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I introduced literature circles to my class this year by using The Pearl by John Steinbeck. As suggested in much of the literature on this teaching strategy, we began the process using roles sheets. The premise for this idea is for students to learn to work collaboratively and gain confidence and trust in working in groups through the use of the role sheets. The role sheets are also meant to mimic comprehension strategies. When students are comfortable working together then role sheets can be eliminated and literature discussions will develop more naturally.
For the first two chapters of this novel, students met in role alike groups to complete their role sheets, then met with their literature discussion groups to continue a full discussion on the text. This was meant to foster another small community within the classroom and give students the confidence that they were completing their role sheet to the best of their ability. The roles that we used were as follows:
Discussion Director – provides questions for the group from inferential, interpretive and own thought type questions.
Connection Maker connects prior knowledge and experiences to deepen reading comprehension. Connection categories are; text-to-text, text-to-world, text-to-self, and text-to-within-text.
Literary Luminary selects passages from the text that are important or interesting. This role examines what the author is trying to get across from this section and why it important to the whole text.
Summarizer provides a brief summary of the section of the text to be discussed. The summary is divided into a beginning, middle and end ensuring key points of the chapter are the focus.
Vocabulary Enricher highlights vocabulary from the text; especially looking at words which are difficult, unusual and important to the section of the text. The Pearl has many difficulty vocabulary words. Everyone took on this role and we are spending time discussing the vocabulary words and definitions as a whole group and small group.
When meeting with the role-alike groups students were often only collaborating minimally. I encouraged the use of a note-taker by discussing ways that students could distribute copies of their role sheets either through the use of google docs or a photocopy. Most students were more comfortable making their own notes even as I insisted upon better use of class time.
When it came time for the small group literature discussions, students most often read from their role sheet and did little discussion afterward. This is to be expected when students are in the beginning stages of literature circles. We discussed the etiquette of group discussions, focusing on the active participation of each group member by asking questions for clarification and using other member’s ideas to continue the discussion.
Building a cooperative learning community has been one of my goals this year. The students I work with are new to the school and come together from a variety of settings. Collaborative work is not entirely new to this group, however as they had participated in many small group discussions previously this year. I had encouraged the students to work in different formations of groups on many occasions during their reading and writing assignments as well as working on some short community building activities.
I do not find that the role sheets are contributing to the small group discussions. Students are simply reading their role sheets and moving on. When students are absent or do not have their role sheet completed the group is at a deficit and has to complete extra work during the time that should be used for their face-to-face discussions. I feel the discussion element is paramount to understanding literature and am moving away from the confines of the role sheets. This will cause some confusion with the students, but with guidance and support I believe this will help the students to create meaningful discussions within their small groups.