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This year, our 5th grade class is truly a unique one.  There’s only 11 students in it (small Lutheran school, remember?), but each of those students hits a sort of “extreme.”  Two of the students have Asperger’s syndrome.  One young lady is severely ADHD, with a tendency to not take her medication.  One boy is EXTREMELY bright- he reads at a 12th grade level already- but has anxiety issues.  His best friend reads almost at the same level, and because of that, tends to view everything as “boring.”  Another young man is smart, but has strange mood swings and sometimes refuses to do any work.  Another student has a reading-related learning disability and a mild case of dyslexia.  And each of the other students has his or her own set of unique strengths and weaknesses- and mix all of these students together, you have my 5th grade Reading class.  And let me tell you, this class has become one of my favorites!  There’s so much individuality, so much potential- I do not think I have ever had a class with the creative energy that this one has.

I wasn’t sure at first how to approach our novel studies this year, given the different challenges that this class presented. The first challenge is a common one that teachers face- one student reading at a 3rd grade level, while another is reading at a 12th grade level (and everything in between!).  In addition, my 2nd dilemma this year: I have two students who can read at a high level, but have difficulty interpreting any kind of emotion or feeling any kind of empathy (Asperger’s syndrome).  So my questions: How do I choose novels that are going to appeal to the child reading at a high school level, but are still understandable to the child with a reading disability?  How do I choose texts that are going to be rich in sensory words that will give my Asperger’s students clues to the underlying emotions?  How do I teach reading in a way that is going to engage ALL of the diverse learners in this classroom?

The answer for me this year was literature circles.

I learned about literature circles in college- in fact, they were a go-to technique for “creative” college lesson plans (we knew that our professors would gush at the idea of this non-traditional method).  However, I had never actually seen them done in a middle school classroom, nor had I ever given them much of a chance after graduation.  I had used the technique once when I was teaching an Advanced Literature class, but it gave me a “lazy teacher” feeling- because I was not utilizing them to their maximum potential, probably.  Basically, I was under the impression that literature circles were something that an English teacher does when they do not want to physically teach the text and instead they have the students learn it in groups.  And probably some teachers do use them that way- but that is not the only way to run a literature circle!

I returned to the idea this year when I realized that it could be an answer on how to teach novels to this diverse group.  So I tried it out with our first 5th grade novel- Frindle, which is always a class favorite.  I half expected my 5th graders to not get much out of it.  Boy, was I WRONG!

Literature circles usually employ a number of “roles” within the group.  If you know anything about 5th graders, they LOVE the idea of having a role to fill.  Our roles were Discussion Director (in charge of coming up with 10 questions about the reading that their group could discuss); Vocabulary Detective (in charge of identifying unknown words, looking them up, finding synonyms, and reporting to the group); Read-Aloud Rockstar (in charge of choosing a part of the book to read out loud to their group expressively and then explaining key parts of the text); and THE CHECKER (which needs to be in all caps, because this person was in charge of monitoring everyone’s participation for the day).  The 5th graders seemed to enjoy all of the roles, though obviously “Checker” was the most coveted, because in their opinion it held the most power.

Lord of the Flies fans (or non-fans), you’ll appreciate this: I gave each group a “conch shell” to help keep order to their discussions (not a literal conch shell in most cases, but the literature nut inside me wishes that it had been!).  The group took special care with their token, and for the most part, were very disciplined about only speaking when they were holding it.  It was part of the Discussion Director’s job to pass the token to people who wanted to talk, and they took that role pretty seriously and would sternly reprimand members of their group who spoke out of turn.

While each group met, I walked around and monitored their conversations, jumping in when there were questions, but mostly just listening.  I was surprised and pleased to hear some of the in-depth conversations that the Discussion Directors initiated (we talked about how to ask a “deep” question before starting).  The advanced readers often took leadership initiative in the group, helping members who did not understand a passage or even asking follow-up questions to keep the conversation going.  Those who struggled more with the reading loved the idea that they had a defined role to fill, so that if they did not understand something in the text, it was within their power to ask their group about it at the next session.

We are about to begin our next Literature Circle session within the week, but this time I am trying it a little differently.  Each group will be reading a different novel, and will be in charge of creating a presentation about their book for their classmates, based on their discussions and word work.  I’m grouping some of my more advanced students together on one novel, hoping that they will motivate each other and challenge each other with their discussions.  We will see how things go.

What about you, readers?  Has anyone out there used literature circles in their classroom before?  With what degree of success?  I’d love to hear about your experience!

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