Virtual Literature Circles Create a Safe Space for Students

Discussions that are centered in students’ experiences spark more text-to-self connections and help students internalize concepts like empathy.

December 10, 2020
Sergiy Chmara / Alamy

The best moments in my classroom have always been the ones found in a good book—those are the moments when we cheer, sigh, and laugh the most.

But literature is more than just fun. It builds bridges to topics and issues that students aren’t always equipped to access or explore alone. Books are gateways to big, communal ideas; they remind us that no matter how small we feel, we are a big part of a shared world.

Recent months have reminded me how central the stories, themes, and lessons in quality literature need to be to our work. Here’s what I’ve learned by building rich, diverse, and powerful literature components into distance learning, one page at a time.

The Right Books Provide the Relevant Content That Today’s Students Need

During a recent read-aloud of Freak the Mighty, a story in which two unlikely friends take on bullies and ignorance, my class got into a huge debate on our discussion board about bullying. I had read this book with my classes many times over the years, and its theme of bullying always led to rich conversations. But this time, the discussion moved beyond bullying: My students specifically wanted to discuss what Black Lives Matter meant to them and how the movement and racial injustice is related to bullying. They connected the expressions of powerlessness in the book to how they had felt watching while real-life events on their TVs—and in some cases while hearing stories from their loved ones. Students wanted to discuss how they too could work together, for one another, to change the world.

Freak the Mighty prompted a talk that I hadn’t understood my students needed so badly—and it made me select our next book far more intentionally. The exchange was so pertinent and revealing that it was clear to me that I hadn’t understood how deeply recent events had affected them. One amazing student, Jacob, made a particular comment in his book summary that brought the importance of children’s literature, right now, into focus: “Seeing all this stuff on TV, towards black people, makes me realize that things like racism and bullying is everywhere, but that we can stand up to it, just like Max and Freak stand up to bullying.”

No matter what grade or subject you teach, there are books that speak to what kids are experiencing—and, just as important, to what they are trying to understand in their lives and on their TVs. Students both want and need to explore other ideas and themes that affirm their cultural identities, that empower them as advocates for racial and social justice, and that help them with the feelings of isolation during this pandemic.

Whether our students know just how George Floyd was killed, have seen their loved ones become hospitalized or even die, are suffering the effects of isolation, or are watching financial anxiety play out in their homes during the pandemic, we must understand that this trauma is real, and it is not always playing out in equal measure. Literature can affirm who the students are and the challenges they face. When we share books with them, we can empower them to find and share their voices.

Online Read-Alouds and Literature Circles

Armed with the reminder that children are hungry for books that are relevant to the here and now, I made read-aloud and literature circles a central part of my virtual instruction so that deep discussion in which we could explore a book’s relevance to today’s world was a clear priority and had plenty of room in our days. I decided to use Screencastify to prerecord read-alouds and share them online.

Pre-recording allowed me to better observe student reactions while my reading played because I could be two teachers at once: one who read and one who interacted with the kids. I could watch and respond to moments I saw resonating rather than stop at preplanned points because my attention wasn’t glued to the book in front of me. The pre-recording strategy led to wonderful and authentic conversations based on emotion as much as logic. Kids began to recognize quickly that those emotions were going to be grounds for discussion, which was exactly what I wanted. I now give students a Google Classroom question to debate or a Jamboard assignment that is paired with each read-aloud. We discuss our thoughts using accountable talk, often centered around the students’ own questions. This often sparks the best debate and the largest text-to-self connections.

My online literature circles look much the same as they did in a physical classroom. Each student is given a role, and students hold each other responsible in terms of preparation. Just as in read-aloud, discussions are rooted in predictions, questions, and inferences that students make.

For assessment of my students’ understanding and progress from literature circles, I’ve used a computer diagnostic that our district purchased, coupled with informal running records that I collected in breakout rooms during reading time. I found assessment challenging online, so I also used two quick assessments to help me with placement: The “San Diego Quick” gave me a starting idea for a student’s instructional level, and the BPST helped ensure that each child would be able to get their words off the page in a selected text.

I made literature circle times during asynchronous instruction. Students prepared for their group discussions far more than I could have hoped for. In several cases, students castified their own thoughts on certain chapters, which meant I could watch children inventing their own version of a close read. One student in particular often prefers to present her findings in her own recorded videos.

The natural conversations that emerged from circles were fun, engaging, and authentic—and they didn’t require any prescripted guidelines. The quality of conversations and connections was rich, and students couldn’t wait to do the activity again. As I had hoped, many of the children engaged with the diverse cultures represented and made culturally affirming connections to the books’ strong characters.

The Importance of Student Choice

Student choice builds a foundation for agency, so I give two or three choices of books for each placement level in literature circles and let students vote; each book features diverse characters, themes, and cultures. For example, my highest-level readers could choose among Island of the Blue Dolphins, in which the main character, Karana, must face extreme isolation and loneliness; Maniac Magee, in which the main character literally and figuratively walks a line between two ethnically segregated sections of a town; and The Circuit, in which a young boy beautifully describes the poverty and racial insensitivities he tries to overcome through courage and hope. I knew that each book would give my students something to connect with and something to help them make sense of what they had been sharing with me.

I see it every day now: My class makes real attempts to internalize concepts like empathy and courage. They now lead the work toward deeper understandings. More important, we tackle themes and perspectives on isolation, racism, bigotry, and fear—a standard much higher than any found on a state examination.

Useful Book Lists

Want books to strengthen these ideals, to teach good character in culturally affirming ways? How about books that show the fight for equity and equality is far from over?

Want to strengthen and empower with strong black characters? Try this PBS list. Turn to this list from Book Riot to help you diversify reading and understanding in your classroom.

If you’re delving into emotions and mental health, there are so many books that can help us with fear and anxiety, while other great reads can show us how to handle loneliness.

And don’t forget nonfiction texts to show, not tell, the diverse contributions and history so often neglected in textbooks.

Poets that children love, like Shel Silverstein, help us face reality through humor, if we choose to fall up and not down. Other great poets can help you do the same with your students.

Looking for young adult texts you can rely on to spark discussion about right and wrong? To enlighten? Here’s a list to open minds.

We must also choose books to help our students through what may be the most difficult moments of their childhoods, but also to understand the fight that others face, and what their role is and can be. Let’s help them get there. Let’s keep rich literature alive in a big way during and after this pandemic.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Online Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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