Posts Tagged ‘literature circles’

So, I’ve been thinking about the assessments I give my students. My students have been thinking about the assessments too, mostly in a could-we-not-do-that kind of way.

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Earlier in the month I announced it was time to write a book review of the novel we had just finished reading. Wild applause. Groans all around. These are second semester seniors. Please can we do something else. Can we do a presentation? Can we work in groups? I made no promises, but went home and thought about it. I thought about my goals for the assignment, our remaining time, and the final project, which is not changing. I also went to a talk by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott. Now, I do not currently watch a lot of movies because if my husband and I go out, I prefer to eat and talk, all without cooking or cleaning. We are now just in the no-babysitter-needed phase, but before that, if I was going to pay for a babysitter and sit in silence, the movie had to be awfully good. So, not a lot of movies got watched. Anyhow, a colleague asked if I wanted to go hear A. O. Scott at a local movie theater, and I said sure.

There I am listening to Mr. Scott, Tony it turns out, be interviewed. Super interesting. He talked about opinion writing and critique in general as “an exercise in explaining your thought process.” He spoke about the various and particular objectives and tactics one can employ in writing a review. One that stood out to me was the idea that a review might aim to introduce a work to an audience who would not guess the work would be of interest. In addition there was some fascinating discussion of which movies stand the test of time and make you want to watch them again. It was interesting to hear about movies that were audience and critical favorites that just faded away and those that were panned in their day, yet are now considered classics. It was totally energizing. I scribbled notes on whatever paper I could find in my purse. Then, I thought about which ideas I could use for my class.

The next day I combined part of an old idea from 5th grade with some A. O. Scott inspiration and some feedback from another colleague; I had a plan. (Once again, I would like to say how much I value talking to my colleagues and getting to bounce ideas off them. I do not know if they appreciate my bounciness, but I love it.) I decided that I wanted the students to consider evaluating the books we have read in comparison to each other across several categories. So, I made 3 groups; each group had someone who had read each book. Then I finalized my five categories: complex characters, quality writing, read again, effective message (we are reading YA literature so message is big), combination of narrative structure and story.

Here is my very quickly written description:

For this task, your group will determine the winner and runners-up (book or character) in each category. So you need a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place finisher. Your group should first review each book across each category. Not all group members will have read all the books, but each group should have someone who read each book. In order to make your choices, you will need to decide how you will define the categories. Then, apply that definition to the books to determine the winner and runners-up.

In class, a representative from your group will present your decision and explain the group’s reasoning. Quotations or page/chapter references are expected. Each group member must present at least one category. We will then evaluate the choices and the reasoning behind the choices. The group should also have a visual to support the decision. There may be prizes.

I set the groups working, “working”  maybe. Once again, I cannot claim that everyone was engaged, but as I went from group to group, there was solid conversation comparing the books, which was what I wanted to happen. This review and comparison work was certainly more significant work and better at addressing the essential questions of the course than a single book review. Plus, it served as a good lead up to the final writing assignment that will ask them to consider a number of titles. The day before the presentations someone asked what the prizes would be. I may have forgotten about that part, but luckily I had some left over prizes from bribing my personal kids to do things. I brought those in the next day. (I have written before about seniors being like 5th graders. This is true in prize preference too, since I said money was not an option.)

The presentations were totally solid. Sometimes it’s because the individual is good at winging it, but even the wingers had done the prep and were therefore able to be convincing and articulate. I certainly got a better sense of what they were thinking about and the type of considerations they were making than I would have from a book review or even a comparison paper. They do have to write and learn to write effectively, but that is not the only way to present a position. We spent an entire long block and then some to get through everything.

My Reflections:

There are definitely tweaks to be made to this. I evaluated on the spot and gave prizes to the entire team of the winning presenter for each category. This added a little tension which was not a bad thing for the group. However, I’d like the students to do more of the evaluating next time. Also, I’d include reflection the next class period to explain what separated good from very good. Mostly it came down to having and applying a specific definition for the category. Everyone had a definition and pretty good reasons why they chose the order they chose, but for some groups either the definition was very bland or they had a definition but then did not use it as their measure against which to determine the winners.

Also, I noticed that most of the winning books were the books that I taught rather than books they read in the literature circle groupsThe Phantom Tollbooth was the big winner with one student saying, “it’s basically the perfect book.” So, did I choose the best books to teach myself? Or, did they get a lot less out of the books they read more independently? I have a lot to think about with these two questions before I can answer them.

This is definitely an assessment strategy to keep polishing.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

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.)


