Aren’t literature circles great? They’re an easy way to incorporate choice into your curriculum, as well as bring new voices into your classroom if your department isn’t that open to diverging from the traditions of your school.
If you’ve been around here for long, you know I’m a big fan, although with one caveat: you don’t need the formal roles for older students. They can start to feel like busywork. I shared my blueprint for literature circles for big kids a while back in this post, if you’re interested.
But today we’ve got another challenge. Taking literature circles online to accommodate blended or full distance learning.
Can we do it? (Yell it with me now.) YES WE CAN!
Today’s podcast is the second in this week’s series of THREE podcasts about taking programs you know and love from your usual classroom scene and putting a little digital fairy dust on top to make them ready for the 2020 scenario shuffle. First came episode 100, all about taking First Chapter Fridays online. Now we’re diving into literature circles with episode 101. Next up, you can look out for an epic plan for an online literary food truck festival in episode 102.
Such an exciting week! Back-to-school means pulling out all the stops around here, and when it happens to coincide with episode 100 of the podcast (queue the confetti) I felt it was time to step up the game. Plus, you know, pandemic. I know you’re working within a totally upside-down inside-out anxiety explosion of a back-to-school season, and I really want to help.
Before we dive in, I wanted to let you know that The Lighthouse in now running. What’s that, you say? It’s my new plan for stepping up my support for you in this crazy season. No more wondering night after night how to keep your students engaged the next day. While you homeschool your own children, sanitize everything that comes near you, and deal with the laundry, emails, meal prep, dishes, and skyrocketing anxiety. Nope, it’s time you had a stable source of support for your creative (virtual/blended/in-person) teaching. A little peace in the storm.
While I’ve already welcomed in the first group of members, you can sign up here to get onto the waitlist to hear about it as soon as the doors are open again.
Now let’s dive in. You love literature circles. You know they give kids voice and choice. But you’re not sure WHAT your classroom scenario is going to look like when you get to your lit circles unit. Will you be blended? 100% online? Either way, you can still do it. So let’s look at how.
#1: Make sure Students can Access the Books
Honestly, this was the trickiest part of my research. If you’ve got physical copies of your literature circles books for your students, try to plan waaaay ahead to get them into their hands. If you’re going to have even one day with them in person but you know they might end up at home for quarantine or full remote, let the kids make their choices in advance and pass those books out! Or if you’re allowed to distribute an independent learning packet at some point, tuck a book into each.
But let’s say you’re not getting a single opportunity to give something to your kids. You can still do literature circles, but you have to be wily. I chatted with my friend Alexandra, head librarian for a vast independent school library, and she told me THE BEST thing you can do to get your students access to ebooks and audiobooks is to work through your local library. Any PDFs you find online are illegal, but your public library is probably subscribed to one of the wonderful ebook services out there.
Call up your librarian and ask how your students can best access books online. They’ll probably tell you about a program like Overdrive, Sora, or Hoopla. If you’ve got just one or two kids at home missing the lit circles book, they may well be able to access it through one of these programs. Alexandra tells me Hoopla is the one most likely to let multiple users access the same book at once.
These are also vital programs to access for your students for outside reading. Your conversation now with your local librarian can reap great benefits for you and your students throughout the year.
If all your students are at home, you can’t get them books, and your local librarian can’t help you access enough copies for literature circles, there are a few other options.
Teen Book Cloud is free right now, with many fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels available to read online, and even an extensive AP English title collection. You could look through their titles and pick out a set for your literature circles and feel confident knowing they can all access the books online. This is normally a paid service, but I see there is a 30 day free trial, so if something changes and they pull the free access, hopefully you can do your unit within the trial.
Audible has made a collection of audiobooks available for free in a section they’re calling Audible Stories. While I’m not super impressed by the teen section, there are a few winners in the overall collection like The Crossover, Anne of Green Gables and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There’s also a group of classics in the Timeless Listens category.
#2: Host a Virtual Book Tasting
When it comes time to let your students choose their literature circles books, have them choose through a virtual book tasting. Set up a slideshow for them to access featuring the books “laid out” on a table that also features a fun blurb about the book and/or links out to book trailers, author interviews or reviews. Give the kids time to browse through the book tasting slides and then choose the title (or two) that they’re most interested in. You may not be able to give everyone their first choice, so be prepared to sort them out into somewhat even groups.
Grab these slides and start adding your own books, links, and blurbs to design your virtual book tasting. You can either choose one slide and copy it over and over for each book, or change it up with a different-looking table for each book. I designed these backgrounds in Canva and then added the text and links on top in Slides.
#3 Set up your Lit Circles Calendar and Meeting Routines
Lit circles do not need to meet every day. It’s too much for the kids to meet independently to discuss or do projects on just a few pages of reading a night. Let them work through substantial chunks of the reading and THEN meet, so they only end up meeting four or five times – especially since you won’t be able to easily hover to see how productive the meetings are.
So pencil your literature circles meetings in regularly, mixing and matching them with other creative options and programs. Then set up a plan for your routine that will stay the same (plus tweaking) throughout the unit. Let them know exactly what the routine will be in advance, and make sure everyone has access to a lit circles unit handout that explains the routine and links to the online meeting rooms.
When you first launch your unit, let the groups meet briefly to break up the reading into homework-sized chunks for the number of days you’ll be meeting, and let them know what you’d like them to do to prepare for discussions each time. You can ask them to write down two substantive questions, choose their favorite quote, create sketchnotes as they read, or something more formal, like a discussion prep page that can be turned in, like this:
Here’s what I’d suggest for a routine once your students have their books and weekly assignment, and know the expectations.
Daily Routine for Lit Circles:
Start by checking in as a class and doing your daily set-up. Attendance and anything else you need to do before diving into literature circles.
Give a quick reminder of the expectations and then move into the literature circles online rooms.
For your own sanity, set up rooms for the meetings that stay consistent throughout the unit. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can learn more about Zoom recurring meetings, and Google Hangouts Recurring Meetings.
Inside the meetings, have students follow a similar routine each time.
1. Hold a short discussion of takeaways from the reading. This could mean everyone asks one question and the kids talk, or they all share their sketch notes briefly, or maybe they just chat about what they noticed and wondered. You know best how much structure your kids need for this part, so build in clear expectations if you need to.
2. While staying in the meeting room with the ability to chat together, the kids work on a short creative project relating to the text. This could be a one-pager, an “open mind” (kids fill in key traits, relationships, thoughts, quotes, etc. relating to a main character inside a silhouette of the character’s head), a hexagonal thinking activity, an Instagram profile for a character, etc.
3. When the time is almost up, each group member shares back what they’ve created and the group chooses one person to share their work back to the class. A different person should share back each week.
Bring everyone back together for ten minutes or so at the end, and let one group member from each group share their work back to the class. Alternatively, if you don’t want to devote time to this, you could have a collaborative page available to all groups where they can drop photos or screenshots of their work on a group slide so that everyone can see everyone else’s work at the end. In this case, you can pull everyone back to go see the collaborative gallery walk for just a few minutes before class ends.
Bondie, Rhonda. “Practical Tips for Teaching Online Small Group Discussions.” ASCD. April 23, 2020. http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol15/num16/practical-tips-for-teaching-online-small-group-discussions.aspx. Accessed Aug. 15 2020.
“Using Online Tools for Discussion.” Center for Teaching and Learning at UPenn. https://www.ctl.upenn.edu/using-online-tools-discussion. Accessed Aug. 15 2020.