Literature circles have been used in elementary and high school
classrooms across the country in various configurations for at least
fifteen years. Harvey Daniels is perhaps their best-known advocate:
his Literature Circles: Voice
and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom has just been
released in a new edition by Stenhouse Books. For more information
about literature circles as conceived by Harvey Daniels - which
differ in significant ways from what you will see below - see
Over the last seven years I have adapted the idea of literature circles to my high school English classes, and I've come to believe that they create a kind of learning dynamic in the classroom which is both enjoyable from the students' perspective and productive from the teacher's. While they have proven to be especially useful in English classes, there is no reason why the basic concepts might not be adapted to any subject area.
The basic concepts of literature circles as I employ them are:
1. Given that certain material (a play, a novel, a series of readings) is to be covered, the class is divided into a series of defined groups which meet on a regular, predictable schedule - say, once or twice a cycle - to discuss their readings.
2. In preparation for any upcoming discussion, each member of the group is assigned a particular task or role. The roles assigned may vary, depending on what skills the teacher feels the students should be practicing.
3. Students bring to class with them specific materials related to the role they have been assigned.
4. After each class discussion, students switch roles, so that after a certain period of time all students have had a chance to practice each role.
5. Group meetings aim to be open, natural conversations about the material under discussion. Students are not constrained to playing only their assigned role; however, if the group ventures into territory that one student has prepared notes for, that student can step in and give more detailed information.
6. At the conclusion of the unit, students are asked to hand in a packet containing the materials they have prepared for their individual class discussions and a summary reflection, which can be, at the teacher's discretion, anything from a short personal essay to a longer analytical essay.
A Few of the (Virtually Infinite Number of) Possible Roles:
Moderator (Bring questions)
New Critic (Identify key passages)
Character Analyst (What do we know about the characters?)
Biographical Critic (What do we know/learn about the author?)
Psychological Critic (Analyze motivations)
Director (for drama) (Give instructions to actors for key passages)
Engineer (Identify physical and/or logical structures)
Historian (Information and inferences about history)
Anthropologist (Information and Inferences about culture)
Narratologist (Identify authorial strategies)
Stylist (Sentence-level strategies)
Feminist (What is stated/implied about the role of women?)
Devil's Advocate (Identify and attack weaknesses)
Cinematographer (How would this work as a movie?)
Philosopher King (What are the themes/big ideas?)
Musician (Where is this language most pleasing to the ear?)
Egotist (What's in this for me?)
Artist (How would this translate into a picture?)
A Typical Class Period Using Literature Circles
First 5-8 minutes: students meet in "expert groups," with other students who have the same assigned role as they do. Students compare notes, see how each other has prepared the assignment, borrow any ideas they think might prove useful. Moderators, for example, might add questions prepared by other students to their own lists. The teacher can use this time to spot check whether the students have in fact brought their homework, and perhaps clarify expectations as to how the members of each expert group are to interact. Moderators, for example, may not have to use their prepared questions at all; their job is to facilitate the discussion and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. If the discussion stalls, then the moderator can toss out a question.
Next 20-25 minutes: students meet in literature circles. It should be emphasized that the discussion should NOT consist of one person after another giving a report on their area of expertise. It should be an open discussion in which students share ideas and questions. If a question comes up which relates to a particular role, then the expert in that area can try to help. For example, if the meaning of a word comes into question, that's a question the lexicographer - whose job it was to pay special attention to vocabulary and look up unfamiliar words - might be able to answer.
Last 15-20 minutes: teacher debriefs the small group
discussions at the board. Each group is asked to report on at least
one significant idea or question that arose during the literature
circle discussions. The teacher can ask for elaboration, or seek
reactions from other groups. The teacher can also use the emerging
themes from the discussion to lead into followup discussions or
subsequent class activities. One way of doing this is to provide
students with a set of notes which recap key ideas and themes which
arise in various classes. For a sample set of notes based on class
discussion of The Poisonwood Bible, click here.
It offers a change of pace from other daily classroom routines.
Since they are a change of pace and are highly interactive, students tend to see these activities as enjoyable.
