Jane MacMillan is a lover of all things literacy and enjoys sharing her passion for literature both with her students at school and at home with her three children.
Christy Rollo knew she wanted to be a teacher from the moment she taught her brother how to tie his shoe laces. She is now having the ultimate teaching experience with her two young daughters.
In September of 2006, Christy, a Grade 6/7 teacher, approached Jane, a teacher-librarian with a question: How could Christy engage all the diverse learners in her class, including reluctant learners and English language learners? Jane was new to the school, and Christy had been teaching Gr. 6/7 for a number of years at the school. We were looking to collaborate with the library as a venue. Further, Christy wanted to help all of her learners connect with Social Studies in a meaningful way, even though it included reading a variety of texts, note-making, critical thinking and discussion, all areas in which reluctant and ESL learners may struggle due to gaps in skills and background knowledge. Looking to develop authentic conversation and create a greater depth in student engagement as part of a unit on Ancient Rome, we decided to try something new; that is, bring information books to the traditional “book club.” Thus, “info-circles” was born, proving to be not only a popular choice among our students, but an incredibly rewarding teaching experience for us, as well.
Literature circles, an offshoot of the adult “book club” (Daniels, 2002), have seen a sharp rise in the past two decades. However, there is a growing trend towards including non-fiction materials in literature circles, as reading for information has become a significant area of concern in schools in recent years. Students need exposure to a wide variety of expository texts (Daniels, 2002), as non-fiction permeates students’ reading both in and out of school (Stien & Beed, 2004). The move to information, or content- area, literature circles draws the focus away from primarily exclusive attention to specific elements of text, to a broader program which encompasses understanding of the text as engaging literature. Content-area literature circles offer a new dimension to the traditional literature circle program, one which addresses “both the social and academic needs of the students while maintaining the curriculum” (Johnson & Freedman, 2005, p. xiv).
Johnson and Freedman (2005), in advocating content area literature circles as a premium opportunity for improving information text comprehension, emphasize its adaptability for all learners. For ESL students, it is a chance to clarify misconceptions and hear academic language through discussion. For social learners, particularly in adolescence, it is a chance to share and build on their understanding in a group setting. For more reluctant readers and students reading below grade level, it is a chance to read texts of interest at their instructional level, with opportunity for greater choice, thereby providing opportunity to share equally in a group with others discussing the same topic, as opposed to struggling through a textbook often incompatible with their reading or interest levels.
For all students, it is a chance to clarify and extend meaning beyond the written, and respond to critical challenges of text and topic in a group setting. We think it is a rich opportunity to not only enhance content area instruction, but to encourage students in the ever mindful goal of becoming effective, engaged and competent lifelong learners.
Info-circles: Ancient Rome
We introduced our students to the unit on Ancient Rome using the KWL (What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Want to Learn) strategy to foster questioning (Gear, 2007) and build student interest. Students shared questions as a class, recording those most important to them. In a follow up lesson, we gave students, working in table groups, unusual facts about Ancient Rome and asked them to decide as a group which were true and which were false. These were posted at the front under “True” and “False” labels, and groups then had to explain the reasoning behind their choices to the larger group. Finally, using Gear’s (2007) OWI strategy (Observe, Wonder, Infer), we gave students photographic reproductions of Ancient Roman sites, which they were encouraged to study as follows: Observations (without judgment), Wonderings (questions about the picture), Inferences (judgments made based on the information gathered). We designed all of these introductory activities not only to heighten interest in the upcoming unit, but to further develop strategies and group processes the students would need as members of the upcoming discussion group format.
One of the significant elements of the unit was the concept of developing and pursuing “powerful” or “thick” (Gear, 2007) questions. Students looked through various information books and kept a running list of the questions they had. At various points, small groups shared their questions with each other, and, as a group, picked the top 3-4 “thick” (deep thinking) questions to share out with the class. Christy recorded these questions on chart paper for further use in the discussion group format. Students then sorted their questions into “thick” and “thin” categories, and justified their reasons for the choices made. Throughout the unit, we asked them to evaluate their own questions and group discussion in light of the “thick” questions posted, to decide if they had been answered or if they required further research. Examples included questions such as, “What gifts have the Ancient Romans given us?”, “What was Rome’s greatest achievement?” and “Why was Rome able to build such a powerful empire?” The questions were revisited throughout the unit.
Concept-driven vs. text-driven approach
We decided upon a combination of concept-driven (multiple books in one group) and text-driven (single book discussion) approaches, not only to accommodate our diverse learners, but also to provide greater opportunity for the sharing of multiple viewpoints. Because students were reading books appropriate to their reading levels, grouping them solely by text would have limited the discussion to homogeneous groups. In contrast, the inclusion of guiding groups by concept allowed for heterogeneous groups, with multiple voices and reflections based on the differing texts read. This approach also minimized student perception, and indeed, reality, of grouping students solely by ability. In this way, the topic, rather than the text and its implied reading level, was the focus for discussion.
