Lit Circles: Are Roles Needed? Can I Stop Scaffolding Students to Death

I spent the day today researching about Lit Circles. I know this is a popular strategy among many educators for engaging readers. Last year, my teaching partner and I implemented what we called reading groups. It was a mishmash of ideas that we threw together in an effort to get kids reading together and applying strategies that we modeled during read alouds.

I’m embarrassed to say that, in the end, the emphasis in these groups was to read aloud, summarize chapters and make individual inferences that they submitted on post-its. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for discussion although some happened naturally. Successful elements were that we mixed groups between our sections and based groups on reading interest. We’re looking, however, to drastically improve this model, so thus, I’ve been reading up on Lit Circles.

Lit Circle Roles

I’ve read lots of articles and lesson plans that refer to Lit Circle Roles. There are all different lists of roles out there, but some common ones are “Discussion Director,” “Literary Luminary,” “Word Wizard,” etc. Each student takes on one of these roles and after independently reading, prepares to fulfill this role at their next Lit Circle meeting. Many sites provide worksheets for students to complete in order to prepare for their role.

DOWN WITH WORKSHEETS!

Along with my long list of goals as a teacher for this coming year, one goal is:

Stop Scaffolding Students to Death.

Illustration: After all the scaffolding, they’re at the top, but can they get down and do it again on their own with confidence?
(“Falling off the Property Ladder” by William Murphy Shared under CC BY-SA license.)

After all the scaffolding, they’re at the top, but can they get down and do it again on their own with confidence?

In other words, in my fear of being a bad teacher and not being clear about expectations, I think I tend to over-scaffold my students. I give them outlines, sentence frames, sentence starters, webs, organizers, etc. All our projects have rubrics and each stage and element of the project is outlined and assessed. I’m not saying these strategies don’t have their place; however, I am saying that I was getting this question a lot last year, “Is this right?”

I hate that question because 1. I’m immediately tempted to give my opinion and sometimes do without thinking and 2. It means the student doesn’t trust his or her own personal judgement but thinks they need my approval at every step before moving on. I secretly fear that this is what Ken Robinson is in part referring to when he says that schools stifle creativity.

I’m wondering if Lit Circle roles fall into the same category. Why not give students a choice of how they’re going to respond to literature. Why can’t they respond in a why they are inspired to, not just to fill a role?

I started thinking about this when I read this on Laura Candler’s page :

Literature Circles with Roles – I personally don’t recommend this model, but I’ve left information about it on this page because many people have heard of it. I have not found it to be particularly effective with all types of learners.

I searched for other opinions on this to no avail. The vast majority of Lit Circle sites talk about assigning roles. I found one other resource that alludes to having students generate their own roles.

Good Reader Strategies Instead of Roles

Okay, so, what do you do if you’d don’t have roles? Last year, my students and I developed a list of “Good Reader Strategies” in line with the CAFE model. We worked on things like making connections, visualizing, making inferences, asking questions, summarizing, etc. They have a good background for fifth grade (I’m looping with them this coming year!) to discuss good reader strategies.

In my last post, I talked about assigning App Play with Animoto as homework. Students will spend a week thinking about what good readers do and create an Animoto video and written reflection representing their ideas. I  have this project outlined in four steps with a presentation on the fifth day .  I would like to do this the first week of school and get kids re-imagining themselves as readers right away. After creating their Animoto Videos on what good readers do, I’d like for us to generate a list of reading strategies that reflects student language. The list might look something like this, but I’m hoping the students will have more insights than I do at the moment:

Good Readers…

  1. Make connections
  2. Make predictions
  3. Make a movie in their mind/Visualize
  4. Ask questions
  5. Makes inferences
  6. Summarize the important events/ideas
  7. Look for themes and messages
  8. Notice powerful language/passages
  9. Notice interesting vocabulary
  10. Research background information

My plan is to use this list as a menu of choice on their Lit Circle Journal assignments. That is, each week while preparing for their Lit Circle meeting, students will read independently, then write a journal that highlights one of these strategies. From their Journals, they will create at least one discussion question for the group.

Why Strategies and Not Roles?

Again, I could assign roles as per more traditional Lit Circles. I feel this “use a strategy” rather than a “role” approach builds on what we did last year and might be more flexible and encourage kids to respond how they feel inspired to not just to fulfill a role. Each person is responsible to come prepared to their group with a discussion question, so they all have a role, but it’s more open-ended based on what struck them while reading. With roles, they are only supposed to pay attention to one aspect to fulfill their role. I realize that students rotate roles in traditional Lit Circles, however, it’s the “assignment” that gets me. For example, I’m the “Word Wizard” this week, but what I truly respond to passionately while reading may not include vocabulary. If I’m the “Word Wizard,” do I ignore the interesting insight I have about the theme or the mental picture I got in a particular scene? What if I passionately want to write about my connection to the character and could care less about interesting words this week?

What about students who have trouble choosing or choose the same strategy over and over again? With struggling students, we can differentiate by assigning a strategy, so they have something to focus on if they need that support at first. During roll-out student will practice applying each strategy at least once before choosing on their own. As we notice trends, we can also narrow the choice by saying, “This week, choose a strategy from #6-10,” or “This week your choices are 7, 8 or 9, etc.” This still allows for choice, but also gives me the opportunity to push kids out of their comfort zone if needed. Groups might even decide to assign strategies ahead of time on occasion as well.

I think using strategies instead of roles eliminates the process of learning about “roles” and the expectation of each role as well as avoids multiple worksheets and graphic organizers. This structure will allow students to continue practicing good reader strategies but do it in a way  that feels more natural, generating real discussions around questions they care about rather than each student filling their role one after the other.

Roll-Out

Each week, during roll-out of this program, I plan to highlight a strategy from the list and model it using a common text that we’re all reading.

Later, after book selection and forming groups, each week, each member in all Lit Circles will select a strategy from the list above (or a similar list generated by students) and journal about it early in the  week. All members generate questions based on his/her reflection and each leads a mini-discussion during the meeting later in the week. There’s also a “Secretary” that records the ideas of the group using a meeting guide. They work together to develop a report about conclusions made during the discussion. The group then reflects about how they did as a group.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure if my approach is new or unique, but I feel I have blended some successful ideas into a model that is both flexible and student-centered. This is all conjecture right now, so I’ll have reflect on this about mid-year next year.

My blog is called “TeachCuriously.” I don’t want to do things a certain way because teachers do it that way. I will never stop learning from teachers. Teachers are wonderful, adaptable, passionate creatures. Lit Circle roles sound like a great idea and seem to have worked for a lot of teachers. I’m looking for different, however. When I have gone to book club meetings outside of school, I didn’t have a role. I read, highlighted things that interested me, came up with questions for my group or discussion topics. The discussions that came from this were sometimes explosive. We had members crying at one meeting and yelling at the next because we were so passionately involved in the discussion. (Apologies, if necessary, were always delivered.)

If a “role” doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me, why should I impose it on my students? I want to encourage my students to be free-thinkers, to follow their gut and raise important questions. I have a heart-feeling that Role Sheets will stifle this, and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Stay tuned…I’ll report back once I’ve tried it.

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