Friday, April 03, 2009



As a teacher who is attempting literature circles, I have many thoughts going through my mind. While the literature circles are reaching the lower level kids (sometimes!), my higher level kids are not getting a deeper analysis and understanding of the text (which is why I am compensating for that by torturing myself, by creating higher level thinking questions for EVERY GROUP. OY!) There is so much theory, and yet the practice is such a different's exhausting. My lower level students are most often also the students who are the least motivated. Therefore, I spend so much time working with them, and yet many of them are still not even reading the text that is ON their level.

The higher level students are having ON TASK conversations, but are not pushing their thinking. While I do sit in groups and push their thinking, you can only really do this with one or two groups per class and the rest are just doing "plot summaries".

I'm beginning to think that we need to be really careful with which books we choose for literature circles. Books are not just about "plot" which is really all they have been looking for. While we've discussed themes, and characterization, the deeper analysis still always only comes from me. The books I chose are so deep, and need to be analyzed, therefore I feel frustrated with the lack of analysis my kids are missing without my guidance.

There is also so much being gained (self-directed learning, holding each other accountable...).There is so much to teach in a book that is also being lost in literature circles (analysis, the bigger picture, guidance, class conversation). I think literature circles are like anything else, too much of anything is not good either. Especially in an English class, where our job is entirely skills based, we need to offer students a variety of skills, projects, options, etc.

Everything we do is (unfortunately) aways geared towards one level or another. Literature circles (at least in my class) are better for the middle and lower level learners. Therefore, 1/3 of my class (the higher level) is still relatively bored, which was the same as before when I was teaching the whole class novel and the lower 1/3 was bored. They have on task conversations, and the literature is differentiated, but their brains are capable of so much more, and I don't know how to get them all there in every class. What to do?


Anonymous said...

Quick and random thoughts...

First off, you were so brave to take a risk and try to use a classroom structure that forces you to give up control (or the illusion of control!) in the classroom. And to be reflective about it is also a credit to you as a teacher.

Nothing is perfect-- especially the first few times we do it. But if we abandoned a structure each time it didn't play out the way we wanted it to, we'd never stick with anything and try to make it better.

What you describe-- the analysis of a text-- is the way we were taught. The teacher at the front of the room telling us what everything symbolized and what everything meant. We need to teach our kids to figure that out on their own-- to think about why the author made choices. And we can do that with lit circles (modeling through short, shared texts and then having them look for it in their books)or through whole class texts. Nobody said it was all or nothing; the idea is just to get books into their hands that they CAN read and not just hear us spew about.

You can talk about theme (rather than plot) in a book that you've read together or in a short story, and then ask them how we know that was the theme, and push them to figure out what the author's big idea was in their text. If we have to tell them the theme everytime we read a book, what are we teaching them about reading? That they need a teacher to tell them about what they read or to provide questions in order for them to think about the book?

Other questions to think about:

Where is the evidence that more students were engaged in the whole class text?

Why do we ask them to meet in their book groups so often-- I meet with my group after we've read the book. Yes, I am an adult, but maybe they can meet less frequently in order to have more to talk about. In between, we can teach whole class lessons about analysis.

What are our goals for our kids? To know To Kill a Mockingbird or to know how to read and think about a book and discuss it with other people?

And, finally, what does good teaching and learning look like?


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of ideas:

Model various journal techniques that promote deeper probing: double or triple-entry, for example, or entries specifically on characterization writing style, literary elements or devices--these things are what builds theme.
The synthesis happens when students see how it all comes together around big ideas.

Assign student activity guides that they have to create, use in their groups and hand in to you. By looking at their SAGs, you can help guide them to richer discussion.

Fishbowl a lit circle session and have the "audience" comment on the level of discourse and offer feedback.

Keep at it! (I'm also learning.)