Moving Beyond Literature Circles

When I first moved up to teach middle school many years ago the conversation shifted from the importance of guided reading instruction to the value of literature circles.  These kid-friendly versions of book clubs were all the rage and teacher guides began popping up everywhere.  Moving beyond the standard novel study (the whole class reading the same book) to small groups reading novels in sets of 5 or 6 this process felt revolutionary at the time.  I am not sure if the first literature circle pioneers intended it but, the version I was presented with was very teacher driven and required set roles assigned to each student and a very strict set of how-to guidelines.

I loved this concept at the time.  I felt like I was offering authentic, engaging reading experiences for my students. But somewhere in my heart I knew this was not ideal for everyone.  I was levelling kids whether I intended to or not. And I was setting up my ELLs and my students with special education needs for less success and comfort, even if that was the opposite of my intent.  I knew some novels would not “work” for those kids who were reading at a lower level than the grade (and quite frankly publishers) expected. I found “lower” level texts but, the kids knew that their books were vastly different from the others.  The group that was made up of these readers often came less prepared and seemed less engaged.  Now at the time, one part of me thought – well that is their job – come prepared and ready to learn.

But another part of me wondered – why is this not working for everyone and how can I make it better?

Fast forward a few more mat leaves, a change of school board and a couple of schools later. I am now back in the library (as those of you who have read before certainly know).  I have grown and struggled with new ideas and the desire to level the playing field for all learners but, I have yet to challenge myself to really experiment with the idea of moving beyond literature circles in a meaningful way.

An idea from a library colleague I greatly admire had sat in my brain for a couple years but, I was just not sure how to begin.  I reached out to her (thanks @Laholwerda for your inspiration & support) and I began reframing my thinking yet again.

The librarian’s best friend is always the classroom teacher willing to be the first to try something new.

I was lucky enough to find that person in a lovely grade 5/6 teacher this year.  When she expressed a desire to look at her reading program together I immediately proposed my “literature discussion” adventure. She was brave enough to jump on board for the ride.

So here is what it looked like:

  • Based on the social justice work the teacher had done all year we looked at the theme of “Overcoming Adversity” as our connecting “big idea”
  • I selected a wide range of single copy texts from the library collection (about 10 more than the total # of students)
  • The variety included reading level, length of text, Canadian and non-Canadian authors, main characters representing many races, faiths, socio-economic statuses and gender etc, as well as settings from all around the world and from many time periods.
  • The texts would be categorized as realistic fiction with some cross-over into historical fiction.
  • We introduced the concept of adversity and what it means to face and overcome it relating it back to the current events and topics they had already discussed in class.
  • Later that week the students came down to the library where they found all the selected books spread out on the tables.
  • They were to explore the books.  Read the back/inside cover, read the first page or two.  Talk to their friends.  Talk to us. And then submit the list of their top 5 they were interested in reading.  (They could put a * beside their favourite choice but knew nothing was guaranteed)
  • We made one small mention of reviewing “just right” books when self-selecting and asked them to consider this as they wrote their lists. But we had laid this foundation earlier in the year and wanted a clear message that interest and curiosity were essential.
  • These requests became the tool I used to dole out the books.  I knew the readers well enough to be a bit strategic in my assigning as I was also the ESL/Special Education support teacher for the class.
  • We inadvertently built the tension of anticipation as we had to wait a week or so to get the time to get the books into the hands of our readers.
  • We hosted 3 “literature discussion” sessions in the library learning commons thought the process.
  1. Before Reading (1 session)
  2. During Reading (2 sessions)
  • In other words, our kids met in small groups just like a literature circle but each had a different book on a connected theme.
  • We wanted them to have a “cafe” feel so we made it as relaxed and comfortable as we could. (We even had hot chocolate and treats from a local coffee shop for our last session.)
  • Simultaneously, we had a very active student blog discussion page.  This is where general but thought-provoking questions that could be applied to any of the texts were posted by myself.
  • This required students to pick two questions from each phase of our reading to respond to for a total of 6 questions.  Each time they were to respond to one in writing on the blog and come prepared to discuss and share the other questions with their group.
  • The discussion groups were never the same.  And for the final session they selected their own.
  • They were expected to respond and ask questions of each both on the blog and in person.
  • We also responded by giving feedback and asking questions on the blog format and during the discussions.
  • The final layer as they read was to track the elements of their story in some form of visual story map. (They had co-created these in small groups early on and had experience with them from earlier in the year.)

And now our kids are challenged with a final task. I have given them my job.  They are all temporary teacher librarians tasked with promoting a wide variety of texts to the school population.  They are using all of the reading, dialogue, reflecting, writing and story mapping to create a promotional package for the book they selected.  They are free to use any format they chose as long as the list of required ideas are included.

I caught a brief preview of their final sharing practice session today and I am blown away! I am so proud of the deep conversation about their books and the theme of overcoming adversity.  The excitement about their books has spread amongst them so much so that I have had to promise to leave the collection in their classroom for a bit so they can take turns reading each others’ books before I send them back into regular circulation!

There are certainly changes and improvements we made along the way and lots of “when we do this next time” conversation between the teacher and I. However, the overall experience has been rewarding, revealing and engaging.

Maybe in another 10 years I will think this idea is one I need to move beyond.

But right now I only see possibilities for moving forward!

3 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Literature Circles

  1. Love it! I have been using literature circles this term in grade 3 with much success. Looking forward to integrating some of these great ideas for next time. What are you guys using for blogging?

    1. I used Kidblogs. You do have to pay for it now but I found it the simplest to use. I also used it for my Silver Birch and Red Maple book clubs so it was worth it for me. Many people having luck with the Google Classroom as well. But I have yet to try that option with a class.

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