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Trial and error: lit circles

Since my inaugural post here, my class has changed quite a bit. We began with a few rather difficult classics, but I began to feel rather desperate about introducing my students to great accessible reads without emptying my pockets. This is where literature circles come in.

In general, lit circles are scaffolded reading clubs. Each group of three to five students has a unique book they read, and every week they meet and discuss. Each person has a role, which means that the students who are usually quieter and more likely to let others lead the discussion, now must discuss! Also, because these are smaller groups, they are a bit more comfortable for my less confident students.

I was very excited about trying this out in my class, which is a mix of English Language Learners, struggling readers, and accelerated readers. Best of all, I didn’t need a set of books for the entire class; I just needed about four or five of each!

I prepared my students by first walking through a short story and doing each of the group roles together as a class. All the while, I did a quick introduction of each book and really talked up the books.

Then on Friday I put out four to six novels and had students form groups of twos and threes at the back of the classroom. There they rifled through the books and wrote down one to three books they were interested in (with a star next to their “hot choice”), and one book that they really do not want to read (optional). Prior to Choosing Day, I had already divided my students into three reading groups based on reading level so when they went to the back, only books that were in their general reading level were available. As I progressed up the levels, I would replace some of the easier books with harder books so that students generally had a few at-level and a few reach books to choose among.

Then I had the whole weekend to look at my students’ choices and determine who would read what. I considered each student’s behavior, motivation, and reading level. In the case where students really wanted to read a book that was too difficult for them, I would either let them into the group because I felt they could rise to the level, or I would let them know that currently they weren’t ready, but perhaps they could work really hard and read the book during our next set of lit circles. It is really a cool motivation.

In my next post, I will write more in detail about how the lit circles progressed, but for now I will leave you with a few popular books at varying levels for middle school students.

Short story for classroom practice
Anything by Langston Hughes is good since he writes with a pretty straightforward plot that has great characters and themes that, as one student put it, “get you in the feels.”

A Step from Heaven A Step From Heaven by An Na 
Although this is an easier book in terms of length, type size, and even lexile, the topics of domestic abuse and immigration are pretty difficult and emotionally accessible for middle school students. Also, Na’s style of poetic prose can definitely throw students off in the beginning. I had intended for my weaker students to choose this, but it ended up that a group of three medium to high readers took this up. At first, they were a bit skeptical about the book, since it was an unfamiliar style, but towards the end, they were very engaged in the trials of the narrator as she navigates the life of an immigrant from ages four through eighteen. It was a group of two boys and one girl, and both sexes were very engaged. This was also very useful for applying figurative language knowledge.

The Song Wil Save Your LifeThis Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
This was a hugely popular book. I had it for my higher readers since it was longer and the subject material seemed a bit older, but I think medium readers could handle this because the plot is super engaging for boys and girls alike (they were clamoring for a sequel). The story follows a female protagonist who is just pathetic at school — no matter how hard she tries, it is not just a question about fitting in with the popular group, she doesn’t fit in at all! She begins to find her niche when she starts deejaying at an underground indie club. It’s a great coming-of-age book that requires students to start critiquing the decisions of the protagonist, the supporting characters, and even the parents. Topics covered include love, cutting, and popularity.

Breathing UnderwaterBreathing Underwater by Alex Flinn
Three of my best girl readers read this book.  It is from the first-person perspective of the sixteen-year-old male protagonist who is convicted for hitting his girlfriend. There is some heavy and difficult subject material in the book, including sexual references and confessions. The cover itself concerned one of my parents as it is a picture of a boy and girl about to kiss. Yet if possible, I would definitely allow mature readers to try this book. My girls in general are more dutiful about reading but are not thrilled by it. This book, however, broke that barrier, and they would come up to me and gush about what was happening in the book. I ended up buying the sequel, Diva, so that they could read to see what happens next. This never happens!

I could go on about other books, but these were definitely the winners out of the seven books we read together in class. In my next post, I will cover more in detail the roles and how I facilitated these groups. I will also cover a few more books that were popular.

Junia Kim About Junia Kim

Junia Kim is a middle school teacher in Oakland, CA. Her favorite genre is YA, her favorite author is CS Lewis, and her favorite YA book is Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion.

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