The selection of roles in the group give the teacher the chance to draw attention to particular skill roles within the discipline.
Students have the opportunity to practice one specific skill at a time, while still getting the benefit of a well-rounded small group discussion. This makes preparation of the reading a little less intimidating in the short term; and it allows the students to develop a conscious repertoire of response strategies over the long term.
The teacher is able to take herself out of the center of discussion, at least temporarily, and as a result students have the chance to share ideas and reactions in a small group setting which still has a clear instructional focus.
Since there is a lot of student interaction over the text before there is any explicit teacher commentary on the text, the teacher gets a much clearer picture of how the students are reading and thinking about the story. It's a great opportunity to observe and listen, and gives the teacher useful information to help shape the planning of subsequent lessons.
Sample Student Handout (Instructions)
Things Fall Apart
Your job is to get your group started when they have broken down. Your group may not need you at all, but if the discussion dies, you're the person who will be called upon for a jump start. Your job is therefore to develop a list of questions that your group might want to discuss about this part of the book. Dont worry about small details; your task is to help people identify and talk over the big ideas in the reading and share their reactions. Usually the best discussion questions come from your own thoughts, feelings, and concerns as your read. Its a good idea to keep your notebook handy while you read so you can write down questions as they occur to you. Bring at least five good, open-ended questions to class with you.
Your job is to pay special attention to the names of the characters, their roles, and the relationships between them. You should make a picture, graph, or chart of some kind which shows who is who in this section of the story, and how the actions of the characters in this part of the story are connected to the overall development of the plot. Bring your chart to class with you.
Your job is to pay special attention to vocabulary, both English language and Ibo. If anyone has questions about word meaning, you're responsible for clearing up their questions. Bring to class a listing of at least ten vocabulary words, phrases, proverbs, or other short passages which you think might be hard to understand or interpret, along with explanations in your own words.
4) Psychological Critic
Your job is to watch carefully what the characters say and do, and to try to make plausible, high-probability inferences, based on their words and actions, about how their minds work. What motivates each character? What is his/her state of mind? What shapes his/her point of view? Bring to class a short psychological profile of each major character in the section you have read.
5) Anthropological Critic
This story takes places in a group of villages in Nigeria at the turn of the century. What observations and inferences can you make about the native culture at that time based on what you have read in this section? What beliefs and behaviors seem strongest or most important? What factors affect the point of view of each of the characters? What new information do you have in this section that allows you to understand this culture better? What conflicts exist within the culture? The book is called Things Fall Apart. What things are falling apart in this section? How explicitly? Bring to class with you a 50-100 word reflection paper summarizing your observations and inferences about the dynamics of the culture in this section.
5) New Critic
The grounding assumption of New Criticism (which actually stopped being new more than 50 years ago) is that answers to any questions that we have must be found in the text and only in the text. New Critics tend to favor a type of reading known as "close reading" where key passages from the text are examined very carefully, and interpretation is based strictly on what can be observed and inferred on the basis of what the text says. Your task is to choose two or more passages which are significant and relevant to a full understanding of the book. You will lead the part of your group's discussion that centers on that passage. Type out and bring to class six copies of the text in question.
Chapters 2-6 9-51 C Oct 2 Wed
Chapters 7-10 52-94 F Oct 7 Mon
Chapters 11-13 95-125 C Oct 10 Thur
Chapters 14-19 129-167 F Oct 16 Wed
Chapters 20-15 171-209 C Oct 21 Mon
For each assignment, your assigned role will switch to the next higher number. For example, Keiko is Number 1 (Moderator) for the first due date. For the next assignment, shes Number 2 (Biographer). Ashlyn, who was Number 6 (New Critic), rotates to Number 1, and everyone else bumps up one number.
At the end of the unit, you will be asked to hand in a packet containing
the notes you have prepared for each role
the class notes you took (small and large group discussions)
an essay of 500-1000 words in which you address with clarity and precision whatever seems to you to be relevant and significant in this book. You must include correctly cited references (direct quotations) to at least five passages in the book in the course of your essay. This packet will count as a major grade for first quarter.
Packet due: F day Oct 24 Thur