If your methods of facilitating literature circles have gotten a bit stale, read on to see how shifting to a digital framework changed the game in my middle school classroom.
Literature Circles: 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 things like:
- 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 literature circles without all the added stress: by taking them fully digital.
Taking it to the 21st Century: Digital Literature Circles
For starters, let me sell you on the benefits.
Going digital with literature circles has helped build autonomy in groups, empowered students as collaborators, and given 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 timely feedback throughout the learning process instead of at the end – when it was too late for students to 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.
Step 1: Identify Literature Circle Roles
There are many different approaches to literature circle roles. Ultimately, you must decide which skills you want them to work on and how big or small you want your groups to be. Once you’ve figured out those two things, you can build your roles from there.
Traditional literature circle roles usually include:
- Discussion Leader
- Passage Selector
- Vocabulary Checker
- Character Analyzer
Nowadays, there are many creative spinoffs on literature circle roles, including notice and note signpost themes, film themes, detective themes, social media themes, depth and complexity themes, and so on.
Because my students spend a significant portion of the year learning the literary elements, I prefer roles that review those key elements as well as incorporate some of our 6th-grade common core standards.
My favorite literature circle roles are:
- Discussion Director
- Character Captain
- Signpost Scout
- Travel Tracer
- Literary Luminary
- Reliable Researcher
- Word Wizards
Yes, it’s a lot, and I also like to keep my groups to 4-5 students. I typically end up having the Discussion Director take responsibility for another role, like the Character Captain or the Literary Luminary. I also require all group members to contribute to the Word Wizard role instead of making it a single person’s job.
The reason I prioritize these roles is that they review character traits and character changes (RL.6.3), they review key elements of the setting and its effect on the story (RL.6.3), they bring up conflict, character growth, and themes (RL.6.3); plus, they build background knowledge and language awareness.
Once you settle on roles that you see value in, it’s time to create your digital literature circle template.
Step 2: Build Out Your Digital Literature Circle Template
I’m a Google Drive kinda gal (sorry, Microsoft Team teachers!), and I built my digital literature circle template on Google Slides.
My digital literature circle template included:
- Table of Contents/Navigation
- Meeting Schedule and Weekly Literature Circle Roles
- How-To Slides for Each Role
- Workspace Slides for Each Role
Step 3: Host a Book Tasting & Form Literature Circle Groups
Next, it’s time 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).
Plus, 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 enough 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 book 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 book tastings 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 the books that they did.
Once all choices are submitted, I play Houdini on 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 audiobook support so they can keep up.
If you’d like to grab a FREE copy of my book-tasting slides and student selection form, you can join my weekly newsletter and download them here.
Step 4: Give Students Ownership Over Their Workload
You’ve built your literature circle template and formed your groups. Now it’s time to get your template to 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 need a new set of slides each week. You might:
- Create four literature circle copies for each group and house them all in one folder, then share the entire 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 literature circle slides, they must determine their reading and meeting schedules. 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 literature circles. 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!
Step 5: Facilitate Your Literature Circles Each Week
Now that you know where you’re going over the next four weeks, it’s time to get to work. I recommend giving students a more significant chunk of in-class time to read during literature circles to lessen the burden of reading time outside of class. I’ve structured class in three ways, each with pros and cons.
- Depending on how long your period is, give them 60% of the time to read and 40% of the time to work on their role. (Ex: 30 minutes to read, 20 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 working, comb through their documents to leave comments, ask questions, and 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.
To kick off literature circle discussions, have your students gather with their group and allow the discussion director to kick off the meeting. Each student should have their literature circle document open and their book nearby. Groups should move through the slides/roles in order, with each student presenting their findings. Discussions often vary from 15 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the group, and I prefer to float from one group to another to listen in and ask questions.
Step 6: Encourage Student Reflection and Self-Assessment
I strongly recommend reserving the last 10 minutes of class after discussions for individual student reflection and self-assessment. More often than not, students are very honest about their performance and participation. I have students score themselves on their roles 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.
I hope you are willing to give digital literature circles a try. You will enjoy having the ability to check on student work as needed without collecting papers, and your students will enjoy the organization and independence!
If you’d like to grab my digital literature circle resource, you can purchase it here.