Student-Led Literature Circles

I hosted my first Twitter chat this week on the subject of Literature Circles and Book Clubs. Over the past year, I have been taking part in a lot of chats on various topics in education, but to host one was a completely different experience. I never realized how fast an hour can go by. The chat was under the hashtag – #5thchat.

The topic of literature circles is something I have been working on this year in my class. I’ve done them before but with very little success. This past summer I read Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz and Literature Circles – Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups by Harvey Daniels. These two books provided me with a lot of ideas and information on how to set up circles and do them consistently throughout the year. It’s January, and I have done literature circles three times this year and I hope to continue at this pace for the remainder of the year.

The #5thchat is a popular hashtag and finding the chat in its entirety by now will be quite difficult. This is a link to Storify where I saved it immediately following the chat. One thing I noticed about the responses was that there was a range of experiences when working with circles in the classroom. For some teachers, it was new and something they were looking to start, for others they had done it in the past, but it lost momentum and stopped. For others, it was something they did regularly and they offered a variety of options and ideas for how to run circles in a classroom.

I didn’t really get to comment too much during the chat since I was keeping track of time and when to tweet the next question. I wanted to use this post to explain how literature circles have progressed in my class since September. I also hope to return to this post in June with more insight about the process and how it worked with my class.

Starting Small

Creating a student-led atmosphere in the class requires giving up control that teachers might have a hard time doing. The first literature circle I did introduced the idea of student choice of a novel. I only offered two novels to choose from, but the students felt it was better than all reading the same novel chosen by the teacher. The two novels I offered were Hatchet and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I deliberately picked these two novels because they centered around the themes of survival and isolation for the main characters. We were able to compare and contrast several passages in each novel where the main character ….. As far as using roles in literature circles, I used four roles (Passage Picker, Questioner, Artist, and Connector) and introduced individually and worked as a whole class at the start of the novel. For the rest of the novel, groups only worked on one role at a time, but they chose which one to do for that day.

More Novels, More Choice

I did literature circles about a month later. This time the students had a choice of 5 novels to choose from and I added the role of Word Wizard to the roles. The five novels I chose were:

  • A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
  • Superfudge by Judy Bloom
  • Fudge-a-Mania by Judy Bloom
  • Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
  • Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Most novels had four to six students, however, Tuck Everlasting only had two students. This was too small for a circle and in the future I will set a minimum number of four to a group. I also gave the students more choice when it came to the roles. Every other time we met in circles, I allowed students to choose whatever role they wanted. The other times I assigned them a specific role. This was not so much a control issue for me, but I wanted to make sure that each student had enough practice with each role.

We are currently doing a class novel study with The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. There is no student choice in the novel we are doing, but they are able to choose whatever role they want for when we meet in our discussion groups. They also have the option of just keeping notes in their journals or with post-it notes. This enables them to not be confined to just one role while they are reading.

What’s Next

The next set of smaller literature circles I plan on doing will be in February. The novels will all be by the author, Christopher Paul Curtis. The novels they can choose from are:

  • Elijah of Buxton
  • The Mighty Miss Malone
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham

Following this, I plan on doing one more set of literature circles before May and our end-of-grade tests. I hope to return to a larger selection of novels, maybe 5 or 6. The novels I have in mind for this are:

  • Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
  • Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech

Students will be able to choose any one of these three novels and they will have a choice over the roles they do or the notes they keep. I am hoping that the practice we have had up to this point will make these literature circles completely student-led.


Using Jacob’s Ladder with song lyrics

As a music major, I try to incorporate various aspects of music into the class. One idea I had from a PD session at school was creating our own Jacob’s Ladder to song lyrics.

I started using the ladders this year with song lyrics as a way to help students with theme. Determining the theme of a story, poem, song, etc. is a concept that students struggle with when studying larger novels, short stories, and especially poetry.  I thought  with a shorter 3 or 4 minute song it might make it easier before moving on to harder text.

The biggest problem I had with this was that my taste in music is usually different than my 10 year old students. So far this year, I have only used songs that I selected, but I might open this up next year to having students choose some songs and develop ladders around them.

This idea first came to me last year when we did The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. The story is set in a middle school in Long Island during the 1967-68  school year. Topics such as the Cold War and the Vietnam War come up throughout the story and I was looking for ways to teach about these topics and show the emotional impact they had then and now. I was a big Billy Joel fan growing up (still am) and was in high school when his Storm Front album was released. The song Leningrad immediately came to mind and I played it for the class and we discussed the lyrics.  This year I decided to create a ladder based on the lyrics. The other song I played at the end of the novel was Goodnight, Saigon.  I was a little hesitant about this because of some of the lyrics (Playboy and hash pipe), but this really did not come up at all in our discussion. I made a ladder for this to go along with the novel and give us more focus in our discussion.

The Storm Front ladder is something I use as a way to introduce the music and lyrics of Billy Joel to the class.  I also use it as a way to discuss theme. I remember when I first heard this song I took it in the literal sense and thought it was strange that he would be writing about going out fishing.  It wasn’t until I heard an interview when he explained the metaphor behind it. The urge to shrug off stability and ride off into a storm despite the dangers. I realize my students might not get this concept, but at least it gets them thinking on a higher level.