Literature Circles and the Role of the Teacher

As students engage in the work of literature circles, teachers assume a variety of roles.

Early in the process, roles and behaviors require defining. Teachers who take the time to demonstrate how they want their students to behave as cooperative learners are often rewarded by higher quality discussion, comprehension, and group engagement. In the beginning, mini-lessons might focus on any number of topics, depending on the diverse needs of your students.

  • Starting a dialogue rather than stating answers.
  • Formulating and sharing meaningful contributions.
  • Giving and receiving feedback.
  • Being of value to your peers.
  • Assuming a role and performing it effectively.
  • Reflecting on progress and setting goals.
  • Monitoring and adjusting our noise level, transition time, and pacing.
  • Using comprehension and fix-up strategies to make and expand meaning.
  • Capitalizing on our strengths and attending to weaknesses as a group and as individuals.

As students move deeper into their texts, mini-lessons might attend to specific skills and understandings such as the elements of writers’ craft, the author’s use of story elements, the establishment of conflicts, themes, and characters and the skills that students need to improve upon as writers responding to their assigned works themselves.

As students work, teachers can capture important anecdotes about their strengths and their struggles as learners and as members of a cooperative group. These assessments can guide further instruction, inform placement, and alert teachers to potential learning and social conflicts before they impact the long-term success of any group or student.

When teachers identify students or groups in need of  additional support, they can invite themselves into a circle to act as a guide or in rare instances, a more directive leader. Sometimes, teachers are hesistant to sit down with any one group or student because they are concerned about attending to the needs of all and remaining on their feet to do so. I was one of those teachers, and I found that providing each group with a red, a green, and a yellow paper cup helped tremendously.

If groups were were working well, they were directed to keep their green paper cup stacked on top. Groups that had questions but who could continue working until I was able to get to them without interrupting my work with other students were advised to place their yellow cup on top of the stack. If a group’s question or concern prevented them from moving forward until I helped them, they placed their red cup on the top of their stack. Kid-friendly instructions can be found at the top of this wikispace (see the pdf titled talking cups). As I worked with invitational groups, I could continually scan the room and when needed, attend to the issues that arose in other groups. I continue to use this strategy whenever I’m asked to work with large groups of students or educators today. It allows me to pay individuals the attention they deserve without overlooking the needs of the group as a whole.

Teachers who celebrate the work of literature circle groups offer positive reinforcement and additional models of what quality work and learning look like. As students are working, teachers can capture information about cooperative groups, what they do well, and how they do it.  At the end of each experience, it makes sense to share these successes with students so that all groups might benefit from the efforts of effective circles. It also makes sense to use this time to coach the kids and the groups who may need it most.

Expect your students to practice the strategies and behaviors you model for them during mini-lessons. Ask them to self-assess during and after learning, and while they are working, take time to capture your own observations so that you may help them better over time.

Most importantly, share your enthusiasm for reading and student-led discourse. Share your personal connections to the books they have chosen and the issues that they raise as they journey forward together. Focus on what is right about their collective accomplishments and feel comfortable with the idea that it isn’t YOU who has to know it all in order to help them learn.

This post is the fourth in a series focusing on literature circles. Interested in having a peek at the first three? They are right here:

1. Launching Literature Circles

2. Circling Around Essential Questions

3. Engaging All Students in Literature Circles

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