Lit Circles Unleashed

Notes from the Classroom


Ironically, I often find that by the time
Reading Month rolls around in my classroom, the kids who most need to engage more deeply (and more often) with good books are the ones starting to burn out. I’ve got a pretty good independent reading game going on in my classroom–tons of graphic novels, crazy variety (thanks to room sharing with fellow blogger Hattie Maguire), a wonderful librarian (also a blogger!) who book talks whenever we’re looking for some new titles, and lots and lots of encouragement.

Yet I can always sense the slow death of reading growth in some of my students this time of year. Their resolve and eagerness are withering and turning to dust just as the first buds are pushing up through the thawing earth.

It’s a bummer.

Lit Circles without Required Texts

This burnout is why I gave up a whole-class text this unit, and replaced it with some unusual lit circles. Last year, we blew things wide open and made the lit circles for the unit completely free choice, as long as everyone in the group got hold of the same book. It worked nicely, but it felt like a disconnected activity while we were otherwise neck-deep in a very challenging narrative-journalism unit.

So this year I decided to point the kids at the genre we were focused on, but completely abandon the notion of common titles. Even within a lit circle.

In the past, John Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild was our central mentor text for the unit. While it certainly spoke to some of our students, it definitely left others out in the cold (with apologies to Chris McCandless).

So this time, aside from the requirement to stick to the genre, the options were wide open: Other Krakauer titles (he’s truly an excellent writer), Freakanomics, Picking Cotton, explorations of unsolved crimes. The list went on and on.

And yes, in many of my groups there were students reading several different titles while still conversing together.

Freedom Opens Up Rich Discussions

Was this crazy?

Maybe. But . . . it kinda worked. The conversations between students reading the same title were definitely more detail-oriented. But with a bit of guidance, it turns out my kids were fairly good at (and interested in) having more meta-level conversations about the genre itself.

What is there in common between a book about a false imprisonment, and another about pop culture? Not much content-wise, but tons when it comes to narrative-journalism structure.

The kids spent their lit circle time talking about structural elements of the text: the way one book interposed a lot of primary sources in exploring its subject matter, while another seemed almost entirely subjective in its take on the subject matter (Ben Mezrich of Bringing Down the House fame is known for that almost-novelistic style).

Some of the conversations were clumsier: Did your author use levity? Mine didn’t. And: Did you find a lot of anecdotes? Because that’s all my author seems to use. And so on.

But the conversations could be rich. They compared whether setting mattered to their book. They compared how much bias there was in the authors’ characterizations of real humans. Sometimes they just compared favorite parts or frustrations. It was lovely.

Students Were Reading

They were all reading–at their own paces, but all of them arriving to their meetings having advanced through their chosen book and ready to share.

There’s definitely no perfect solution to the problem of reader burnout this time of year. Part of it is about school burnout more than any animosity toward reading itself.

When the unit and time allow, though, you can certainly inspire your page turners to stick it out for a few more chapters, using the power of student choice.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

How I’m Bringing Joy into Writing Assignments

Notes from the Classroom



My daughter is writing a great story about the
poop emoji plunger she won at our family white elephant party at Christmas.

It’s a great tale of intrigue and strategy. And even though she’s only in kindergarten, she’s already learning that her writing is powerful. In this case, she can use it to make people laugh–and that’s one of her highest priorities these days.

This makes me think about Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write, a book that’s intended for K-6 teachers, but which has valuable lessons for the upper grades too. Fletcher’s book looks at the ways in which teachers can make writing a joyful experience for students. In the opening chapter, for instance, he compares writing workshop to a hot-air balloon: “For roughly an hour each day the kids would climb in and–whoosh!–up they’d go.”

But how do you create joy when, as in my AP class, there’s a pretty high-stakes test looming?

Let students choose their own topics.

My students have to be prepared to write three very specific types of essays by May. It would be irresponsible to not prepare them to do that.

But I don’t have to dictate their topics.

Why not analyze a song, a TV show, or even a threaded Twitter rant they come across?  Write an op-ed on something about which they’re passionate? Research topics of their choosing?

