I learned about literature circles way back in college when a friend who was an elementary education major asked me to help her practice a literature circle before her class “test.” I had no idea what a literature circle was. However, as an English Literature major, I knew I had to find out. I caught on right away!
A literature circle is a small group discussion (usually between four and six students) in which every student has a role related to a book. The group members take turns presenting their individual groups to the class. By the end, the group has discussed the text in many different ways. The roles that I encountered from my friend were valuable, yet fun: illuminator (vocabulary), questioner (discussion questions), and reader (passage finder) are some of the roles I remember from that day.
Years later, when I had my own high school classroom, I knew I wanted to adapt this engaging elementary strategy to my classroom. Since then, I have successfully facilitated literature circles with 7th graders all the way up to my AP Literature scholars. There definitely were some challenges along the way. With that said, here are some ideas to facilate awesome literature circles in your class.
1. Create Meaningful Roles
Literature circles are a great way to facilitate discussions because each student has a separate role that they are in charge of completing independently and then presenting to the group. This gives each student a level of accountability that helps to build community in the group. Having a designated role that they completed ahead of time helps students feel more comfortable presenting and therefore, generates more valuable sharing. You need between 5 and 6 roles total.
I have had the most success creating roles that can be used to analyze any work of literature. This way the students can practice analytical skills and become familiar with the roles. When creating roles it can be helpful to start with the type of analysis you want the students to practice. For example, you might start with literary elements, like symbolism, theme, diction, characterization, etc., or you might use critical thinking skills, like connecting, evaluating, synthesizing, etc.
Combining both of literary elements and critical thinking skills, I created “MasterMind” roles for a unique role play spin on literature circles. Students assume the lens of a mastermind: a critic, (reader) responder, psychologist, historian, philosopher, or linguist. Each of their tasks are related to analyzing the work from a literary perspective.
2. Build In Discussion Tasks
Another element that helped me facilitate successful literature circles was building in discussion tasks in addition to students’ individual roles. One of my goals was to get students talking, but if I just gave their roles to present, they presented and moved on without the discussion element. Therefore, after students presented on their individual topics, I added a task that required them to interact with their groups and elicit responses from them. Then, the student had to record several insights from the discussion that resulted.
Let me give you an example: The historian connected the work to the historical time period of the work or the time period for which the author wrote (whichever made sense for the book). After the historian completed her analysis, she had to create a series of questions related to her analysis and record responses from her classmates. For The Turn of the Screw, the historian discussed the Victorian Period and the educational system of that time. She related this history to the narrator of the story, a governess. Then, she asked her group questions about the drawbacks of this educational system. She also asked them what the author might be criticizing by writing about this system. From the discussion, she wrote three insights to complete her task.
3. Provide participation accountability
In order to help the presenters facilitate meaningful discussions, I added one more area of accountability with the other group members. Each group member is responsible for participating in the discussion and for recording insights on their own notes sheet. Because I give the roles out as a packet, the students have all six roles at once. Therefore, I provided space under each role for the students to record insights for their group members. I wait until the very end of the book to collect these roles and I include all of the three above elements as part of their grade. I found that this accountability piece encourages all students to participate.
4. Give Them Choice
Whenever possible, I advocate for giving students reading choice. Literature circles are a great way to do that by providing students with several options and letting them choose which book to read based on the options. For example, in my AP Literature class, I gave students several options for a reading unit. Ultimately, I grouped students based on their first or second choices, and we ended up with The Turn of the Screw, Of Mice and Men, and Things Fall Apart.
I also let students decide which roles they would complete and in what order. The only stipulations were that they couldn’t do the same role as someone else in one meeting and they couldn’t repeat a role once they completed it. Each group had between four and six members, so I made four meetings total. I divided the page numbers of all three groups by four and then used that number to make page number due dates. Each group member would complete four different roles by the end of the discussions. This rotating schedule made planning a unit with different books really easy, and the buy in by the students was even greater since they got to choose which book to read and what roles to complete.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to do a rotating schedule or assign different books. However, it’s a really fun way to plan a unit, so I found it’s absolutely worth a try!
5. Join in the Fun
One of my major goals for this project was to give students the reins. I wanted them to take charge of their group discussions without me as a leader. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be a member. I really enjoyed sitting with the groups as they presented and discussed. I definitely took a passive role, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing their ideas and suggestions. To me, this is the best part. Even though it took a lot of work upfront to create roles and accountability pieces, I was so happy with the end result. And, now that I have it created, it can work for any book in the future!
6. Go Digital
Go digital can mean a few things. Whenever possible, I create a digital option of my resources, and literature circles are no different. It’s great to have the digital option as a way to differentiate. It can also help for organizational purposes to prevent students from losing their roles.
At the time I’m writing this (April 2020), teachers are faced with more challenges than ever as we move to distance learning and virtual lessons. Fortunately, I found an easy and fun way to make the magic of literature circles appear in the virtual classroom. These discussions thrive on interaction between group members. The good news is this interaction can absolutely happen in the virtual classroom with live video tools.
There are two free video chatting resources that work well for virtual literature circles: Zoom and Google Meets. As always, before deciding on which route to take, you should check with your school district about their policies and expectations for video conferencing with students.
- Zoom has a unique function for setting up breakout rooms. This lets you as the teacher split your larger class meeting into smaller separate rooms. Therefore, you can start in a full class meeting by explaining directions and expectations. Then, break up students into their assigned groups. What’s great about this is that you can bounce between meetings easily. You can read the directions for setting up the breakout rooms in Zoom here.
- Google Meet is another free resource for video chats. With this option, you’ll have to setup individual Google Meets and label them for each group. This way, students will know which one to attend. It might also be helpful to schedule the group presentations at different times so you can attend all meetings. You can find directions for setting up a Google Meet here.
If you’re interested in my exact literature circle roles, check out my Meeting of the Masterminds Literature Circles resource here. I used all of the elements that I discussed above, and I’ve had so much success with all secondary grade levels that I’m sure I’ll use it for years to come.
I hope this post helps you facilitate awesome literature circles with your secondary ELA students. If you like this post, I’d love for you to share!