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 (@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.