Mastering Literature Circles: Help Students Take Ownership of Their Learning

For many years I was hesitant to use literature circles in my class. When I was a student teacher, I observed a class that was supposed to be doing literature circles, and students just socialized. I was uncertain about literature circles for many reasons: How would I group students? How could I ensure that they would read and have good discussions? How would I assess them? However, my belief in giving my students choices and my hope that they would take ownership for their learning prompted me to try them despite my uncertainty.

In traditional literature circles, students are grouped by their book selections, but I plan my groups carefully beforehand. At the beginning of the school year, I give a reading diagnostic which gives me a grade level equivalency for my students’ reading abilities. By putting students in groups with similar reading abilities, I am able to differentiate and provide appropriate book choices to each group. I also take group dynamics, work ethic, and learning styles into consideration. It takes time, but if the unit is prepared well, the teacher will be able to act as a facilitator.
literature circles
Additionally, I make single-gender groups whenever possible. It provides some of the advantages of single-gender education in a coed classroom. And truly, I’m amazed at how well this has worked! Furthermore, this also helps me to plan book choices for the groups. Although it may seem stereotypical, many of my girls prefer books with female protagonists, romance, and drama. For instance, I often include the following books choices for my girls: The Joy Luck Club, Water for Elephants, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Bell Jar, The Color Purple, The Help, or The Lovely Bones. In contrast, I provide the following titles for my boys: Into Thin Air, The Things They Carried, Lone Survivor, Catcher in the Rye, The Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Red Badge of Courage. Clearly, I have a range of novels- classics, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction- to help engage a variety of readers.

I also plan the outline for a schedule; however, when they choose their books, they identify the pages and chapters they will read for each meeting. They also select roles for their meetings, which require them to be prepared and accountable. These jobs include the leader (who writes discussion questions to start each meeting), vocabulary master, researcher, literary element educator, and highlighter. Each group provides a copy of this information to me, so I know their schedules and roles.

On the day before the first meeting, I give several students a ‘script’ so they can role-play a literature circle group meeting with a book they read in 10th grade. They present in a “fishbowl,” and I model note-taking for the class because this is one way that I assess their discussions. At first I peruse their notes carefully, providing feedback for future meetings, but soon I don’t have to grade the notes as carefully. I also use peer and self-evaluations, which are averaged at the end of the unit. The students often provide meaningful feedback to one another. For instance, a student may praise his group’s leader for reminding them to look in the text and keeping them on task. Then again, students have been known to mark a classmate with a low score and comment with a reason such as the group member came unprepared or was frequently absent.

Literature circles are one of my favorite units to teach, and I have students apply their learning to other readings in class after they finish. It’s reward to watch the students respond to their books in meaningful ways and take control of their learning. They appreciate the autonomy, and I know they will definitely be better prepared for college.

How do you use literature circles in your classroom?

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.
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