If your methods of facilitating book groups have gotten a bit stale, read on to see how digital lit circles changed the game in my middle school classroom.
A Traditional Way of Doing Things
Literature circles are a great way for a small group of students to facilitate discussions around a novel. Typically each member has a “role” to fulfill, or as I like to see it, a lens through which they view the novel. They move through the novel together, sharing insights, wonderings, aha moments, predictions, and more.
If you’ve ever facilitated literature circles, you know that it can get dicey trying to manage your groups and keep up with:
- Who’s read?
- Who’s completed their work?
- Who’s fallen behind?
- What does the quality of student work look like?
- Who needs additional support, clarification, or a redirect?
What should be a fun and mostly hands-off approach to reading can become a logistical nightmare that lasts for several weeks.
Fortunately, I’ve found a manageable (and even enjoyable) way to facilitate lit circles without all the stress: by taking them digital.
Taking it to the 21st Century: Digital Lit Circles
For starters, let me sell you on the benefits.
Going digital with literature circles helped build autonomy in groups, empowered students as collaborators, and gave me easy access to monitor students and check-in. But one of the most valuable things digital literature circles brought to my classroom was a way for me to provide individual feedback during the learning process instead of at the end when they couldn’t do anything about it.
If this sounds like something you are looking for, read on to see how I set up my digital literature circles and how I facilitated them each week.
Identifying Roles for Group Members
There are many different approaches to students’ roles in literature circles. Ultimately, you have to decide which lenses you want students to view the novel from (or which skills you want them to work on) and how big or small you want your groups to be. Once you’ve got those two things figured out, you can build your roles from there.
Traditional Roles usually include:
- Discussion leader
- Passage selector
- Vocabulary checker
- Character analyzer
Nowadays there are many creative spinoffs on lit circle roles including notice and note signpost themes, film themes, detective themes, social media themes, depth and complexity themes, and so on.
Because we spend a significant portion of our time with the literary elements, I wanted my roles to review those key elements as well as incorporate some of our 6th-grade common core standards.
My favorite roles are:
- Discussion Director
- Character Captain
- Signpost Scout
- Travel Tracer
- Literary Luminary
- Reliable Researcher
- Word Wizards
I know, that’s a lot. I also like to keep my groups to 4-5 students, so I typically have the Discussion Director double with another role like the Character Captain or the Literary Luminary. Also, all group members to contribute as Word Wizards instead of making it the job of a single person.
The reason I prioritize these roles is that they review character traits and character changes (RL.6.3), they review key elements of setting and its effect on the story (RL.6.3), they bring up conflict, character growth, and themes (RL.6.3), and they build background knowledge and language awareness.
Settle on roles that you see value in, then it’s time to create your literature circle Google Slides.
Building Out Your Digital Template
I’m a Google Drive kinda gal (sorry Microsoft Team teachers!). I’ve built my lit circles out on Google Docs and I’ve built them out on Google Slides. I prefer the Google Slides method because kids run into formatting issues on Google Docs quite often and I have to play the role of the tech department instead of the teacher, which is only fun so many times.
Your digital template needs:
- A home page/slide
- A table of contents or a navigation page/slide
- A meeting and role schedule page/slide
- A page/slide for each role
Book Tasting & Group Making
Before you can share your digital lit circle template with your students, you’ll need to form groups. You could assign differentiated groups based on personalities or abilities (and maybe get some grumpy students), or you could host a book tasting and give students choice in their novel (and get some really excited students).
Doing a book tasting is so much fun!
Now, before we get too wild and crazy, let me say that I think the really hyped book tasting events you see on Pinterest look fantastically fun. But I don’t have that much time (or energy) to roll out book tastings in that fashion. So I keep it pretty casual and let the books build the hype.
I offer each class 6-8 choices. They are encouraged to read the book blurb, read reviews, and/or watch a trailer (if there is one – which, side note, is a great end-of-book project that you can use for next year).
After they’ve viewed all of their choices, they submit a form with their top two choices. They have to explain with a CER why they chose what they did.
