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.