Don’t be scared off by literature circle (book clubs). They just take a little time and organization. I attempted my first session of literature circles more than nine years ago. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but it sounded good, and I was willing to risk it for the good of the students.
I ran myself ragged during my first attempt, but I recognized that if I could learn to be clear about my goals for literature circles, the time we spend as a class would be well worth it. So I kept at it. Each time we participated in literature circles, I learned more. I kept a messy binder with pages I wanted to revise, book titles I thought would work, and a huge list of things I wanted to avoid in future sessions.
Here are my top five pointers for running successful literature circles…and once you do, you’ll be addicted and have kids begging for more!
1. Know what you want. My top goal for students is to experience reading a book in a way they’ve never encountered.
- I want them to interact with it, discuss it, think about it because it’s fun and because someone else brought up something they hadn’t noticed.
- I want them to enjoy reading AND to really get something from it other than being lost in a good story.
- I want them to agree and disagree with each other.
- I want them to think deeply about the novel and ask higher level thinking questions.
- I want them to connect the novel to something in their lives.
2. I want my students to learn how to work with each other in a polite, respectful way. So, I teach etiquette. I probably say the word etiquette 15 times a day during our 2 1/2-week unit of literature circles. Each time we’re about ready to begin a new session, I spend quite a bit of time going over and acting out how to agree, disagree, add more information, ask questions, respond to other’s comments, and even drink a cup of tea and eat a small snack.
ACT OUT you say?? Absolutely!! I either invite an adult into my room or, if I have an aide in the room, we act out how to verbally do all these essential skills. On every meeting group table and on the whiteboard in front of class, I post a list of question and comment starters. This list helps kids gain confidence and be respectful when they have a question or comment. See my Question and Comment Stems. It’s a freebie on TPT.
3. I want students to learn to listen to each other. I want them to make eye contact, nod their heads, say excuse me, and respond with thoughtful comments. Listening is a skill that needs to be taught and reviewed. I show students what good listening looks like and what fake listening looks like. Even if a student says they can listen without making eye contact, I teach them that when you are in a discussion, eye contact says that you care. This is a fabulous experience for students and a skill from which they will benefit as they get older.
4. I want my students to transfer their experience of reading during literature circles to their independent reading. My goal is for them to notice how much more they understand what they read when they interact with the text. I want them to have an idea of what it is to interact with a text. Even if they don’t have someone to talk to about the book as they do during literature circles, they can still question their own thinking.
During literature circles I make a point of discussing with them how much more they engage with the text when they talk about it, and I keep reminding them about the questions and discussions they could be having in their heads during their independent reading of a novel or nonfiction piece. Having a successful group experience can transfer to a successful independent experience, thus making them better readers.
5. I want the experience to be special and memorable. I want them to beg for a second or third literature circle session. I work my tail off to make this happen. I serve tea, cookies, small fancy desserts, cheese and crackers, and like items. (Expensive, you’re thinking...I ask for donations from families). I have three types of tea or hot apple cider and water for students to choose. For many, they may have never had a cup of tea or eaten politely in a group setting while they are holding a discussion. I serve their tea, and I set their treat plate on their table. It’s about the experience, and it always surprises me how kids step up to the expectations I set.
I also find as many adult community members as possible to participate in the literature circles. For students to have a discussion with an adult, and see the adult making predictions, showing contempt for a character, wondering about the author’s choice to include a detail, etc., is significant and something they’ll never forget. I ask retired teachers and principals to join us. Our librarian loves to be a book club member. I email families to see if aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, or older siblings would like to join us. In the end, when students have an experience and not just a task to complete, they internalize that feeling, and they remember. You won’t regret making literature circles a part of your classroom.
Marcy at It’s a Teacher Thing has been teaching for 21 years and can’t believe how quickly time has flown. For most of her teaching years, she has taught in sixth grade classrooms. Marcy specializes in differentiation and finds ways to scaffold most everything so that all her students feel successful. She lives in beautiful northern California.