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.