January 27, 2012

Journey into Literature Circles: Part 1

I have begun my first trip into literature circles. If you aren't privy to teacher speak, that's a small group within the class that is reading a book together. Each small group reads a different book and is responsible for their own comprehension (with a nudge here and there from me). This is how reading works in the real world- there is no all-knowing-presence, guiding us into further understanding. We either figure it out for ourselves or talk to somebody who's read the book too. It's authentic, engaging and high level learning. That's why I'm doing it. Doing it well is another matter altogether.

Everything I've ever read about literature circles emphasizes PLANNING AHEAD. Plan for different reading levels, plan for group dynamics, plan for student jobs and separate discussions. No wonder I've never tried this before- I wouldn't have had the managerial skills as a newbie. Managing these small groups is similar to standing guard over a pet store without cages. Problems are inevitable. I guess I'm brave enough to try it now (Or foolish. I guess we'll see).

One question: How can you plan for students taking responsibility? Once you relinquish control over the flow of conversation or the direction of ideas, you also give up the ability to plan for what will happen. I guess it's an issue of trust really. Do I trust my own students to take their learning into their own hands? I've seen the potential of student centered learning- it can be powerful, memorable, and full of meaning. It's not forced down their throats- it comes from what they want to know. I would like to trust my students enough to take this step without regret.  However, I'm a control freak and that's like asking me to cut off my own toe. Not that easy, mates, especially when I am responsible for the progress of 75+ students. Will they stay on task? Will they have meaningful conversations? Will they actually gain a deeper understanding of the text than if we did a class novel? Will they leap over the desks to stab each other with a pencil when my back is turned? Sadly, that has happened.

On the positive side of things, I can't seem to contain their reading rate. In order for them to have discussions about the book, I want them to remain in the same section, but some kids are just ripping through and practically finishing the book in one night. Woohoo for kids liking their book! That's the beauty of finding a book on their level that they find interesting- it's a glorious union between mind and ideas that pays no attention to time. However, it'll be interesting for the students to have discussions about said book if one of them has finished and another is on page 20. That would be unforeseen challenge number one.

I've decided (and research seems to agree) the best way to go about these all-important weekly discussions is to give each student an alternating job that helps them prepare certain details to share with the whole group. I think I'm going with: Discussion Director (comes up with questions, keeps talking on track), Summarizer, Word Watcher (defines important, unknown words), Illustrator (draws important scenes) and Illuminator (finds important sections to focus on). I've found a plethora of materials for these jobs, namely at English Companion and Super Teacher Worksheets (if you're interested). I completely buy into the idea of borrowing from the great minds who have come before- what's the use in reinventing the wheel? (Unless you can make it better of course...)

I'll be adjusting the amount and criteria of each job due to the fact my class sizes vary from 15 to 23, and the small groups range from 3 to 5 students. And we're in the middle of yet another district-mandated testing week. And the heating at school doesn't work well at the moment, so nobody wants to sit next to the windows (which actually have cracks about half an inch wide that let in the brisk-mid-west-January air). Add to the mix all the differing student personalities and you've got a spicy dish full of new and exciting flavors. Just a few more things to take into account and plan for. Ah, the unseen workings of a teacher's mind- kind of a complicated place. If the students only knew.

I've got possible solutions to the challenges above, and I'll be trying them out in the next few weeks. More updates on this new adventure to come as we journey onward into the land of literature circles...

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