, modeling how to form questions that lead to discussion rather than just extracting facts.

Our literature circles are limited to the novel sets we have on hand, so we need to be familiar with the literature and meet with the other teachers to book talk. The information we gather at these book talks will be synthesized into brochures for the students to peruse to choose the books they want to use for the circles.

After the groups have been formed, the teachers will present a booktalk on each of the novel choices, making sure the students understand that they don't all have to choose the same book within their class. The teachers will pass out a brochure showcasing the titles we're using for our circles. Allow an opportunity for the students to look the books over for themselves. They should be invited to read over a couple of pages to get a sense of the plot and characters. Successful young adult books grab the reader right away and the students should feel the connection to the book. Students can then vote for which books they want to read and the groups are then formed accordingly.

Goals:
Since we're embarking on a new system of learning, our first goals must be modest:
After you've run your first group, you need to revisit your goals:
After a subsequent circle, think about:

Scheduling


Initially the teacher will set the schedule because the students will have no concept of how a literature circle works. Perhaps a week will unfold like this to begin with:

Monday: Read together
Tuesday/Wednesday:   Discuss
Thursday: Prepare response to discussion
Friday: Present responses to other groups

After first literature circle, the schedule may be developed with the students and circle may decide to meet at different times. Of course, there are limitations based on the curriculum demands.


Tips to get things going:

Followup:

To wrap up the project and discuss all the books we read, we're going to have the students design a village and build it so all the protagonists in their books will be comfortable. Their designs will be assessed according to their attention to details in the books. They will meet by committee to layout the town on paper deciding what they need to build and where to place everything. They will also plan what the town needs to function as a real town.

Remember:

Literature circles are not just for fiction. Circles are particularly compelling for social studies where different books about the same topic can different perspectives to the subject. You can also mix historical fiction with the non-fiction to add another slant to the topic.

Source Material:
Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels & Nancy Steineke (2004) New Hampshire, Heinemann

Literature Circles Revisited; Learning from Experience, Moen, Christine Boardman, Booklinks, May, 2005

Literature Circles, Moen, Christine Boardman, Booklinks, December 2001-January, 2002