Lit Circles Revisited

This is a video of students discussing questions from the discussion prompts for the novel Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. It’s an example of how students have learned the procedures and are now having rich conversations about what they are reading. In the video, the discussion prompt is, “What is something you don’t understand?” One student replied, “Why are Rachel and Jerry so dumb?” He’s referring to the fact that they haven’t figured out who stole their dog even though there are many clues pointing to the culprit. Each student takes a turn sharing their ideas. In the process, they discuss how the narrator is giving the reader clues that the characters don’t necessarily have.

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I just re-read my post “Lit Circles: Are Roles Needed?“.  Lit Circles have definitely evolved in my class over this year.

I started with my ideas in the linked post above. I didn’t want “Roles”, but planned to have students take notes on what they read, create questions of their own and prepare for meetings using a specific strategy: Visualizing, Inferencing, Summarizing, etc.

The challenges were many:

  • Teaching students how to do the “note-taking” which involved identifying important events and conflicts in the story took longer than expected
  • Students needed a lot of guidance to write questions that incited discussion and not yes or no answers or repeat the same thing over and over
  • Teaching students how to “use the strategy” and prepare their assignment for the meeting took away a lot of time from actual meetings
  • Students didn’t do their homework and were often unprepared for meetings
  • Meetings were taken up with a lot of “presenting” and not a lot of discussion
  • There never seemed to be enough time to teach the procedures and give students time to practice

Ultimately, introducing all the new procedures and skills necessary for them to be successful took a while to get off the ground. Second quarter it got better, but students were still struggling with coming up with questions that would guide meaningful discussions, and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the results. And frankly, the students got bored.

Third quarter brought on a new way of doing things. I made some simple changes that seemed to improve things a lot:

1. Added a day for independent reading and conferences. This allowed me to meet one on one with students who needed help with procedural issues, skills and gave all students time to prepare quality assignments with in-class guidance.

2. I asked specific questions about their work that students then had to reflect on and answer about previous work at the beginning of their independent reading time. This helped them develop the quality of their work over time.

3. I still had students write discussion questions, but I added a bank of questions that helped guide this portion of the meeting. Simple prompts like, “Talk about a part that confused you,” or “Talk about a part that made you laugh,” really spiced up the conversations.

4. I took time to choose high-interest texts for students all within the same genre of mystery and grouped them based on interest. I read them beforehand and took notes to help me guide them in making specific inferences, highlight important vocabulary and identify themes.

These important modifications made all the difference. I also had to add intervention meetings with struggling students where I worked with small groups on things like summarizing, inferencing and identifying themes.

I was very happy to witness the excitement in the classroom when it was time for Lit Circles. Students truly looked forward to presenting their work and discussing topics from the book that intrigued them. The “Research” strategy quickly became one of the most popular. In this assignment, students could choose a topic of their choice related to the text to research background information about. For example, with Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes, some students decided to research information about fox terriers, a main character in the book. With Tangerine by Edward Bloor, a student presented information about sinkholes (a natural phenomenon that occurred in the story).

In reality, the system I used this past quarter, although improved, isn’t structurally any different from the “Roles” that I denounced earlier. Each student is assigned a “job” that requires a specific reading strategy to prepare for their meeting. In the beginning, I had students assign themselves which strategy job they would complete. I switched to assigning strategies rather than having them choose because in the end, students had strategies they liked (illustrating, research) and strategies they avoided like the plague (summarizing, inferencing). I wasn’t able to successfully introduce the choice I wanted for students while also ensuring that they stretched themselves and tried all the strategies.

So…in this last round of Lit Circles, each child received a packet of strategies they had to complete in order for each meeting. This ensured that each students was presenting a different strategy and that they tried them all. Ultimately, however, the preordained requirement that each student is presenting a different strategy really comes from the “Roles” approach to lit circles. What does it really matter if all students want to do background research in a given week? As long as students are engaged with reading and using comprehension strategies, I don’t think this has much impact. In the future, I think the “packet” approach is a good management tool for ensuring that all strategies are tried eventually, but I will probably allow them to pick which order they want to do them in. This reintroduces the choice I was looking for in the beginning.

This is a link to a Google folder that includes every strategy I had students prepare called “Lit Circle Guides“. I created all of the lit circles guides, and the discussion questions came from


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