Most of the teachers that I work with have inherited students who are not yet accustomed to the cooperative learning structures and processes that drive effective literature circles. As a result, the honeymoon is often over far too soon as teachers begin confronting the reality of this learning environment: it’s a bit messier than what happens when we seat kids in rows, ply them with paper, and direct them to keep quiet unless they raise their hand first. This is what ALL of us have been doing for far too long, simply because it was what we were taught to do and we lack processes and strategies that will help us do anything different.
There were a few things that I put in place early on in my experiences with literature circles that helped a great deal. First, I began studying my students as they engaged in full class discussion, cooperative learning sessions, and literature circle work. I captured anecdotal observations that helped me draw some conclusions about who they were as readers, writers, listeners, speakers AND group members. This information guided my decisions about placement, mini-lesson topics, and management.
Each year, I noticed that some students were unwilling to contribute to conversation, others didn’t do their work at all, handfuls of students took over the group completely, some wanted work alone, and one or two expected their peers to do their work for them. The noise level was always too high, the kids had a tendency to get off-task, and at first, the idea of stepping away from the front of the room and positioning myself as a guide and coach seemed completely impractical. But I wanted to try anyway. I knew that kids behaved that way NOT because they were lazy, spoiled, unmotivated, or the victims of too much television. Kids behave the way we expect them to behave. They behave the way the system trains them to behave.
This is how I began supporting students in their endeavor to become interdependent learners: I bought a roll of raffle tickets at our local Party City outlet. Heady stuff, ain’t it?
In all seriousness–raffle tickets are incredible tools. When it came time to transition my kids away from the sit and get learning environment that they were comfortably numb in toward a learning space where they were responsible for thinking, sharing, questioning, and considering the perspectives of their peers, those tickets provided structure that allowed for a powerfully smooth transition and an element of safety that motivated them.
Early in the year, students met me and my raffle tickets at the door. I gave two or three tickets to each of them and asked that they place their name on the back of each one. As we began learning together, each time a student offered a meaningful contribution to our discussion, I took a ticket from him or her. Tickets translated into rewards of some kind initially, and soon enough, kids were externally motivated to participate. As more students began participating, necessary conversations were had, including discourse around this question:
What does a meaningful contribution look like?
Using tickets allowed me to study who was participating most often and who was not. Kids didn’t have to raise their hands any longer, they simply held out a ticket if they wanted to participate, and this rapidly evolved into conversation that was no longer led by ME. Soon, students knew that they were expected to make at least two or three contributions during our discussions. I didn’t offer rewards long-term. Eventually, tickets translated into points for participation, and as student became more comfortable speaking more (or in some cases less) often, we abandoned our use of them all together. By this time, students were intrinsically motivated to lead our learning experiences because as more people began to participate, our conversations became increasingly interesting and rewarding for all. This is an important point–tickets are a transitional tool. I think that moving through the transition is essential, otherwise the tool becomes another crutch.
As we began literature circles, students used raffle tickets to moderate conversation a bit better. Many teachers begin these experiences by assigning each member of the group a role. Using tickets ensures that all students are provided a vehicle for inserting their thoughts, and overzealous members are reminded to yield the floor a bit more often. The expectation is that all group members will have relinquished their tickets by the end of the conversation, and I always asked the group moderator or gatekeeper to oversee the use of tickets.
Many teachers use packets to control the learning that takes place within literature circles, and sadly, role assignment is commonly treated in this way as well. It has always been my understanding that these sorts of practices are intended to be temporary in nature. Providing students a role to perform and training them to do so effectively happens early in the literature circles experience, and over the course of the year, teachers can continually assess how well students are functioning as members of cooperative group, provide instruction and added support where it is necessary, and plan for literature circles that are led by savvy group members who are more than capable of exploring texts in powerful ways.
More information about managing literature circles can be found here:
- The Literature Circles Resource Center provides an overview of lit circles, support in structuring circle work at different instructional levels, and information relevant to reflection and assessment. Professional reading recommendations are also provided there.
- Laura Candler outlines different lit circle models and shares management resources here.
- Lisa Fink published an introduction to lit circles here, complete with defined roles and cards, process outlines, reflection sheets, and lesson plans.
- Nancy Patterson shares an abundance of great resources for getting started with lit circles here.
What about you? How did you get started with literature circles or cooperative learning groups? How did you help students transition into this learning model effectively? What books or resources do you value? What do you think about the use of roles and tools like tickets in the beginning or long term?
This post is the third in a series relevant to literature circles. The first post can be found here: Launching Literature Circles. The second post is right here: Circling Around Essential Questions. Tomorrow, I’ll be focusing on the shifting role of the teacher.
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I used something similar to scaffold participation in lit circle discussions. Students were each given some tokens (don’t remember exactly what I used!) which were lined up along the top of their desk. Each time they participated (question or comment) they slid one of their tokens down. This was a concrete way for group members to make sure everyone participated.
I guess I am a little skeptical about the motivation to contribute to the discussion becoming extrinsic. My students always expect a prize/candy/points for anything they do. If there isn’t a reward, then they say, “Well, I’m not going to do it then.” I am willing to try, but I’m not seeing that evolution happening with my students.