How do you get started?
As we lay
the foundation for literature circles, I’ve found that it
works best to have the whole class read the same novel.
This sets the stage, providing guided practice with all components
of literature circles that students will later apply more independently
in their groups formed around book choices.
Beginning the year with all students reading the same book
gives them a chance to develop the skills, strategies, and behaviors
that create the foundation for successful literature circles throughout
the year. For this
first unit, I choose an engaging book that is accessible to all
of my students. This
is often a short novel that will lead into a longer book. For example, the sixth graders read The Song of the Trees (1975), then follow up with Roll of Thunder,
Hear My Cry (1976), both by
Mildred Taylor. This
first unit is a training session, so it’s important to go
slowly, provide clear modeling, and review my expectations often.
How do you help students understand the purpose
of discussion?
This first round is really a training session so we go slowly
and all procedures are modeled and reviewed.
Students need some guidance about what I expect from their
literature circle conversations.
• Brainstorming to launch discussions: After students have read several chapters of the wholeclass
novel, we prepare for discussion with a short brainstorming session.
I ask the class, “What are some things in these first
chapters that you could talk about fruitfully in your groups?”
I record their ideas on the board for students to refer to
during the discussion.
• Fishbowl: Students also need to see
and hear examples of discussion in order to begin to understand
what to do. I ask
the fifth grade teachers for names of students they think are especially
good at discussing literature.
I then ask five of those students in each reading class to
come the following day prepared to discuss The Song of
the Trees. In "fish bowl"
style these five students sit in the front of the classroom and
carry on a discussion about the book while everyone else listens
and observes. When the discussion is over, students
identify what happened that contributed to a good discussion. These items are recorded on a poster,
displayed in the classroom and become our model of strategies for
a good discussion.
How are the literature circle
groups formed?
I
find that groups of four or five students work the best.
Larger groups tend to break off into side conversations,
and groups with only three students don’t seem to have enough
energy or diversity of ideas.
I form these first groups myself, making them as heterogeneous
as possible by balancing personalities, gender, and ability levels.
Later, when students
choose from an array of books, I form the groups according to students’
choices. I “booktalk”
each of the novels, describe some enticing aspects of the book,
and give students an idea of the number of pages and level of difficulty.
After they’ve
head about each book, students take time to examine copies of all
of the choices. I suggest
that they read a page or two to get a sense of the characters and
the overall flavor of the book.
Students vote for a first, second, and third choice on a
ballot. In my class, this ballot is a blank piece of recycled paper;
other teachers use preprinted forms.
I can form groups in just a few minutes, honoring each student’s
first choice whenever possible.
However, I also make some strategic decisions about which
students work well together (or not!) and ensure that there are
both outgoing and more reticent students balanced among the groups.
How often do students discuss?
To fuel a good discussion,
students need to be far enough into a book to care about the characters
but not so far that they can’t remember details.
Each group usually meets for a discussion once a week, resulting
in three discussions during the course of reading the book: one
near the beginning, one in the middle, and a final discussion after
students have completed the whole novel.
What does a typical week look like?
Monday 
515 min.
1030 min.

Set reading schedule for the week.
Discuss journal topics.
Students begin to read and write in journals. 
Tuesday 
1020 min.
1030 min.

Focus lessons (chapters 4, 5, and 6)
Two or three groups discuss.
Other students read or write in journals. 
Wednesday 
1020 min.
1030 min.

Focus lessons (chapters 4, 5, and 6)
Two or three groups discuss.
Other students read or write in journals. 
Thursday 
45 min. 
Students read or write in journals. 
Friday 
45 min. 
Independent reading day (selfselected
books) 
What about teaching
reading skills?
Minilessons that focus
on reading skills or strategies or literature circle procedures
are interspersed throughout each unit where they are most relevant. They usually take about 10  15 minutes
at the beginning or end of the 45minute reading period.
What do you do when students
are finished reading the books?
Completing a literature
circle unit usually takes 3 to 4 weeks for reading, discussions,
and written response. I
find that many students naturally gravitate toward various art forms
to respond to a book. Therefore,
we generally culminate the unit with an extension project. The purpose
of this project is to extend their understanding of the book related
to the theme of the unit and to celebrate literature.
For each unit I usually give students three or four choices
of projects. They begin their project by filling out
a planning sheet that explains what they are going to do, how they
are going to do it, and how it reflects their understanding of the
book they read. I usually allow 1 week for students to
complete their extension projects during class time.
What do you do the rest of the
year?
Depending on the class
and the yearly schedule, we will do four or five literature circle
units during the school year.
Inbetween each unit we take a break for two to four weeks
and focus on a nonfiction unit, poetry, or some other area of interest
and need. Nonfiction and poetry are great topics
for literature circle discussions, too, but I find that changing
the format for a few weeks between each literature circle cycle
keeps students fresh and interested.
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