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The Nuts and Bolts of Setting up Literature Circles

| Elena Aguilar

My last post on literature circles got me all excited for a spell. I basked in the memories of kids discovering a love of reading; those were some good days for me as a teacher. And then I remembered the days that proceeded those good days, the five months I spent training students to do literature circles and have deep discussions. I remembered my frustration and impatience, my anxiety that they'd never do what I wanted them to do. Those were some rough days.

Rebecca Alber's comment on my post echoed these feelings. "Don't give up," she advises teachers; good advice!

Let me repeat something: it took FIVE MONTHS to prepare my first batch of sixth graders for literature circles. I know it was the preparation that led to the success we had. (A core belief for me as teacher: You can never be too prepared. Never.)

Laying the Groundwork

What did I do during those months? I slowly, carefully led students into this structure -- paying close attention to skills, attitude, and social relationships, and then I slowly released them, looping back to re-teach or re-enforce weak skills. Here are some of the things I did:

1. First, I had to get students thinking and talking about the purpose of reading. Many read far below grade level and had been turned off from reading in elementary school. Many were beginning to associate reading with a kind of person that they could never envision being. I had to get them hooked. So I asked, "Why read?" And they generated a list of over a hundred ideas which stayed posted all year and which prompted many conversations.

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2. I talked to my students, all the time, about what it meant to me to be a reader. When I read and where, what I talked about with my book club, and how I perused used book stores on the weekend. I read passages to them from books I was reading. I very intentionally shared the pleasures of reading, the distraction it provided, the way it helped me solve problems and deal with life's challenges and how I learned from reading.

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3. I provided articles and stories on the same subject written by public figures and authors with similar backgrounds and ethnicities of the students. Malcolm X, Luis Rodriguez, Oprah, and many others have written about how literature changed their lives.

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Building It

Are you getting the picture? In order to get to the joy of reading and the skill development, I had to build a foundation starting with expanding students' intrinsic motivation. I continuously worked to get them bought into this challenging task. Simultaneously, I taught skills:

1. I read aloud every day and gave kids opportunities to talk. (I love reading picture books because they're short, packed with meaning and great for discussion.)

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I crafted questions to prompt students to make personal connections to the text, to draw inferences, make predictions, and to call their attention to the vocabulary and language. In literature circles, students need to become experts at creating questions.

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I also provided feedback to students in pair-share discussions. I listened in and then gave very specific instructions, in the moment, about how to engage each other in dialogue.

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2. I modeled the skills I asked them to use -- over and over. I showed them how to respond to someone else's statement, how to find and share evidence from the text, how to disagree respectfully. I often modeled a conversation with another student. I posted sentence stems and conversation frames. Modeling is essential. (This goes for every skill we're trying to teach kids in every area.)

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I also had students model effective discussions. Even once lit circles were underway, I regularly, and sometimes spontaneously, asked the class to make a fishbowl around a group that was having a fantastic conversation. We watched and listened, and then I guided them to reflect on what made the conversation good. Kids need to see what we want them to do.

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3. Alongside instruction on reading and discussion, I did community building and conflict resolution activities. It was critical to develop the relationships between students so that literature circles would be a place where kids could take risks.

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4. In the meantime, I read every novel for this age group that I could. I amassed a library that would be accessible and interesting to my students. When it came time to share offerings for lit circles, I had to be one hundred percent confident in the texts I put forward. (I also had to know my students as readers --what genres they preferred, what where their reading levels, etc.)

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5. After about four months, I placed students into groups of four and the whole class read the same highly engaging novel. Each day I did a mini-lesson and modeled an aspect of literature circles (for example, how to get a discussion started, the role of the facilitator, and what to do if someone isn't participating.) and then released students into their groups. There was lots and lots and lots of guided practice.

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And during that last month, I talked up literature circles like crazy. I got them really excited about what would happen once they'd mastered this structure, about the fun and freedom they'd have. I lured and tempted and enticed them.

The Launch

Then, at the end of January, we began our first round of literature circles. Although there were rough spots, overall they went pretty well. Kids were excited and turned on to reading together; and they were invested in refining the process.

And there's still so much more to say about literature circles! I've shared how I got kids into them and why everyone should try them, but I have more stories to tell. In the meantime, readers, please share your tips for getting students trained in lit circles. What were (or what are) the challenges you've experienced? How did you manage the bumpy spots?

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Comments (4)

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I'm looking for a speaker for

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I'm looking for a speaker for a staff development session on literature circles (in Ohio). Any suggestions?

Staff Developer and author

Directly teach about high-level thinking and questioning first

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I experienced the same concerns and frustrations when first implementing lit circles about 15 years ago. Everything I found to help get rolling focused on cute names to give the different jobs. What we actually needed was help crafting much richer sharing tools and questions. Bottom line - if you don't equip students to independently build engaging high-level questions and tasks that foster rich conversations your lit circles will flounder.

When I did my National Board Certification the first time in 2000 I spent significant time figuring out activities, tools and strategies to set the stage for dynamic student-led conversations and complied them in "Making Literature Circles Come Alive!" from Pieces of Learning. Equipping students with these skills and understandings also allowed me to have multiple novels underway. It is rare that 1 title is a great fit for all the readers in a room. Empowering learners to manage their own lit circles means you can definitely transition into a multi-novel format that will allow for choice and matching readers and books more meaningfully. Of course, that step is down the road a bit, but I typically had 5 or 6 titles underway with my 4th and 5th graders by January each year.

Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur

Literacy Possibilities

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We need to teach children skills, model those skills, and allow them to practice. These are the steps to any successful lesson. As teachers we know the importance of repetition and modeling for children to begin to use it on their own. However, parents not trained in education need steps in order to be successful at home in promoting best literacy beginning reading practices.
Today, more than ever before, we need our community of parent, teachers, and school personnel on the same page. We all need to do our part to promote literacy.
Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder
Empowering parent involvement in beginning literacy skills

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