My students won’t necessarily have the same amount of freedom my daughter, Molly, has in kindergarten. But there’s room for a lot of joy if I commit to conferencing with each student and helping each one find ways to connect to their writing topics.

Give students an opportunity to write playfully.

Just as it would be irresponsible to not prepare them to write those three types of essays, I’m beginning to think it’s irresponsible to not give them chances to do other types of writing as well.

Fletcher argues in his book that “writing workshop has become more restrictive . . . less free-flowing, less student centered” and he’s right. He suggests creating a greenbelt that preserves space for “raw, unmanicured, uncurated” writing.

I love this idea, and I think I can make space for a greenbelt in my room, too. Why not dedicate a little time each day to some free, “unmanicured” writing? It will be tough at first; my students have not had many opportunities in recent years to write playfully. But I think if I stick with it, they’ll get there. I might start by just sharing Molly’s poop-emoji-plunger tale and see what that inspires with them.

There’s not enough time for everything, so let some things go.

It’s time consuming to conference with individual students, helping them to find topics. Greenbelt writing eats up class time.

So I have to let stuff go.

When I started teaching AP Language years ago, we examined six or seven really dense essays as a class each unit. Was it important for their critical reading? Sure. But is it more important than digging into a topic they love? More important than feeling the joy of knowing you’ve crafted a sentence that is finally, exactly, what you want?

I don’t think it is. I think whooshing takes time. I think if I want my students to find some joy in their writing, I have to accept that it’ll be a messy process that will happen on a different timeline for each student. Nobody gets anywhere fast in a hot air balloon, but it’s sure beautiful once it’s in the air.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

Loosening The Lit Circle Grip

Notes from the Classroom


A few months back, I realized that something felt off about independent reading time in my classroom. The energy (there’s definitely an energy to a silent room full of readers) just felt like it had drained away someplace.

I fretted about this for a while. And then I remembered that I’d just spent the past month or so engaged with my favorite end-of-the-year (calendar, not school) activity–browsing the dozens of “best of” lists that flood the internet around mid-December.

So I asked each of my students to choose two books and two films from 2016’s lists, and make them their “pop culture resolutions” for the new year. The reading improved immediately. We had some great discussions about film, but the real surprise only came recently–when Lit Circle Season rolled around.

Letting Students Decide

So, Lit Circle Season isn’t really a thing. We’ve done one this time of year for the past several years, though, to mixed results. It has always gone somewhat well, but the limitations of our book options sometimes stifled student interest. They were solid titles, but the scope of student interest was much broader than what we could cover.

Cue the New Year’s Resolution lists!

This year, I pleaded with my students to maximize the Lit Circle experience by selecting their own groups, and agreeing on a book title that intrigued all of them. I was cautiously hopeful that two or three groups would find their own title based on the New Year’s lists or the recommendations of their peers (we do book talks year-round). I figured I’d get a few ambitious groups, and the rest would read the selections I had to offer.

To my surprise, only one group chose NOT to select their own book–and they all showed up on Official Book Selection Draft Day (also not really a thing) with their own copies of their chosen titles already in hand.

A Major Lift from a Minor Shift

For the first time all year, there was some buzz surrounding reading. I decided to embrace it all the way—and let go of my control:

  • My students selected their reading schedule, with Lit Circles held each Tuesday and Friday for three weeks.
  • I made discussion topics available, but I gently discouraged them. Instead, I suggested that students identify their own topics for discussion prior to each meeting–based on whatever direction their books led them.
  • Groups decided what to focus on. If their book had been adapted into a film, they might spend a meeting discussing the film. If their book echoed current events (one group, for example, read All American Boys) then perhaps one meeting might be best spent talking about a news article.
  • Assessment was built entirely around student contribution to the group’s dialogue–based on a speaking and listening rubric, not a reading comprehension rubric.

None of these are new ideas. The best voices in literacy have actually been telling us to do this stuff for years. But they do work–if you’re willing to relinquish control.

The Real Point

Once students had books they truly wanted to read, motivation took care of itself. Do they all have the required reading done by each meeting? No. Do they all love their book choices now that we’re two weeks into the process? Certainly not.

