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Have you ever been part of a book club?
A number of years ago (pre-kids and gray hair), my sister taught kindergarten and I taught first and second grade. Though both of us had started our careers with older learners, we loved our young students – and we constantly sought out ways to improve our teaching.
But we also knew that our content knowledge was taking a hit. Most of our school days focused on teaching literacy and math – not high level social studies and science concepts.
To make sure we kept learning about the world around us, we created our own private book club – the Anna-Kate Book Club. Each month we chose a new nonfiction topic, selected our own books, and read them in the rare moments we weren’t in the classroom. At the end of the month, we hopped on the phone to talk about what we’d learned.
Over 15 years (and a total of ten kids between us) later … I still remember many of the things we talked about.
Talking about books is powerful.
It’s so powerful that many teachers have book clubs in their classroom. We often refer to them as literature circles.
What ARE literature circles?
Literature circles are small groups of students who meet to discuss the same book. The discussion guides students to a deeper understanding of the text. With the right modifications, we can implement literature circles in all grade levels.
Woah – groups of kids talking together during classtime. Sounds like it could get out of hand very quickly.
Are literature circles really worth it?
Literature circles have so many benefits! Here are four.
The opportunity to choose their own books and discuss them with their classmates helps our learners develop a love of reading. If they love to read, they’ll be motivated to do it more often. And the more they read, the stronger readers they will become.
Another benefit is the power of conversation. When students talk about their reading, they can become more critical thinkers. Discussion helps them make sense of the text. Feedback from other students helps them form new ideas.
A third benefit is that literature circles allow our students to become active participants in their own learning. “Students commit to reading because they raise the questions and they consider their own experiences as they respond.” (Getting Started with Literature Circles, by Noe & Johnson)
Finally, the literature circle format helps our students learn to have meaningful, respectful discussions – an important life skill, to be sure.
The biggest reason literature circles FAIL
As a new teacher, I had something many young teachers possess – enthusiasm and optimism.
I collected every book I could find about literature circles. I researched, read, highlighted, and knew, without a doubt, that literature circles were right for my classroom.
I quickly prepared some materials and jumped in with both feet.
Quickly the noise and chaos became more than this type A teacher could bear.
I struggled to get literature circles off the ground.
I made the mistake that many teachers make – the biggest reason that literature circles fail – I had failed to think through the logistics and plan accordingly.
Before you begin, think through the logistics.
- How will students choose their books?
- How will you form groups?
- How many groups will meet at a time?
- How often will groups meet?
- As a teacher, what will be your role?
- How will you teach your students how to participate?
- How will students prepare for their meetings?
- How will you and your students assess their learning?
But don’t overthink it.
Yes, you do need to think through all the logistics to make sure that students know what’s expected of them and so you can help them stay on track.
But you don’t have to overdo it.
There are a lot of clever ideas out there about “roles” that you should assign to students in literature circles – the Discussion Director, Word Wizard, Literary Luminary, etc. With this model each student has a particular role in the group – whether that’s to keep everyone on track, point out new vocabulary words, or locate “golden” passages worthy of discussion.
It’s not wrong to use these roles if they work for you and your students. But “sometimes, managing the roles takes so much energy and focus that students lose sight of their real purpose – to talk about books.” (Getting Started with Literature Circles, by Noe & Johnson)
Rather than focusing on specific roles, I recommend a strong focus on helping all students listen and discuss. At the end of this post, you’ll find printable bookmarks that can help.
Just get started.
Just as you shouldn’t jump in before you’ve thought through the details, you shouldn’t wait until you know exactly how everything will go. You can’t plan for every single contingency. At some point, you just need to start.
Make sure you’re clear about what students are responsible for before each meeting. You might give them a half sheet like the one pictured above (it’s included in the download at the end of this post).
Help students reflect on the process.
After you’ve implemented literature circles, assess how they’re going – and include your students. They will not go smoothly at first – and maybe not for some time. Invite your students to do self-assessments, and hold class discussions to talk about things you might improve.
The above self-assessment forms are included in the packet at the end of this post.
I hope this post gave you some things to think about as you plan for literature circles in your classroom!
Where to learn more
- I highly recommend this short book – this oldie but goodie is packed full of goodness!
- The authors of the above book have a companion website – super helpful! You can visit it here.
Check out the rest of my blog series about teaching reading in grades 3-5!