Saturday, April 23, 2011

Books for Literature Circles

The right book can make all the difference for literature circles. I certainly can't go out and buy the latest and greatest titles all the time, but our bookroom has a nice selection of titles. Some are newer, some are older. Here are some that my students are enjoying.

Frindle: A favorite of multiple groups! This book works well because it is engaging, and yet easy to read. Changing character emotions and attitudes are easy to see.

As groups have finished this, some have wanted to move on to other Andrew Clements books, like The School Story and The Report Card.

Bunnicula: This book has great word-of-mouth appeal among kids. As they have shared their activities or looked at displays, I've heard quite a few impromptu discussions. Do check in with groups as they are reading this, as the narration is a little tough for some readers.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: I remember reading this in my elementary school days! But the group that chose it is still enjoying it, and some have even picked up the sequel on their own. I think that Fudge is just such a funny character that kids can't help but be pulled into the story.

Dear Mr. Henshaw: There have been years in which I have been totally unable to get kids interested in this book. So I feel pretty pleased that a group has selected this one! I think that a very supportive introduction makes the difference. I showed students the first two letters, introduced them to the format of the book, and showed them where it changes to a journal format. This helped them to navigate the letter style of the book.

Because of Winn-Dixie: This book can be a good pick for boys and girls. It has a quieter pace, and students in this group had a little more trouble finding the main problem and the theme. But they enjoyed all of the doggy details, and their conversations were always lively.

...and I've put together a collection of the materials that I've been using with literature circles. You can check it out below, or download it here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lessons from Literature Circles

As the year winds down to a close and state testing is complete, I like to pull kids into reading with literature circles. Here are some things that I keep in mind as I work with literature circles:

Start with a sociogram: Sociograms are fascinating instruments! Try asking your students, "If you could talk about books with someone in the class, who would it be? Write down 3 names." Then, collect their responses and put them on a map. Use arrows to represent student selections. It's easy to see which students are isolated, which cliques only work with each other, and which kids easily cross social boundaries. This information helps me to think about my groups in a way that goes beyond reading levels and interests. (Note: Be careful with your sociogram. It certainly wouldn't be something that you would want to share or leave lying about.)

Limited choice: I went to the bookroom and selected about 7 titles. On our selection day, students had about 2 minutes to look at each title, and then wrote down their top 3 choices on slips of paper. Then, I moved around the slips of paper to form groups. I used the sociogram to help me think about how to form groups.

Social conversation: On the first day that groups meet, encourage them to spend about 10 minutes talking about non-book topics. I write some topical questions on the board, from low-risk questions ("What's your favorite breakfast food?") to ones that require more sharing ("What would you like to change about yourself?")  If students are going to have meaningful book discussions, they have to be comfortable with one another.

Generic questions: I've heard from some teachers who have tried to make questions for every book, every week. This makes me tired to think about! I use generic questions that fit for every book. (I'm working on posting a master list of questions that I've used...until then, write to me if you'd like a list.)

Independent practice: As I make my questions and plan my lessons, I think of the literature circle questions as the independent practice. So, I usually teach a concept with the whole group in the week before that appears on the literature circle questions. For changing character emotions, for example, I taught the character change map with Shortcut and our shared reading ("Juggling" by Donna Gamache), and then students answered questions about changing emotions and could make their character change maps for their literature circle books the next week.

It's a process: I don't expect brilliant discussions in the first week, or even the second week. As students meet, I walk around and take note of what they are doing--are they looking back to their books? Are they following up on questions and ideas? Are they listening to each other? Then I try to address those issues before the next meeting. I know that things are working when students start challenging each other. "But that happened at the beginning of the book!" one student told another. "What about in the part we read this week?"

Things get messy: As a fast reader, I always hated when teachers wouldn't let us read ahead. (I always did it anyway!) So I encourage students to read ahead if they like. We talk about "spoilers" and managing the conversation so that you don't reveal things that others don't yet know. Luckily, the kids who read ahead are also able to handle this more flexible thinking.

When students finish their books early, I try to pull them from their group and form a new group of fast finishers with a new book. It gets messy, but the kids are eager to read new books and talk with new people.

How long? Well, I was going to do only a 4-week session, but so many kids wanted to continue that I'm now about to start Week 6. Once the students understand the process, it can become a good background activity that coexists well with other classroom activities.

