By Mark Heintz
“Why is your book better than mine?” I know I have written about this comment a few times in the past, but it continues to play in my mind over and over again. Kristen Lesniak and Jackie Randall started using literature circles in their sophomore English courses last year. Many visits and even more conversations later, I started a lit circle in my freshmen human geography class. Despite my love of them and enthusiasm to use them in my class because it gave more students autonomy and agency over their learning, one of my students pointed to a shortcoming of the process by asking, “Why is your book better than mine?”
Why Lit Circles
Lit circles resonate with my beliefs on learning. In lit circles, students read for themselves. They make connections to their world and then share those understanding with others in their group to make those understandings richer and deeper. Lit circles emphasize voice and shape their world around them. Another reason I love them is the process deemphasizes the teacher knowing all of the answers. I am learning and reading with my them. Lit circles create a culture of learners, readers, and collaborators as its focus are on reflection upon themselves and the world around them with the people around them.
I went back to Kristen and Jackie and learned how they read a variety of books. To allow kids to read different books I partnered with my librarian, Dawn Ferencz, to help get into a number of choices for the students. With attention to the class’s essential question: To what extent can we do whatever we want to the Earth and its people? To focus it even more, the current unit is Political Geography which made the essential question steered towards how laws stated or not, governments, family practices, or social structures are dictating the behaviors of the people in the book. Dawn found ten books that aligned to the theme that the students could choose from. Each book offered a unique perspective on how people treat each other and allowed students to come together to make sense of how that relates to their understanding of the world.
On day one Dawn introduced each book and had the students select three they were interested in reading. From their choices, I created groups of four or five. For lit circles to be successful, they need a lot of class time. To ensure their success, I had four consecutive days dedicated to getting them off the ground. Two of those days, including the first, were full reading days. To learn alongside with them, I read one of the books I hadn’t read. With the exception of one group, everyone started reading without any coercion. That one group started reading once they saw I was reading; We were in it together. The kids and I read for forty minutes and then I noticed a few kids looking at the clock. They only became restless after forty minutes of sustained reading!
On day two, Dawn and I worked together and started with the students coming up with questions. We used the question formulation technique to allow each group to work together to get all of their questions. We centered their thoughts and ideas about the rules and laws that dictated the behaviors in the book. These rules could be implicit or explicit laws from anywhere in the book. It didn’t matter who created the rules, we just wanted the students to generate questions. Afterward, we borrowed/stole from Kristen and Jackie some guides to help focus the students' thoughts on their beginning understandings of their book and the questions that they generated.
From there, the students started recording and talking about their book. Dawn and I bopped around the different circles. We tried not to dictate the conversation. The process repeated itself over the next days. Dawn and I ran into a bit of a problem; one of the groups finished the book after day two. Most of the kids in that group went home and finished the book after the first discussion. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great problem to have, but now Dawn and I are trying to figure out what they should do next. As I write this sentence, I realize the mistake in my thinking. Dawn and I are trying to come up with everything they are going to do, which goes against the purpose behind the lit circles.
The partnership with Dawn was/is one of the best teaching moments in my career. We had a similar goal and a vision for how we were going to implement it. Having Dawn was crucial to the success of lit circles. One of the days, a group was struggling. Dawn went to the group and built on their strengths instead of telling them what they weren't doing. She worked through their questions and guided them to the place the group wanted to go. She asked the members to make claims and back those understandings with evidence. She dug a little deeper and asked the students to explain their thinking. I’m in awe of how she worked with the students and not talked at them.
The greater partnership that occurred was the one that developed with Dawn, the students, and myself. We were in it together. We read, recorded, and worked through our understandings together. We were all learners and we were learners together. That's what I wanted from the beginning.