We chose texts at a variety of reading levels, with particular attention to reluctant readers, ESL learners, and students not reading at grade level, as these composed the bulk of the classroom. Included were high interest, low vocabulary books, to address the needs of low-level ESL students, as well as non- ESL students with lower reading levels. For reluctant readers, we chose two titles with visually motivating texts sure to draw in those students, as well as the high proportion of boys in the class. For higher level readers, one title offered further detail at a more challenging reading level, with an embedded graphic novel sure to draw others, as well. Finally, we included two texts with material at a mid to lower reading level. The aim in choosing these books was to address curriculum while meeting the needs of all learners. However, we chose the books not only for their reading level or eye catching titles, but because they are clearly written with a number of information features, as well as factual information that directly links to the learning outcomes of the unit.
To introduce the discussion group portion of the unit, we presented the “Info Circles Discussion Prompts” sheet (see Figure 1). Prompts included Question (Clarify), Wonder, Connections, Knew-New, and “This was interesting….” Rather than a role approach, the discussion prompts sheets were used to encourage student response while reading that could later be shared with peers in the discussion group. Students used sticky notes to record their thoughts as they read, later transferring them to the discussion prompt sheet just prior to each group meeting.
| Figure 1: Info Circles Symbols Key
|?||Question:Clarify something you don’t understand|
|K-N||Knkew-New: Somethingyou already knew OR Something that is new to you|
|W||Wonder: “I wonder why/ how/ if…”|
|!||This is interesting!|
Initially, we modeled the strategy with a larger group text share, as students read along and shared thoughts. As a follow up, students worked in small groups with a photocopied sheet of text, following the process above, and working together as a group to complete the prompt sheet. Students transferred their sticky notes to a note-making book for discussions. We employed a gradual release of responsibility to students (Maloch, 2002) in the move from modeled response, to small group practice, to individual response activities. The modeling and practice given prior to the onset of the discussion group format was a key means of not only familiarizing students with a strategy and process for stimulating potential discussion, but to build comfort and encourage the group interaction that would be essential to the next stage of the unit.
At the introduction to the discussion group process, Jane gave a book talk on the books chosen for the literature circle groups. Students then selected a book to read. Books were rotated on a weekly basis. Students had one week to read and make note of their responses to the book, both through one in-class period, and during silent reading and after school homework time. As each book was relatively short, we considered this sufficient time to complete the task, which was borne out by the subsequent response and success in completion by the students.
Weekly meetings occurred after one period given to working on their book for the week, initially with Jane and Christy coteaching to ensure all groups had regular contact with an adult to monitor and guide discussions, if necessary. Students met in assigned groups that were chosen at times by common title, at others by suggested topic. Where possible, we placed beginning ESL students in groups with at least one other student who spoke the same language, in order to allow for translation and first language participation. If students were meeting to discuss the common text (text-driven approach), our prompts were limited, with only a general suggestion as to potential issue questions with which they may use the book to guide their thinking. In multiple text groups, we often asked students to consider what they learned from the book in light of one of the “thick questions” the class as a whole had deemed pertinent to their interests and the unit of study. Such questions included: “What was the role of women in Ancient Roman society?”; “How did rank and power play out across varying roles and societal structures?”; “What was life like for the average/wealthy/poor citizen?” Students referred to their prompt sheets to initiate discussion; however, with our encouragement, students moved beyond sharing their written responses if discussion led them in another direction.
The goal was to focus on rich discussion, not the sharing of each post-it on student sheets. We encouraged students to add to their own notes during the discussion, allowing struggling ESL learners to add information to their sheets. In all cases, we closed discussions by gathering the class together again in a large group format, and reviewed information in light of one of the “thick” questions posted in class. Each group had a few minutes to discuss their thinking in light of the question and their discussion, then in small groups share their group’s thinking with the whole class. Finally, students transferred their sticky notes to an exercise book under a heading that named the title of the book and the author, in preparation for the upcoming project that would comprise the unit’s finale.
After 5 weeks, students met to review the thick questions posted. In small groups, they discussed what they felt was Rome’s greatest achievement, attempted to come to a consensus, then shared their group’s decision(s) on what was the greatest achievement. In a follow up lesson, students met in groups composed of those in agreement with them as to what was Rome’s greatest achievement. After a brief discussion in their new group, each group was responsible for convincing the other groups that their choice was the “best” one. In a fluid debate format, students moved from group to group as their opinion changed, until all felt they had made their final choice as to Rome’s greatest achievement. The lesson closed as students reflected individually in writing on their final choice. The debate was a highly engaging activity that owed its success to the comfort and familiarity of the children in participating in discussion formats. Students who had, prior to the unit, been reluctant oral participants, now freely offered suggestions and moved to other groups without hesitation as their opinions changed.