Once all choices are submitted, I play Houdini on a piece of notebook paper and form groups. Most of the time I can give students their first or second choice. I don’t worry about abilities because I will do everything I can to provide a low-reader with an audiobook so they can keep up.
If you’d like to grab a free copy of my book tasting slides and student selection form from my paid resource, you can enter your email address to join my newsletter and download them here (I promise not to spam you).
Giving Students Ownership Over Their Workload
You’ve built your template, and you’ve formed your groups. Now it’s time to share your template with each group. You can either create a folder in your Google Drive for each book group and house the file there, or you can designate a book group leader and give that student a “force copy” link, create a copy, then share it with you and their group members.
Here is the tricky part: Groups will need a new document or a new set of slides each week. I don’t recommend having them erase all of the work and stay within the same document, so you might:
- Create four copies for each group and house them all in one folder – then share the folder with the group, or
- Give students a new force copy link each week and have them share it with you. Just be clear with how you want the document titled so you can find it easily.
I usually do the first option. Running 5-6 book groups per class over 5 periods means a LOT of copies and folders. It takes a good hour to organize upfront, but it is worth it.
Once your students have their digital lit circle documents or slides, they need to develop a game plan for their meetings. I like 4-week blocks for novels, so I have my students do the following:
- Divide the number of pages in their novel by 4 to determine the number of pages they need to read each week.
- Document on their Google Slides “Meeting & Schedule” page their splits for each week. For example:
- Week 1 – Page 1-87
- Week 2 – Page 88-174
- Week 3 – Page 175 – 231
- Week 4 – Page 232 – 306
- Once they know their reading schedule, I have them negotiate their roles for each week and add them to the schedule. Now, their schedule should look something like this:
- Week 1 – Page 1-87 – Discussion Director + Character Captain
- Week 2 – Page 88-174 – Literary Luminary
- Week 3 – Page 175 – 231 – Signpost Scout
- Week 4 – Page 232 – 306 – Travel Tracer
The only downside to making copies for students ahead of time is that they have to duplicate this slide and insert it into their new deck next week. Otherwise, they can make copies of the slides at this point for weeks 2, 3, and 4 and this information will transfer.
What I want to emphasize here is that students love this part. They feel so proud of having control over their project. Working together to divide pages and choose roles gives them a sense of autonomy that changes the tone just enough to impact motivation. You would have a different energy if you did the work for them and handed them a bookmark with their pages and jobs each week!
Facilitating Each Week
Now that we know where we’re going over the next 4-weeks, it’s time to get to work. I give students a bigger chunk of in-class DEAR time when we are reading novels to lessen the burden of reading time outside of class. I’ve structured class in three different ways, each carries different pros and cons.
- Depending on how long your period is, give them 50% of the time to read and 50% of the time to work on their role. (Ex: 25 minutes to read, 25 minutes to work)
- Depending on how well they use the “work time”, you can also give them 40 minutes to read, 10 minutes to jot thoughts, and then spend one whole period before discussions working.
- Depending on how responsible your students are with tech, you can also give them 50 minutes to use as needed. Some students may read the entire time. Others may read with their document open, jotting various things down as they read.
While students are reading and/or working, I am combing through their documents to leave comments, ask questions, and/or provide feedback.
I like to host discussions at the end of the week. Half of the period is spent on last-minute “what I need” touches, and the other half is spent in discussions.
Students gather with their group and the discussion director kicks off their meeting. Each student has their document open and their book nearby. They move through the slides in order, each student presenting their findings. Discussions vary from 15 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the group, and I float around to each group to listen in and ask questions.
Encouraging Student Reflection and Self-Assessment
The last 10 minutes of class time are reserved for individual reflections and self-assessments through a Google Form. I find students are generally very honest about their performance each week. Students score themselves according to a rubric, but I also ask them the following direct questions:
- Did you complete your reading?
- Did you complete your role thoroughly?
- Did you participate in your discussion respectfully?
- Is there anything else you would like to tell me?
The last question is where I often get most red flags about students or groups who might need support.
After reading this post, I hope you are willing to give digital lit circles a try. You will enjoy having the ability to check on student work whenever you can without collecting papers or meeting. Students will enjoy the organization and independence!
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