Sunday, March 12, 2006

Planning for Literature Circles

As I reflect on my teaching last year (or at least the circumstances of my teaching) I tell myself a story as a way to interpret what happened as a way of thinking about the best way to proceed this year. Here is the narrative plus some of my reflections.

March 2005
I am rushing around. I know I have a lot to do and in the classroom I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I have taught this film before and I’m waiting eagerly for the time that I can implement literature circles again in these year nine classes.

The beginning of the year in my school has a lot going on - I suppose it's the same in all schools. In the first term we are interrupted by photo day (when all the students have individual and homegroup photos taken, the aquatics carnival, (and so on.....) I have three year nine classes this year and I'm planning to collect data on all them. As the early weeks unfold I take stock of the classes. I know some of the students and the overall sense is that I have three great classes to work with. One is a bit more lively and as I noted in my research journal seems less 'willing' than the other two but I have a good feeling about the rapport I can build with these classes. In this early part of the year I am concentrating on giving them experiences of language through free writing and building up their understanding of studying a text through watching and discussing a film. The course is designed in sections which becomes problematic for me later.

Literature Circles is going to be a bit later than I’d like as C, the faculty head, has made a decision that there will be equal time devoted to the three sections of the course. I hear this in a 'pod meeting', a twenty minute time before school twice a week where we are updated on information we need to know for that day. Most of the teachers in the pod teach the same subject and so it is just casually that C. states "I've just neatened up the dates for year nine so they fit in with the other dates." My heart sinks and I go up to her to speak quietly after the meeting. I am not successful and I think that maybe it will be alright.

The reason this matters is that because all the texts the students read are borrowed from the libray, not just in year nine but throughout years seven to ten. The library needs to coordinate start times and end times for the use of books in all the different year levels, and C thought it would be simpler to have the same dates in Year nine as in the other year levels for the ease of library coordination. I had had other ideas as for year nine there weren't class sets to coordinate but I was overridden on this.

The first section is a film as text study and this will take up one third of the semester, the second section is the independent novel assignment, with another third and only then with six weeks to go will we start Literature Circles. And somewhere in there we have to fit a section on advertising (this is already in the curriculum and is to be reported on). There are interruptions and then the ultimatum comes down from on high: the reports have to be ready before the progress interviews with parents. This cuts another two weeks off the time for Literature Circles, as it wasn’t mentioned until we had already started the last section of the course.

This of course doesn't only affect the English teachers. There are mutters in an undertone in the staff room. But teachers are expected to be professional and to adapt their courses accordingly. The reason for this stance is unclear to me as I see the progress meetings as oral reports, but the Administration Team are adamant. The parents have a right to discuss the written reports on their children during the progress meetings. I know that this will not be the case in 2006 but have no idea why.

Now we have the situation where the students in all good faith are choosing the novels they want to read in their groups. The way the novels are selected is that L. the librarian comes into the class with a set of novels that the class teacher has selected. If there are to five groups L. may speak on eight novels so there is a choice for the students from among the books. L. shows the book and speaks about the title and the cover, reads the blurb and a section from the novel. The students listen attentively, even though they sense that the book is less important than that all members of a friendship group choose the same novel. (Maybe I'm being a bit cynical here). When all the books have been spoken about there is a buzz of excitement. "Can I have a look at the one about the boy and the dog?", "Here throw me the one with the explosion on the cover." There are heads together bent over the books, books are briefly skimmed and tossed aside, and there is a slight sense of, is this all there is? But eventually they all write their selections on the voting sheets, and then it's up to me to make up the groups, taking into account the students' social needs and their reading level as well as the books they've voted for. One group chose When you wake and find me gone which is a big book to read in three weeks. And we have to fit in an oral presentation before the reports are printed as well.

On reflection I don’t think that pedagogically we did all that well. It was frustrating for the students to have to read so fast (and I suspect that some didn’t read the whole book). Some of the students' journal entries made it clear that Literature Circles weren't seen as opportunities to read for pleasure, which was one of my aims. As well as this I didn’t send out the letters to parents and students until we were ready to start Literature Circles, another mistake, as I didn’t factor in the time it took for the permission forms to come back. This meant that I didn’t really do the focus groups as I had planned. At the end of this very frustrating experience I realised there had to be changes if we were to get the most out of Literature Circles. The timing has to change. The way the course has changed is that there will still be eight meetings of each group but they will be a week apart to allow for the reading that is to be done between meetings. It means that the students will be doing their Independent Novel Assignment at the same time as their Literature Circles, in fact they may be reading two books at the same time. Another change I feel is important is that the students need to have the full range of books to choose from. And we may as well get rid of the idea that students will choose on the basis of interest in the novel alone and get them into their groups before the choice of novel so that they have confidence that they will be with their friends. So I have arranged for small groups to go to the library for a limited time and for the group to select the title they want to read. To make it easier for them there will be enlarged photos of the front covers together with book reviews from other year nines from previous years in the area of the library where the Literature Circles books are. I just hope this works.


  1. I'm sure they really must be turned off by the mishandling of literature circles now by the staff. It's a shame that it had to be cut off for the six weeks. Couldn't they have done the reading in the holidays and reported back to you of the eight texts the librarian talked about (in other words when they were still in Year 8)?

    I like the idea of having a week's gap for reflection and being with your friends.

  2. Yes. I enjoyed this post because I identified with the twists and turns that go into planning and the many variables that have to be considered. Why do you send letters to parents and students?

  3. Hi, Joh
    I have to send letters asking for the consent of students and their parents for them to be involved in the research I'm doing for my Masters. The research is called Teaching Literature: A Narrative Enquiry into a year nine English classroom.

  4. Bronwyn. The Literature Circles is only done in Year Nine and the Year Nine English course only goes for one semester, hence the trouble with the time constraints. I'm hoping it will be different this year.