Roles in literature circles have been around since I was in school. They’re as dependable as the tears that come at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life and as boring as elevator music.
We give these roles fun names: Question Generator, Word Sleuth, Connector, Quote Finder, etc. They are supposed to keep students on track in lit. circles and give them a sense of engagement. Yet, in my experience, they always fell short.
First of all, by the time high school rolls around, students have been-there-done-that, gotten the token bumper sticker and selfie shot.
Novelty goes a long way when it comes to student engagement, and role sheets just don’t cut it. As one of my students said, “We’ve been doing the same thing in literature circles since fifth grade.” And, as my own son complained to me the other night, “Why can’t we just read? Assignments make me hate the book, no matter how good it is.”
So, if variety is the spice of life, why are we serving such bland fare to hungry learners? Why do we require them to over-process instead of engaging with texts as readers typically do – through dialogical activities?
Shifting Literature Circle Status Quo
This year, I tried something new, and it’s working well so far. In the spirit of sharing, here’s the 411.
My first step was to secure books that my students actually wanted to read. I enlisted the help of our friendly school librarian for this task. He made an interest-based survey and, based on student responses, selected texts to book talk. Students then selected their top three titles and we formed reading circles based on their choices.
Even if you don’t have a friendly school librarian who is willing to purchase books for your students, you can pull student-approved titles and host a book tasting or, gasp, allow students to choose a book along with their friends.
Selecting based on interest is the first step. This builds excitement, and it’s important not to kill that excitement with too much “work.” Just read, I tell my students. Or, I have them generate questions for discussion based on what they’re reading to bring to their group.
Nothing heavy. Just light-weight stuff at this point.
Compliance or Engagement in Lit. Circles
But how will I know that students actually read, you may ask.
To that I respond – by the quality of their work and conversation IN the literature circles.
To pursue this further, how do we know students read, anyway, even the ones who fill out a homework sheet? They may skim to complete it, or they may copy from a friend outside of class.
To this end, roles in literature circles don’t automatically mean that everyone will read, nor do they ensure quality conversation. They do ensure some level of compliance. But I think we can do much better than that.
Treat students like the readers you want them to become.
Ask them about their reading. Give them time to start reading in class. Ask them to complete a “book bingo” for a random prize or choose the “most ______ sentence” from their reading to round robin to the class as a quick check-in.
And, if students hate the book?
Tell them that it’s okay to dislike a book.
Tell them that adults don’t love all of the books they read, even the ones who join real-life book groups.
Tell them that it’s okay to talk about why they didn’t like a book.
And, finally, if the group generally feels a sense of apathy once they start reading, why do we force them to keep reading? Let them be real-world readers and choose a different title.
How Do Lit. Circles Work?
Okay, okay, so what’s the secret, then?
Well, it seems simple. Easy. Shift the work so that it happens IN class, IN the literature circles.
Activities-based book groups are working, ya’ll.
Here are some ideas:
- Have students create a TikTok or Insta Reel to represent an important theme in the reading and explain it to you.
- Have students complete a hexagonal thinking sort to form connections between details in the text.
- Have students write a ____ word summary of the reading or reduce the reading to a piece of micro fiction
- Have students write a fridge poem (or find a poem) that connects to the reading and explain how details from the texts intersect.
- Have students create a body biography for a character to show how he or she has developed.
- Have students complete a one-pager.
- Have students create a comic strip
- Have students decide on the ____ most important words in the text and use them to create a crib sheet for readers.
- Have students create a top 10 list focused on whatever category you choose.
- Have students discuss the book for a set amount of time and record via Screencastify. Then you could have students watch the discussion and reflect.
- Have students complete a Goosechase based on characters, plot, theme, etc.
- Have students create a GimKit or Quizziz game based on their reading
- Have students discuss via Flipgrid or respond to a prompt.
- Have students conduct research based on something from their reading and explain how it helps them as readers.
- Have students complete a QFT question generation activity.
- Have students participate in a roll-the-dice discussion.
These are just some of the ways that you can switch away from roles in literature circles and start activating students’ curiosity and productivity in class.
As Penny Kittle showed in this video, compliance doesn’t ensure reading. Providing students with choice, community, and engagement is a step in the right direction.
There will always be naysayers or students who don’t read no matter what. But we can’t let them take our focus and attention away from the amazing things that are happening right under our noses.
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.
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