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 “Captain Character” and, as the name suggests, the focus is all about the characters. This role has four parts. First, students select a character from the text and record his/her important actions from today’s selection. This requires them to first consider what was most important from the selection and then decide how their character’s actions played a part. They can also choose to write about actions that taught us something important about a character. Perhaps he did something unexpected in the passage or she behaved in a way that solidified a trait we had already assumed. Either way, the focus is on pinpointing character actions that are believed to be important.
Second, students are on the look out for important words in the text. These can be words stated by the character or words related to something he or she does. For instance, students might write down a word or phrase the character is known for saying. It might also be a word that describes a hobby or affinity of a character. As with the first task, students must include pieces of the text that support their answers and the page number(s) where this evidence was found.
Third, students assign a character trait fitting this person. After reading several chapters in the text and paying attention to important words and actions, students should be able to determine an accurate character trait for him or her. In addition to the trait, students give evidence from the passage from the text that exemplifies this trait.
Last, students draw a detailed picture of their character. Their drawing should be reflective of how the author has described the character throughout the text.
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. Again today I’m looking for evidence of critical thinking. It would be easy to focus on important events in the chosen passage and simply write these down. However, that isn’t what this job is about. I want students to be able to make connections to characters’ actions and words and the plot. Are they able to see that what a character does impacts what happens in the overall story? This takes practice and my students have had their share of it. Finding important words may be more of a challenge, especially if students are focused solely on the dialogue in the text. I’ll be most interested in what they deem important here.
I listen in to their conversations first rather than directing it myself. I try to limit my voice in the discussion as much as possible so that students break their reliance on me as the leader. I step in only when I see them struggling to the point of stalling or to highlight and praise exceptional work. After spending a few minutes with one 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.