As a finale to the unit, students worked in groups to create a class book. Each student chose a favorite “thick” question and developed, in groups with others, a page that defended their question, as well as including relevant text features. As part of the process, students worked with others with the same question, fact gathering using a web to categorize response options, before beginning their final product.
The discussion groups, and the unit as a whole, proved extremely popular with the students. We evaluated responses in a number of ways. During discussion, we circulated with notes and a quick scale response sheet in order to record both the rate and quality of participation. Anecdotal notes were also collected, as particular comments by students were recorded and shared after each session. These served to not only ensure we were aware of participation issues, but also to help us guide and facilitate particular sessions and support groups in need of further encouragement. Occasionally, we asked students to complete a “quickwrite” after discussion, in order to assess their perception of both the quality of their own participation, but also the success of the group as a whole. Students also completed reflection responses, with prompts such as, “I used to think…but now I think….” We also asked for feedback on the learning process, through prompts such as, “So far I like learning through info circles because…”, “Sometimes I find info circles challenging because…” and “Learning through info circles is different because….” As groups fluctuated in membership, the support and facilitation we provided were ongoing; however, as students became more comfortable with the process itself, discussions became richer and flowed more freely despite the fact that membership within each group differed from session to session. Finally, at the end of the unit, students asked, “Can we do the rest of Social Studies this way, too?”—a sure sign that the project had been a success!
As teachers, we want to develop in our students not only comprehension skills, but also critical thinking and a genuine appreciation for literature. We think content area literature circles have great potential to do this. Content area literature circles provide an opportunity for students to be exposed to multiple materials on a topic, rather than one resource, such as the curriculum text. If students, as Daniels (2002) argues, require greater experience with expository text, content area literature circles are an ideal way to provide that exposure in an authentic and relevant way, while providing students with a variety of reading materials at their level. Meaning is constructed with not only a strong emphasis on text engagement, but also with opportunity to link content with background knowledge, personal connection, and opportunity to entertain multiple viewpoints. Further, where fiction “[l]iterature circles prepare and strengthen critical literacy skills through the use of higher order thinking skills” (Dawson and FitzGerald, 1999, p. 4), so too may content area circles, as students have the opportunity to discuss issues, challenge viewpoints, and clarify thinking through discussion with their peers.
The social aspect cannot be undervalued in its contribution to such critical thinking skills, as “a group working together can construct knowledge to a higher level than can the individuals in that group each working separately” (Wray & Lewis, 1997, p. 19). Students are powerful peer models, and info circles offer a unique opportunity for this at an age when peer power is at times of more impact than any teacher-driven lesson. Finally, from an assessment standpoint “listening to student- led discussions also provides valuable information on how students are applying strategies such as making connections, summarizing and synthesizing, or finding the main points” (Robb, 2002, p. 30), which further drives instruction and provides authentic opportunities for evaluation and curricular goal setting. These elements further provide opportunities for students to develop skills and attitudes toward content area materials in a small group environment, using materials at appropriate reading levels, with ample opportunities for discussion and clarification and opportunities for meaningful engagement with text. Further, discussion around information text engages the “info kids” (Jobe and Dayton-Sakari, 2002) who rarely have a chance to share their enthusiasm and passion for information texts in a discussion format.
We strongly believe that this approach lends itself very well to a number of curricular areas, and has the potential to support a diverse range of learners, ensuring success, meaningful engagement, and maximum learning for all. Contentarea literature circles offer a rich opportunity to not only enhance content area instruction, but to encourage students in the ever mindful goal of creating effective, engaged and competent lifelong learners.
Daniels, H. (2002). Expository text in literature circles. Voices from the middle, 9(4), 7-14.
Dawson, D. & FitzGerald, L. (1999). Literature circles: Reading in action. Wagga Wagga, New South Wales: Centre for Information Studies.
Gear, A. (2007). Workshop handout: “Reading Power for Non-fiction”.
Jobe, Ron & Dayton-Sakari, Mary (2002). Info-kids: How to use nonfiction to turn reluctant readers into enthusiastic learners. Markham, ON: Pembroke.
Johnson, H. & Freedman, L. (2005). Content area literature circles: Using discussion for learning across the curriculum. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Maloch, B. (2002). Scaffolding student talk: One teacher’s role in literature discussion groups. Reading Research Quarterly, 37(1), 94-112.
Robb, L. (2002). Multiple texts: Multiple opportunities for teaching and learning. Voices from the middle, 9 (4), 28- 32.Stien, D. & Beed, P.L. (2004). Bridging the gap between fiction and nonfiction in the literature circle setting. The Reading Teacher, 57(6), 510-518.
Wray, D. & Lewis, M. (1997). Extending literacy: Children reading and writing non-fiction. NY: Routledge.