Literature Circles in Senior English

Posted: February 21, 2016 in Uncategorized
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So, I’ve been thinking about literature circles. I have never really done the full on everyone-has-a-job-and-the-leader-is-a-student thing. However, my YA Literature elective for seniors has students reading a variety of books for more than half the time. So, not only are the students in groups, they are reading different books. The books have some connection, but do not necessarily lend themselves to me distributing guiding questions that can be used by all groups.

Public domain image from Pixabay.

Public domain image from Pixabay. I would have a picture of my class, but they kept being silly when I tried to take a picture. Yes, they are seniors.

I decided to try to do the whole, entire literature circle deal. I was not unfamiliar with the concept, but I did a bunch of reading about it in higher grades before jumping in. I read some over view material, some specifics about jobs, accountability, etc. I decided on 5 jobs (4 of which were pretty typical or were adaptations of existing jobs, 1 was a new one that I made up and am very pleased with, if I do say so myelf) with the following descriptions:



Discussion Leader*

  • Job Description: Your job is to develop a list of questions that you think your group should discuss about the assigned section. The questions should be a mix of literal, interpretive, and universal questions. Try to create questions that encourage your group to consider many ideas. Your questions should help the group explore the important ideas and ensure that all members of the group have a chance to participate.

Literary Luminary

  • Your job is to notice and identify important passages, key words and phrases, and descriptive sections. Bring these important literary elements to the discussion and either add them as the topic arises or discuss them as a group. Try to think about passages that are important to the overall understanding as well as passages that you personally find appealing. In addition, you might notice and share vocabulary that you think is important and that younger readers might not know.

Online Organizer* (new job)

  • Your job is to pay close attention to the conversation in the discussion. Pull out the highlights, any ideas that might need to more attention, or questions that arise after the discussion. During the discussion, you might restate and try to bring clarity a part of the conversation that has been wide-ranging. You are responsible for posting a brief summary of the discussion and some questions on Moodle. When your group mates respond, you should respond to any further comments.


  • Your job is to notice, highlight, and help discuss connections between the text and yourselves, this text and other texts, and this text and the real world. This may be more difficult in the beginning of a text, but as you read more, you should see many relationships emerging. The ideas you bring to the group may be very big picture or quite specific. Thinking outside the box will be a good plan with this job.

Tour Guide

  • Your job is to help set the scene for the group. Setting is often so important in books, and we sometimes assume we know what a place looks like or sounds like. You will pay close attention to the details of place so that the group is grounded in the time and place of the text. To help imagine the scene, you might collect some images of what you imagine the setting or surroundings to look like. If there are imaginary creatures, you might find what you imagine them to look like in art. Background information that you think is important is also your responsibility.

*each groups must have someone in this job

Then, I shared the following description of Group Expectations (Adapted from David Chung, Placentia Yorba Linda Unified School District which was adapted from Literature Circles by H. Daniels):

Group Expectations

Intellectual Courage

  • Take risks
  • Respectfully challenge others
  • Actively participate
  • Think “outside the box”

Intellectual Leadership

  • Lead by being a role model for others
  • Take the initiative
  • Be prepared
  • Help others with learning

Intellectual Humility

  • Practice Scholarly behavior
  • Do not steal others’ opportunity to speak, think, learn

Intellectual Assertiveness

  • Use evidence to support your ideas
  • Defend your thoughts
  • Use multiple resources

Group Rules


  • Show courtesy, consideration, and respect at all times
    • This is not the same thing as agreeing with people


  • Everyone contributes
  • Everyone listens


  • Use your time wisely to ensure all participants share their area of focus
  • Refocus when necessary


  • Come with ideas, but be ready to change them


I asked students to fill out a summary and rate themselves and the group after each discussion.

So far, we are a work in progress. For the first go, each group had 3 literature circle discussions. Some groups struggled to have meaningful, in-depth discussions. Given that the books themselves are not necessarily as challenging as usual, it can lead students to think that discussions should be more simple too. Anticipating this, I tried to model the level of discussion that was possible in our whole class conversations on our first book, which we all read together.

The discussion leaders generally came prepared with some questions to discuss. So that job is getting done. The online organizers also were pretty solid once they got the hang of not just summarizing but of trying to extend the conversation as well. The other jobs need attention. Connector, tour guide, literary luminary all were done with minimal effort. I shared my sense of being underwhelmed with the contributions from those folks, comparing it to a pot luck where the host does a lot, but everyone comes with something. I reminded the students that coming to the party empty-handed is not cool.

When I read over the summaries of the discussions, I felt better about the experiment even though I have to say that the discussions could stand to be more substantive. I’m so glad I asked the students to reflect on their experience in literature circles as I would not have predicted many of their responses. A number of students commented that they were getting better at having these independent discussions. One group was reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which is written in verse, and their discussion leader wrote:

During our first conversation we simply discussed the summary of what we read the night before. This wasn’t very effective because we didn’t analyze the book as much as we should have. We learned from this and every member in our group came to class with 1-2 poems that they wanted to analyze. This enabled us to have more productive discussion. This let us spend more time on the content rather than just searching for specific pages and quotes to analyze.

That is some solid reflecting and adjusting of strategy.

Other students, who were reading Hush also by Jacqueline Woodson, wrote:

Everyone came with their own ideas prethought, which helped overall discussion.

We have improved in a sense of answering the questions that arise while we are talking about the novel. We have become comfortable with posing questions to each other and answering them to the best of our abilities. Also, we have become more adept at our individual roles, which contributes to a better group discussion.

One student simply said:

I think we understand the dynamic of having a thoughtful conversation way better than we did before.

At this point, I am staying the course. There is plenty of room for improvement in this, but the students are also new to the format. As we begin another book group book (either The Crossover by Kwame Alexander or Monster by Walter Dean Myers) I plan to share back with students some of the comments they made about the literature circles format. Because we have a several more books with which to perfect this format, we’ve got enough practice time. I’m counting on big improvement.


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