So, I’ve been thinking about how to adjust my teaching so that my students get better at having independent discussions in their literature circles.

It turns out that my students need more guidance in order to increase the level of discussion in their literature circles. Reasonable enough. So, I adjusted my instruction. We started our current unit with a whole class book directed by me. I tried to do some of my best, most careful planning for these discussions. And, because I am teaching seniors, some of whom are probably counting the remaining days, I also made a light up sign using Chibitronics lights and copper tape.

The first class discussion went fairly well. I used my light up sign to signal when I was sharing something that might fall squarely to a particular literature circle role. Yes, it’s like being back in 5th grade, but I’m good at that and as I wrote before, the seniors are not totally unlike 5th graders. And, based on my review of the previous discussion feedback, I added another job to our literature circle job list. Character Captain is a standard job, which I had thought might be too basic or would be gobbled up by Discussion Leader or Literary Luminary. I was wrong. It needs its own job. So, I’ve got my sign, I’m moving through my plan, there’s some decent discussion. But, will it change what the students do in their next literature circles when we move to other books? Probably not unless I make some more of my process clear to them.

I realized that I needed to give them more of a peek behind the teacher curtain. Therefore, at the start of the second class period’s discussion, I began by reviewing my outline from our discussion the day before. I went so far as to put a bullet pointed list on the board of the order of things from the day before and related each back to the big question I wanted to discuss and the corresponding literature circle job (and light up sign flash). I will not lie to you and say that this was genius or that everyone was moved to tears. However, since then I have had a question about what teachers do to think of all of this. Do we have secret teacher files of all this symbolism and references and what to say about books? And, I have continued to mention the planning and adjusting process over the course of our discussions. I mentioned that with me doing all of the jobs, I can make it all fit together, and I can adjust and move off script if my plan bombs. They might not even realize I am doing that. Experience matters.

The question is, will some of this transfer as the students begin another round of literature circle discussions. Fingers crossed.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching seniors, the pedagogy behind literature circles, and how I can know if my instruction is effective. (Yes, I do know about tests.)

I have been begging, harassing, talking about reflection and digital portfolios to anyone who will listen, or stand still, for years at this point. I will even walk with someone and talk about this if given half a chance. And, I know it’s hard to fit it in to an already packed curriculum. For me, if I don’t make a new strategy part of my regular teaching routine, it falls by the wayside as soon as a bird flies by the window or there’s something exciting for lunch.

Yet, once again I am reminded that asking the students to summarize their learning and reflect on it is valuable to me and my teaching practice, which through trickle down education theory (have you heard of that?) means it’s going to help the students.

Here’s what happened this time.

So, I have a small class (14) and even with that number, I don’t get a chance to hear from everyone or know what sort of impact my strategy du jour is making on individuals. Those who are more vocal, who give away more with their body language, who seek feedback or affirmation are easier to figure out. And I end up turning towards them in the sense that I get affirmation from them that what I am doing is working for them, so I do that more. Or, I get the idea that what I am doing is not good for them and I do whatever it is less. All good, hearts, unicorns, rainbows for those students and for me. However, what about those students who keep their cards close to the vest? I am responsible for and to them as well. My strategies must meet the needs of all my students. Not everyone is going to love the activity every day, but no students should come to class knowing that my teaching style or mode never works for them.

In my YA Elective, we have finished a two book, literature circle focused unit. Most class periods involved student lead discussion groups. I moved around and joined each group for some minutes each period, but a lot of the work was student driven, which means that some of it wasn’t up to the standards I might have set. After each round of 3 discussions (per book), I asked students to turn in a set of discussion summaries and reflections. (I wrote about how this convinced me to stay the course with literature circles a few weeks ago.) Yes, some of these are minimal. However, I am consistently enlightened by them. I learned that I had reached some folks; I learned that there are ideas in these books (which are not “hard” in the typical sense) which really grab students; I learned how unaware some of the students are about racial justice issues; I learned how thoughtful some students are about what it means to learn hard lessons.

This is a good example of another little known education theory: the if you ask it, they will answer theory (with apologies to Field of Dreams). I am never sorry when I ask students to tell me about their learning. I do have to take a deep breath sometimes, because as my if you ask it theory suggests, they will answer, but not necessarily with opinions about how wonderful I am. However, I give students feedback all the time that is about a what to fix or do differently; I surely need to be able to hear similar feedback myself. I have made some adjustments to my instruction already in our current unit based on this feedback.

What sort of reflection do you ask of your students and what do you do with what you get back?

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.