From the very first time I learned of literature circles in college, I’ve always been a fan. My idea about what those “circles” should look like has changed dramatically over the years, but in some form or another they’ve always been an integral piece of my language block.
When I first introduce book groups to students, we all read the same book and have jobs as in traditional literature circles. However, I use this method simply to teach routines and jumpstart conversations around the books that students read. I choose a short, simple title that all students in the room can read and one we can complete fairly quickly. Once students understand the process of being responsible for chapter book readings, responding to what they’ve read, and participating in meaningful conversations about their reading, the process changes. Students then have greater control by helping to select the books that they read, planning their reading assignments, and conducting their own conversations without the structure of assigned jobs.
In these few lessons, I give an overview in getting book groups/ book clubs/ literature circles started in the classroom. The book I chose to use is I Survived: The Sinking of the Titanic [Tarshis, L. (2011). I survived: The sinking of the Titanic. New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks]. It was chosen for several reasons including readability, interest among students, and it’s excellent tie-in with our nonfiction unit on the Titanic.
I ask students to collect their notebooks, pencils, Titanic books, and head to their meeting tables. As soon as students finish their reading selection, they are to begin their focus sheet of the day. I pass this out and explain it before they begin reading so that they are well prepared to complete it once finished or have the option to begin working on the task while conducting their reading.
Today’s job is “Iron Investigator” and its focus is questioning. Students are asked to record questions they have at three points in their reading and record answers, if found. As with every job, this is meant simply to kick-start the idea of a specific focus. Do I expect students to get in the habit of writing down a question they have before reading every day? No – I surely don’t in my own reading. However, I do want students to become aware of the questions they have about a text, pursue answers, and be able to recognize when they have answered those questions. I feel that this is an important skill in thinking critically about one’s reading.
After recording their questions, I tell students that they are responsible for “investigating” their texts for answers. I remind them that an assigned passage may not contain answers for every question. If that is the case, they can write “not answered” in the text on their sheets.
Within each group, students can choose to read with a buddy, independently, or with their entire tables. They also can choose to remain in their assigned meeting area to read or move around the room. I give students their reading assignment, ask them to write it on their sheets, and have them begin working. Once finished with their reading, students complete their focus sheets independently. They have approximately thirty minutes to complete both their reading and writing.
During this time, I walk the room checking in with groups that need extra support or conduct reading conferences.
As students complete their focus sheets, they return to their assigned meeting area as a signal that they are ready to share their work. If they arrive early, they simply read independently until all members arrive. Once there, students take turns talking about the selection, their assigned task, and connections they can make to each other’s work.
During this time, I continue to walk the room working listening to conversations and helping to spark connections when needed. Today I’m looking to see if students were able to write meaningful questions that exhibit critical thinking rather than surface level questions. Although we’ve been working on asking and answering questions all year, I know that there are some students who struggle in this area. As I check and connect with each group, I provide examples of how to extend the conversation beyond simply reading what was written on their pages. For example, one student wrote the question, “I wonder if Marco and Enzo will survive.” Great thought! Much better than, “What will happen next?” So I get the group talking about this idea. I ask students to share with me what they remember from our research about survivors – what type of passenger had the most survivors? They tell me first class and I agree. I ask them to think about what class Marco and Enzo are and they reply third. So we discuss the possibilities of them being survivors based on what we know from our research. I also remind them that this is a fiction story and not necessarily based on reality. We make predictions on whether or not the author will allow these particular third class passengers to survive after they’ve become fairly important to the story.
After spending a few minutes with this group, I move on to the next. It is my hope that this “check and connect” time will jump start meaningful conversations that continue well after I leave.
After all groups have shared, I bring everyone’s attention to the front of the room where we have a quick wrap-up of today’s work. I direct the conversation around today’s focus and point out examples of excellent work that I saw or heard while walking the room. Then I preview tomorrow’s assignment, have students collect their materials, and return to their desks.