Disclaimer: If you're thinking, "This wouldn't work for my class," don't despair. I have to admit that I have about the best reading class ever right now. They are a dream class--hardworking, friendly, talkative, and kind to each other. I have had years in which literature circles did not go nearly as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Changes in Character Emotions

As students work on literature circles, I try to introduce ways of thinking about a text that can apply to multiple novels. One fun chart that we've been using lately is a chart that shows changes in a character's emotions. This kind of chart creates a neat visual summary of the emotional journey of a book. (Note: I didn't come up with this idea. I totally forget where it came from! I couldn't find any charts online, so I made a new one)

First we read the story Shortcut by Donald Crews. If you don't have this book on your mentor text shelf, it's certainly worth it! It works on many levels--as a personal narrative, a model of creating mood and suspense with sentence variety, and, as in this activity, a quick read aloud.

Then we went back through the book and talked about how the children might be feeling at different points. Students went back to their emotion word charts to do this! We created a map that showed the different emotions of the children in the book. (A few students decided to illustrate it during indoor recess.) If you've read Shortcut, you'll see that this really represents what happens--the kids start out happy and playing, are terrified as the train approaches, and end up relieved and subdued.

After we practiced with the read aloud, students used the chart to map out the main character's feelings in the short story "Juggling". Finally, they tried it out with their own literature circle books. The results were tremendous. Not only were students finding more specific emotion words, but they were also matching story events to emotions in a very visual way.

You can download the initial chart for Shortcut, as well as a blank form for any story,  here at Slideshare.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Text Set for Making Inferences

Don't you love it when everything just comes together? This week, as I reached for good picture books for teaching inferences, my choices happened to come together in a way that helped students to think about broader issues.

I picked up Tight Times at our library's used book store. I remembered it from watching Reading Rainbow as a child (ah, Reading Rainbow!), and I knew that it was a bargain at $.50. Even though it is meant for younger readers, it worked nicely for making inferences. We stopped and talked about what "tight times" means, how we could use the illustrations to make inferences about the parents' feelings, and what we could figure out about the narrator. (The narrator of this book, who is not named, wants a dog, but his parents tell him he cannot have one because of tight times. Things get worse when the father loses his job. But then the boy finds a kitten in a trash can, and the boy's parents decide that he can keep him.)

"But I didn't like the ending," Mandy said. "The book was so sad at parts, and then it just ended with something funny. I didn't like that." What a great observation! I turned back to the last page and we talked about the ending. (In a way, I have to agree with Mandy.)

When we looked more closely at the last few pages, though, we saw that the illustrator was telling us a little more to the story. "Look! The dad is looking at the newspaper!" Michael noticed.

"What do you think he's doing?" I asked.

There was some puzzlement as students talked about this with their partners. Some students obviously knew about want ads and the classifieds; others did not. "Maybe he's just reading a comic to cheer up?" Keith guessed. This is a classic example of how inferences depend on background knowledge. Luckily, other kids spoke up. "There are lists of jobs in the newspaper," Favia said confidently. "He's probably looking for a job."

On the next page, students noticed that the parents looked happier, and guessed that maybe things were better. "Sometimes the illustrator tells you things that the author does not," I said.

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, a perfect book for teaching inferencing, worked beautifully with Tight Times. I explained that it was told in letter form (I love stories told this way) and asked students to talk with their partners about these words:

Lydia Grace
Mama and Papa
Uncle Jim
the gardener

"Which words might relate to the setting?" I asked. We talked about the bakery, and the train, and students' guesses about who the gardener might be. "What's a windowbox?" asked Luke. We talked about what a windowbox is and how it related to the story.

This book leads to some great opportunities for making inferences. I was modeling an inference chart (three columns--inference, story clues, background knowledge) and this book was perfect. We weren't three pages in before students started buzzing about how this book was similar to Tight Times. I know that things are working when they start naturally comparing texts--without questions, without probing, without my intervention. "Yes, but the boy in Tight Times didn't have to go live somewhere else," I overheard. "I'd hate to do that!" someone else whispered.

My class this year is very visual, and they helped me to notice some new details in The Gardener--like the way that Lydia is always shown in the light, and how that matches her character so perfectly. "There were things like that in the pictures in Tight Times, too," Maura said. "Like how the dad was looking in the newspaper. And there are cats in both of the books."

Next week I'm going to expand the inferring into theme, and I've already picked out Those Shoes as a good read aloud for this. What has worked out so well is that, even though I've been officially working on making inferences, these books have given us a chance to dive deeper into making connections and looking for broader themes in text.