So, I’ve been thinking about literature circles in my senior English elective. This is a YA literature elective and we are reading a lot of books in not a lot of time. About half the time we are reading a book as a class and the other half students have some choice and read in groups. (I’ve written about my set up and addition of a new job already.)
Our second unit is well underway. The whole class read was The Phantom Tollbooth. I have to say I was curious to see how this book fared with 17 and 18 year olds in 2016. A few students had read the book when they were younger and had generally positive memories of the book. Well, I have to say it was a success, IMO. I do not have a lot of experience teaching second semester seniors, so let me tell you what I have determined to be a success (note I am saying this before grading the test):
- People read the book.
- People participated in discussions. We did have a few very squirrel-y days in there, but we regrouped.
- Several students made a point to tell me how much they liked the book and our discussions. (And, no, I was not giving extra points for this)
Now we are back to literature circles for Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. (I wrote about some of the idea in this book a while ago.) Day 1 of literature circle discussions dawned with high absenteeism. Of the three book groups, two were missing discussion leaders. Not promising. Thank goodness I had checked attendance before class and could regroup. The two Haroun groups could meet together with the remaining discussion leader. The other group I thought I would tackle.
Class began. I had students record some information for their jobs on their summary sheets before the discussion started. As it turned out, the Fairyland group did not need me in the slightest (except to do a little interpreting of other possible meanings for “there will be blood.”). They were discussing who would take on leading before we even got going, were starting to talk about the book before everyone even arrived (promptness also not a big thing for this group). They made connections to The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, other movies and stories. One of the things they also did, which represented real progress, was to discuss both the big ideas and specifics. I heard them referring to specific passages in the book, or details at least, to defend their ideas. Now, this may not sound very impressive. I would expect all of this in a discussion of any sort. What was exciting was that the group was doing this independently. I sat with them some, but was in no way a leader. Since it was clear they were not in need of my help, I went on to the patched together group reading Haroun. They did need some support.
After class, I asked myself why the Fairyland group was so successful?
- Group make up played a part for sure.
- Everyone coming prepared was key.
- I like to think that last week’s added direction and instruction about the parts of discussion and how to build and foster all those pieces played a part.
- Practice, practice, practice.
One of the things about reading these YA works is that we can read and discuss them in reasonable depth in a length of time that allows for a lot of titles. A lot of titles means a lot of repeated practice of the skills I want to foster, but with new material. For each literature circle book there are three or four literature circle meetings. Students keep the same job for all the meeting around a book. So, the students are getting a lot of practice, some reasonable feedback, and a chance to see others do various jobs.
For seniors, I think this independent practice is very valuable. These students are about to head to college and beyond. Practicing not just doing a project with a group at the end of the learning, but actually doing the learning with the group is time well spent. Alternating between whole class books with discussions lead and carefully planned out by me and student led literature circles is providing a good variety for class too. Just as we may be getting tired of one format, it’s time to change to a different one.
I hope the Fairyland group continues to set such a good example for the class. (I emailed them to say what a good job they did. I know they think they are grown, but they’re kids who like you to notice when they do something well.)