Make Literature Circles Work for Your Students

Lit circles have allowed me to say my ideas out loud so I can hear them. If I can hear myself understanding the text then I will understand it even more. I like being able to share my ideas with a larger group. All of the questions collectively help the group understand more, including me.

– Dominick, 6th Grade Humanities Student

Having taught reading for three years, I have used a wide array of practices to get students engaged with text. Literature circles is one method of tackling a book that lets students take charge of their own learning. Students lead the discussion. Students ask the questions. Students share their own opinions, discover interpretations, and listen to what their peers think. Student voices take over the discussion of a book.

Literature circles are not a new practice and they can work in a variety of formats.   There is no one right notecatcher or protocol that I have found to work for every age, learning ability, and style (although I prefer using a double-entry journal to role sheets). What is important is that as a class we practice the skills of close reading, critical thinking, and discussion. However, I have developed a set of guidelines (or maybe beliefs?) that guide my practice.

  1. Create Shared Norms
  2. Communicate  Learning Goals
  3. Reflect
  4. Adapt

Create Shared Norms

At the beginning of the year, I lead a protocol that helps my students create a set of norms for Literature Circles. We explore examples of high quality and low quality discussions, as well as learning about the purpose of literature circles. The norms vary from year to year, but what the students are always invested in them because they created them as a community.

Communicate Learning Goals

Each discussion we have clear learning goals, which might be skill-based, content-based or both. Students become familiar with the discussion rubric and we assess ourselves and our peers on our performance. We give and get feedback on these learning goals through peer observation, group reflection, recording and video annotation.

Reflect

Before each discussion, students set a SMART goal for themselves for that literature circle. Maybe it’s to talk at least three times, maybe it’s to use evidence from the text to support their answer.   Whatever it is, it is drawn from our norms, our learning goals, and their assessment of how they are doing based on feedback. We wrap up each literature circle with a debrief in order to anchor our thinking about the text and reflect on how we did that day.

Adapt

Each class and each individual student responds to literature circles differently. I am ready to adapt my practice to the students in front of me. Sometimes this requires me to revisit the norms, model individual discussion techniques, or be more “hands on” with certain groups. Other times it forces me to be more innovative, allowing me to amplify the learning by integrating new technology into an old practice.

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