Literature Circles: Our Journey to "Grand Conversations"

This past year teachers in the Jr. Program continued to inquire into how to better engage students in literature circles in more strategic ways.  For me, in the past, I had students reading a set amount of pages per day so that everyone was at the same point in the book.  I wanted to be sure that all students could contribute to the discussion and that no one would be left behind.  The more I learned about differentiation, the more I began to question the way I was setting up literature circles in my classroom.  After reading Faye Brownlie’s Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses I had an “ah ha!” moment.  How could I as an English teacher, who believes in the good of reading, actually tell kids that at a certain point in a book, regardless of whether or not they are enjoying the book, to STOP READING?  Certainly not the right message.

My teaching partner, Cori Penner (@CoriPenner), and I are fortunate enough to work in classrooms that have a collapsable wall that is easily opened to allow us to combine our two classes.  We decided to go for it and let students pick their own books, select their reading groups and read at their own pace.  We started with a common class novel that we used to model how to pick key quotes and show our thinking and responses.  Then we started the literature circles.  For us we have used the literature circles to support us in three ways:

1) We are encouraging students to read as many books as possible.  The department has just recieved 400 new novels (20 copies of 20 titles) so that every student in grade 8 can have a novel to read.  Since Christmas some students are through two novels others have read over ten.  Students who told me they “weren’t readers” have started to enjoy books.  Having the Hunger Games as an option hasn’t hurt!  They use these organizers to “hold their thinking.”

2) We know that when students talk about what they read it helps develop understanding.  Two times a week our students would meet and use Sharon Jeroski’s “Super Seven” to engage in discussions about what they are reading.  After two months of meeting and discussing, students are able to engage in prolonged and deep dicussions about what they are reading.

Sharon’s Super 7 – Developing Oral Language in the Classroom

3) Literature circles help us to support the Jr. Program’s Social Responsibility initiative I blogged about previously.  Students are given opportunities to participate in and reflect upon the discussions through the lens of being committed to group activities and supporting and encouraging others.

I would encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to explore literature circles in your classes.  They can be used as “information circles” in other disciplines where articles and other texts take the place of novels.  Ultimately its about getting students reading strategically and talking purposefully about what they are reading.  This way we are helping them think deeply about the themes and content of our course.


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