But you know what? I would answer those questions the same way for the book club that I just finished with several of my colleagues. Students–when they’re reading what they want to read–behave pretty much the same way that adults do.

Assessing this can be hazardous (mostly for students). But a well-designed discussion rubric will tell you all you need to know. My students score well on mine if they are actively engaged as listeners (body language and responsiveness to the ideas of others) and are bringing engaging, original ideas into the conversation regularly.

By the end of their Lit Circle experience, all of my kids will have read a book of merit and experienced it as a set of ideas–not the ideas I’ve pointed them to, but the ideas inherent in the text. Their peers will have helped shape their perspectives, and their own curiosity will have provided the primary force behind their efforts.

The curriculum we assign our students has great value. But none of it will build a passion for reading like the empowerment of independence.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Creating a Culture of Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_123704254Each year, students tell me, “I don’t read” or “I haven’t read a whole book since the fourth grade.” I take those comments as a challenge. It’s part of who I am. If someone tells me that something can’t be done, I double down and whisper to myself, “Wanna bet?”

This attitude faltered this fall, though, when I moved to teach at a new school. My new building was recently designated by the state as a Shared Educational Entities school, which means that it draws nontraditional students from the other main high schools in our district. Students come here to recover credits, or if they have not otherwise found success in a traditional high school structure.

As I unloaded my boxes of books, people were quick to warn me that I wouldn’t be able to use those here. “You don’t have enough time,” they warned me. “These kids won’t read.”

Of course I’d had plenty of those kids in the past. But they were always among students who already identified as readers, so I relied somewhat on the readers to help establish a culture of reading. Even when I taught AARI (reading intervention) classes at the traditional high school, I built a reading culture with independent, choice reading.

But for some reason, facing what seemed like an entire building of “non-readers” in an alternative environment, I wondered if I could still do so.

The possibility scared me, but I dug in my heels. Could I establish enough of a reading culture that I could “trick” students into reading outside school, without thinking of it as homework or a requirement?

So far, I’m a month in, and this is what I’ve tried.

Book Talks

A few times a week, I take a minute or two to highlight a couple of books from my collection. I show students the cover, tell them a bit about the book, and sometimes read a page or two as a teaser.

I have the students collect these titles on a handout called “My Bookshelf,” on which they collect the books based on how interested they might be in reading them. They rank each on a scale of 0 to 10. When they are stuck, and unsure what to do next, I ask them if there are any books on their “bookshelf” that they might be interested in reading.

Classroom Library Scavenger Hunt

In the first week, as we’re establishing our norms and getting to know each other, the students complete a very quick survey that asks them to explore the library. They have to check out how the bins are organized, look for titles that they recognize, and decide which areas of the library they might gravitate toward.

This gives them lightly structured and non-threatening time to get the books in their hands. It also allows them to get comfortable looking through the space.41uzrunxtkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Read-Alouds

Sometimes I build a few pages of read-aloud into a book talk. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to include some read-alouds from choice books in my mini-lessons.

For example, when we did a lesson on making inferences about characters’ thoughts, I read from the first chapter of Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, which is one of the 2016 titles for the Global Read Aloud project.

Choice in Independent Practice

After our mini-lessons, I try to build in as many choices as possible. As we were establishing the norms for our classroom learning community, my students told me loud and clear that they hate when teachers tell them what they have to read. At the same time, they’ll do it if they can choose the readings. Sometimes they have a choice between a few different short stories, and sometimes I’m able to include independent-reading books as well.

I’m only a month in, so I don’t yet know how successful I’ll be, but I am hopeful. My students are talking about the books and asking questions about the read-alouds. One student asked, “Did this guy write anything else?” His eyes got wide as I showed him the section of my library that houses Walter Dean Myers’ books.

A little over 25 percent of my students have actually checked books out of my library, and one boy even took two. And every student (EVERY! STUDENT!) has been able to identify at least one book that they want to read.

To say that this hasn’t been easy is an understatement. On days when the kids act like all they want is a worksheet and to check out of thinking, I worry that I can’t keep it up. But I’d say that with a start like this, it’s well worth trying.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.