Rocking the Literature Circles

I was kind of dreading today.

I’ve done literature circles with grade 12 university level classes before with mixed results. When we did the literature circles in the past, students were all reading the same book and the literature circles supplemented our study of the novel.

This time it’s a little different. Students are reading two different novels and the moment and so I’m not “teaching” the novels in the traditional sense. I am not assigning questions, taking them up, and delivering lectures. Instead, students are reading on their own time and writing in double entry journals. Then they develop their own discussion questions. Then they meet and discuss the novel. While there are more specific guidelines and procedures, it’s actually pretty student directed. They discuss what they’re interested in. Much more authentic, but of course I had my own fears. Despite all my talking smack about sage on the stage style teaching, I was nervous about giving up so much control. What if the students miss the important ideas? What if they miss all those wonderful subtle things that great writer weave into their writing?

Okay, well so what if they do? Just because students may not notice the same things that I do about a text doesn’t mean that literature circles don’t work. Besides, as I was walking around and sitting in on the meetings, I heard them come up with a lot of clever ideas–and they probably got a lot more out if it because they came up with the ideas as a group. They weren’t just parroting back things that I told them.

In other words, the meetings were very successful. Some of the discussions were more passionate than others, but everyone was engaged. Some students were actually bouncing up and down at the end of class proclaiming “That was so awesome! I totally get it now!” And I didn’t even pay them to say that!

The true test I suppose will be Monday when students will have to blog about the first third of their novels by selecting one of four prompts I will prepare over the weekend based on a combination of ideas studied in class and their own discussion questions. Can they synthesize this information?

Then of course there are the students who were absent. Two of them already told me they were going to be absent. They submitted their notes in advance and were very responsible. Then there were three others however who were AWOL without warning, and that’s a problem because you can’t really “make up” the literature circle meeting. If they were skipping, I think I’m more than justified in giving them a zero for the communication section of the literature circle mark. If they were “sick” (or rather, as I suspect, had a parent call in for them because they didn’t have their journals finished) then I have a bigger problem. While I realize that these students and parents are in the minority, I have experienced incidents where a parent will call in for a student claiming that she’s sick so she can actually stay at home and work on an assignment rather than face the consequences for coming to class without an assignment completed. I’m sure that in those situations the parent believes he or she is helping the student but they’re doing just the opposite. And in the case of literature circles, it’s even worse because they let down the rest of their group.

A natural consequence of missing the meeting is likely that they will not fare as well on Monday’s blogging task, but I need a little more than that. If anyone out there has any suggestions for dealing with students who miss literature circle meetings (for “valid” reasons) I’d love to hear them.

So overall, things went really really well today. I couldn’t be happier with the level of discussion from my students; I just wish they had ALL been there to benefit from it.

By the way, as per the new footwear policy I have submitted for your approval this photo of my entirely board compliant Converse high tops. Until I can wear my heels again I will wear these out of protest. Keep fighting the good fight, my friends.

Photo on 2010-09-24 at 16.08

5 thoughts on “Rocking the Literature Circles

  1. I know a teacher who would have required those with”valid” abs to meet at lunch and have a modified lit circle in order to meet the communication expectation.

  2. Missed this post before. Great ideas about opening up the lit circles – I think kids would love that.
    As for the “valid” absentees…perhaps record their lit circles and still have them listen to them? It’s onerous, but this way they may be able to engage in a modified version of the conversation, so it doesn’t snowball. Showing up at lunch is great though – especially so they can work on the showing up part.

  3. Well said! I use literature circles in middle school. Although I need to model questions for many students, sometimes I go a little overboard and nearly pre-fill out their whole role sheet with what I think are important questions. It’s even worse when the student gets upset because they had the question too and feel like I stole their thunder. It’s tough giving up the reins. But you’re right– so what if they don’t discuss that question? Will it really impede their learning and understanding of the book?
    P.S. I stumbled upon much of your work while hunting down resources to use NING for literature circles. I sent a request to join one of your NINGs. If you have a minute, please reach out to me ( or accept my membership!
    Thanks for your insights! I hope my teaching future is as technologically advanced as yours!