Teaching Writer's Craft in Literature Circles

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SWBAT understand how structure works to convey meaning in texts.

Big Idea

"The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting." --Arthur Schopenhauer

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Context and Time Frame

At times English teachers can get a bit preoccupied with parsing out the details of a books structure. Literature circles offer us an opportunity to take a more casual approach to teaching the writer's craft. Still, I want students to know enough about a book's structure to read it insightfully. Thus, I teach a lesson on the writer's craft/structure for each book. This lesson usually necessitates I meet with groups over a two-day period. Also, I teach the lesson early on in the unit, generally right after having students choose their books. 

Each book has a different structure, so I meet with the groups individually in the following order:

  • Life of Pi
  • Tuesdays with Morrie
  • MAUS
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • That Shakespeare Kid

I follow the order above because I want to address the books with structural issues that define how students should read them first. While I meet with each group, students in other groups have time to read, or the teacher can have them meet independently to discuss the reading they have completed up to that point. 


First Things First: How to Read the Books We've Chosen

15 minutes

As I meet with each group, I have notes prepared to share with students. Teacher Notes for Structure of Literature Circle Books shows some of the notes I've compiled. But because literature circles have an inherent informality to them, I allow discussion to proceed organically. 

I begin with a question to students: What do you notice about the book's structure? MAUS Group Taking Notes in Lit Circle This allows each group to let me know how they're thinking about their books. I learn weather or not the Tuesdays with Morrie group read the opening preface that is so important to the book, whether or not the Life of Pi group read the "Author's Note," etc. 

Three of the books--Tuesdays with Morrie, Pride and Prejudice, and That Shakespeare Kid--are books I have not taught before. I have taught MAUS and Life of Pi as whole-class reads. Consequently, allowing the students to direct their discussion with me is vital to the success of literature circles. 

A resource vital to understand comic structure is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I have a copy of the book that those reading MAUS use as a reference: Cover of "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud

Groups Meet to Discuss and Take Notes on Craft and Structure

100 minutes

After the initial discussion with each group, I have the MAUS group meet and view an  Understanding Graphic Novels.ppt and take notes. Graphic Novel Structure Student Notes and Graphic Novel Structure Student Notes (2) and Graphic Novel Structure Student Notes (3) show the results of this self-directed "lecture" on the book. At a later time I meet with the group and clarify information from the Ppt. MAUS Group viewing Ppt on Graphic Novel Structure shows that students can be trusted to do this work independently and remain on task when proper norms are set. 

Life of Pi is another book that requires additional scaffolding. To assist students with the book, I have them listen to an NPR broadcast of Yann Martel discussing the novel's inspiration and structure. 

Since I have not taught Pride and Prejudice, I find it helpful to make a free iPad app called Pride and Prejudice Quick Notes, available in the iTunes Store, available to students. Pride and Prejudice Quick Notes.mp4 offers a short introduction to the app and what I like about it. 

Those who have iPads can download the app onto their devices. So that students have access to this resource, I keep my iPad available for their use and ask them to bring headphones to class so they can listen to the apps lectures w/out disturbing other students. Pride and Prejudice Quick Notes Pic Collage shows images from the app, which features summaries, analysis, and audio so students have state-of-the-art resources available as they read the book. A good way to introduce students to the app is with the following video, which I use as a supplement to my showing students the app on an iPad: