Literature circles are more than just the latest educational jargon. They're a trend for a reason: literature circles work! They get our kids engaged, reading, learning, and interacting. Basically, if you want to hit key standards and skills in your ELA class, literature circles are your ticket.
The key to doing literature circles well is spending upfront time getting planned and organized. Backwards planning, knowing where you want your students to be when the literature circles end, is essential.
1. Start with the Standards
I start all planning with the standards and this certainly holds true with literature circles. Decide what standards you need students to master. Ideally, the standards you chose are closely related. For example, my students are currently working in literature circles studying all of the standards focused on reading and writing narratives. We focus on one standard for one or two days, then move onto a new standard, building on our prior knowledge.
Once you know what you need your students to master, you can make a plan for how to get there. Having a standards based goal helps ensure that the skills students are mastering are essential skills that students can build on in future grade levels.
2. Make a Plan
Plan activities that will ensure your students' mastery of the standards. To plan activities, I start by writing standards based learning targets. I reword each standard into student-friendly "I Can" statements. You won't need to change the language dramatically at the secondary level, but I am very conscious and precise with word choice. The more students have a goal in mind for each lesson, the more purposeful they will be. Transparency is important.
Once I have learning targets written, I plan several activities that, one by one, build higher order thinking skills (Bloom's Taxonomy). For example, when mastering the standard W3b., "Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters," students discuss how the author of their novel uses dialogue, pacing, and description. They examine their author's technique within their literature circle: how much or how little dialogue he/she uses, how fast the plot moves, etc. Then, they jigsaw with a student from a different group and teach that student about their author's technique. Next, the students learn about the writing of their partner's author. Finally, students apply the skill in their own narratives. In this case, students begin adding dialogue and description.
By the time the lesson is done, students have discussed their author's writing, closely analyzed it, taught a jigsaw partner about their author's technique, and then applied the skill in their own writing. In literature circles, we work through each standard like this. Some standards require multiple days of activities. Others are mastered after one day.
3. Know the End Game
The first day I introduce literature circles to my students, I explain the purpose of our study: we are using narrative texts as mentor texts to write our own narrative story. From the start, the students and I know the purpose of our literature circle study. Knowing the end game is an essential part of literature circles. Students are more driven when they have purpose and know the "why" behind every activity. Throughout our analysis of our author's writing, we remind ourselves that we are gleaning everything we can from published authors because it will make our own writing stronger.
4. Use a Clear Structure
Finally, it is essential that your literature circles are carefully structured. Each student needs a specific role for the purpose of individual accountability. In my classroom, students fill one of four roles on a weekly rotating basis: discussion director, word wizard, literary luminary, and taskmaster. Students absolutely LOVE having a title and an important position within the group.
Literature circle meetings are also clearly structured and predictable, although I do like to throw in some out-of-your-seat activity every day. Group meetings always start with a quick check of reading logs by the discussion director (teacher checks happen on Fridays). The taskmaster reviews group roles. The word wizard then leads a sharing of powerful vocabulary from the previous night's reading. The discussion director leads the group through their standard based activity. Finally, the literary luminary helps the group to find the best text based evidence to support their discussion and writing. We end meetings with an out of your seat activity, then students individually apply their new understandings in their own narrative writing.
5. Spice it Up
Although we have clear structure and everything is grounded in learning standards, I am a true believer that some of the most meaningful learning happens when kids are out of their seats interacting. I designed each lesson in my literature circle study so students are interacting with students outside of their own literature circle--which opens up the opportunity to hear what other authors are doing.
When designing your own literature circles, consider including some of the following protocol (many are from engageny.org):
Back to Back/Face to Face: Students find a partner, stand back to back with text in hand. Give them a question to think about and find evidence for in their text. Shout, "Face to face!" Students face each other and share answers. Students can find a new partner, stand back to back and start again. I usually do 3-5 rounds.
GoGoMo: GoGoMo stands for Give one, get one, move on. Students write down an answer to a text-based question, find a partner and give an answer, get an answer, then move on to a new partner. With the new partner, students give an answer, get an answer, then move on again. For this activity, I set a timer for 3-5 minutes and allow students to pace themselves through multiple partners.
Jigsaw Partners: When we begin our literature circle study, students are instructed to sign up for three weeks of jigsaw partners. Jigsaw partners must be outside of the student's literature circle. Several times a week after literature circle meetings, students are instructed to get up, find their jigsaw partner and teach each other about their author's technique through the lens of that day's standard. Not only do jigsaw partners give students the opportunity to stretch their legs and move to a new location, but it also gives students the opportunity to work with different people and talk about new authors.
Games: My goal in literature circles was to reinforce each week's skills and standards with a game day on Friday. I do not believe in wasting academic time (not to sound like too much of a stickler!), but I do believe in learning in fun ways! Most of my games are modeled after games I play with my own family: Apples to Apples is my biggest inspiration. To keep kids motivated and get their synapses firing in all sorts of new ways, game days are the perfect way to switch things up and inspire students to think and learn using a different method.
Literature circles allow students to do the work of learning. Teachers become facilitators and students take the wheel as they participate in an authentic learning experience with their classmates. I truly believe that the richest learning experiences occur when we allow students to do the unpacking of a text. Literature circles allow students to dive deep into a text individually. They also allow students to work with a diverse groups of classmates and learn about their different perspectives and experiences with the same text.
I love using literature circles in my classroom. Literature circles teach students to appreciate literature the way life-long readers do.
Check out my complete, print and go, 4-week literature circle program by clicking on any of the pictures below. Enjoy!