Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bridging the Gap with Literature Circles

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I am in love with the classroom described in The Book Whisperer. I want that for my students, for all the middle school students in my building. Most of my ELA colleagues are on board, but of course, we do not quite have the resources, the experience, or the confidence to just jump in with both feet to make it work well. Also, most of the classrooms I read about are using it at the 4-5-6 level; very little is written about reader’s workshop for seventh and eighth grades. And to prepare for the rigor of high school literature courses, the students do need some experience in close reading of common, complex texts so they can handle Shakespeare and the demands place on them to respond to text come ninth grade.

One easy way I see to bridge that gap between doing traditional whole class reading of a common text and a full-blown reader’s workshop is with literature circles. Lit circles can even be done with the whole class read to start. Using a whole class read as a lit circle choice allows for differentiation with the grouping, increases student collaboration and interaction, and gets the teacher comfortable with the management practices of monitoring student self-directed reading by having the ability to conference about and have students respond to a work that the teacher knows well.

Using traditional literature circles where each circle is using a different text creates a bigger bridge, because the students do have more of a choice in what they select, but there is still common ground to foster the collaboration and writing piece of the reader’s workshop.  Much like using the whole class read in literature circles, students and teacher can “learn the ropes” for independent reading and monitoring, while still having the comfort of common ground that a limited amount of titles provides.

Students have always been required to read independently in our middle school, doing one extra “book project” a marking period in addition to whole group texts. This year in Pre-AP, I decided to take full advantage of the Google Apps on our Chromebooks and the inspiration I got from The Book Whisperer to have the kids create book review blogs to match mine. They have to post three times a marking period, and instead of me worrying about what “level” their book is, I have challenged them to pick something fun to balance the heavy reading we are doing as a whole class. I was amazed at the first posting we did. Students who never “talked” about books with their peers were excited to have others read their blogs about books. And while the novelty of that first post has worn off, they do all check each other’s blogs and have built within our classroom a culture of readers who don’t even need me to guide them to texts. They have formed their own “book clubs” within our classroom.

Without having tried a true reader’s workshop model, I can’t really say that the lit circles would be a good bridge to that, but it seems to make sense that they could.  If we decide as a department that we want to try reader’s workshop next year, I would hope that having these options would allow us all some measure of success with our current limit on resources and experience. Easing into the process could help us build up the courage to tackle the real thing. I do know that the success I have had with students simply blogging their thoughts about books rather than completing an project that analyzes the book has given me a small glimpse of what my classroom could be like if I had the courage to abandon the whole class novels and adopt a true reader’s workshop.

If anyone has any helpful suggestions or words of advice about how you are using reader’s workshop with middle school students, I would love to hear from you.


  1. When I taught 7th we loved doing literature circles. I did have some checkpoints...did they do the reading? If not they couldn't engage in the circle...almost all of them followed through. I moved around, listening in, but I also had a day that they went into the library and they video taped (back then...their circle). They also didn't know what day that was coming, so they stayed on their toes. I did the the Harvey Daniels version...We kept it pure and we all liked it that way. Eventually there wasn't a need for role sheets at all. Loved it, loved it. xo

  2. I can't speak of middle school, but we do mixed grade level Literature Circles in primary school. We don't use role sheets, but expect the students to use what they have learned about reading strategies, character studies, and discussion skills during reading workshop. They are expected to bring notes. The ones who have been in our Literature Circles in primary school are sad that the same thing does not continue in the middle school. I hope that you will get some advice and encouraging notes from other slicers, and you will begin Literature Circles.