I taught my first Upper Elementary Lit Circle group in the fall of 2010. I wrote about the experience then because the students engaged in the books in ways that I had never experienced in my own elementary school days. I wrote then:
First. I want to explain that when I was a student in English class, anxiety played a role in every discussion. I was convinced somehow that there was a hidden meaning in the characters, their motives, their actions and that the answer lurked there somewhere if only I could figure out how to find it. The teacher knew, but I usually didn't. The goal of discussing books was to determine the teacher’s truth, that elusive “answer.”
Could my recent Lit Circle experience have been more different? The students in my group usually started talking about the reading for that week before we had all sat down… They wanted to understand; they wanted to figure it out; they wanted to try out ideas. Literal and interpretive perspectives collided, and we were as enthusiastic about the questions (more enthusiastic?) as we were about some “answer.”
… I tried to deconstruct why these kids [in that first UE Lit Circle group] feel this kind of access to the books we discussed. Is it because they have learned not to assume that the teacher has the answer and will eventually give it to them? Did I just pick the right books for this group? How do they have such raw and thoughtful ideas simultaneously? Why did I never have the impression that they were worried that something they said might be unworthy or stupid (they never were)?
How does this happen?
Since then, I have read a lot more books with UE students. I can tell you now that the engagement these kids have in these discussions has stayed high. They don’t have to love the books or even like them that much. They have things to say about the characters, the plot, the setting, the story, the conflicts. This unit - we are reading two books by Patricia Reilly Giff – has revealed interests from the kids I could not have predicted: Caisson’s disease, tenements of 19th century Brooklyn, finding the places we read about on a map of New York City. All six of them have things they don’t just want to say, they need to say them.
I asked them in one of our classes to talk a bit about the other books they have read in Lit Circle. “I liked…because…” and “Oh, that was the worst book ever because…” They know that an opinion is only worthy if there is some evidence for your opinion, proof.
So I write about this now because I continue to love the discourse in these groups. I love the discoveries they make when they write and talk about books. They don’t always love the “jobs” (like Connector, Illustrator, Travel Tracer, Summarizer, Character Captain, Discussion Director, Passage Master, Vocabulary Enricher) they do for homework, but the routine of the reading and the writing is working. And I have the good fortune of working along with them every week.