Literature Circles – Updated for Middle School

For our January novel study, I wanted to test out a new type of literature circle activity. For 8th graders, the “jobs” version of literature circles never worked quite as well as I would have liked it to. Plus, it’s a lot of work to set up, and the kids never seemed to know what they were supposed to do when.

After hearing Kelly Gallagher speak this summer, I tested out a new version of literature circles. I think that this would work well with all ages of middle school and up through high school. I don’t have much experience with elementary, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for them too.

To begin, I sorted through the books available to me through my school’s library. I selected eight that had themes loosely around the topic of prejudice.

After finding this super valuable resource from Daniels and Stieneke on literature circle mini-lessons, I used the “Book Pass” activity to have students select the books they were interested in. Essentially, they read all 8 options for 2 minutes, then selected the two or three books they would like to continue reading. There were no first or second choices, only choices they would read.

I then sifted through the options grouping students according to their selections, my understanding of their reading levels and group dynamics. We ended up with six different novel choices.

Students then got together to divide their book and decide which pages they would read for each meeting. Kelly Gallagher suggested that students should be able to read a book over the course of four weeks, but in retrospect, I should have gone with five or six for my students.

Students then completed “reading notebook” activities for each meeting. Based loosely off of this handout from Kelly Gallagher, students were supposed to track their thinking over time. With the goal of getting to the author’s big idea(s). I assessed each reading notebook on five criteria:
1. They used one of the three “track your thinking” stems
2. They included their thinking about the book.
3. They included how their thinking had changed over time.
4. They included a “lit circle moment” that they wanted to share at the meeting. Something that was funny, interesting, confusing etc.
5. They included details in a way that showed they read the assigned pages.

I didn’t require any specific amount of writing, and students completed their journals in a variety of ways. I had some students included sketches, but mot students wrote in sentences.

When the students met in their lit circle groups, they shared their “moments” as well as analyzed the character development through their novel.

In the last few meetings, they also used the “Save the Last Word for Me” strategy from the Daniels and Stieneke book. That was really successful in ensuring they had an actual conversation about the moments and didn’t just take turns reading from their notebooks. Check it out if your students are struggling with this part of literary discussions!

In the end, students did a theme analysis activity for their novels. They analyzed the central conflicts to determine any possible messages the author might be trying to get across, and selected one that they could support its development throughout their novel with text evidence. They then had to create a symbolic representation of this theme to take the message beyond the pages of their novel. Students gave short presentations to share their themes with the class.

These presentations enabled students to see the shared themes between the novels. Many of the books had similar theme statements in the end, and we’ll be able to come back to these during our Holocaust unit study later this year. I would have liked to have students record the themes of their classmates, then decide if this theme could also apply to their novel, but I didn’t get that part off the ground. There’s always next year!

All in all, it was a successful implementation of literature circles.

Next time, I will have students practice the reading notebook technique with a short story before we begin the lit circles.

In the end, I did have several students tell me they really enjoyed their books – so that in itself is a success!

The books we read were
A Wrinkle in Time
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Across Five Aprils
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Dragonwings

Please share any ideas or questions you have about literature circles!

2 thoughts on “Literature Circles – Updated for Middle School

  1. It worked out really well for us! We actually just used it in a graduate class I'm taking, and the instructor had us time ourselves also. After the person shared their excerpt, we each got 1 minute to share our thoughts on it. The person who selected the excerpt had 3 minutes to share their thoughts. I hope it works out for you!

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