Student-Centered, Collaborative Learning and “Literature Circles” in the American Literature Classroom

PALS Note: We welcome our second guest post this year from Randi Tanglen. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. In this post, she addresses how to encourage student-led work through literature circles. 

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Most instructors see the value in student-centered learning and small group discussions as means for students to develop, challenge, acquire, and check their ideas. The collaborative aspects of small group discussions allow students to create new knowledge about literature with each other, in ways that may not be possible in a class lecture or discussion. Yet we have all had classroom experiences in which breaking into small groups for discussion of a course text has led to student silence and even disengagement. I have found that the “literature circle” format leads to active small group discussion, greater student participation in group discussion, and deeper and collaborative student learning. In the literature circle format, students choose their own course text (from an instructor-provided list), read it with a fixed group of four other classmates over the course of a two-week unit, and facilitate their own small group discussions with short papers they bring to each class period.

What Are Literature Circles?
With literature circles, groups of five students meet for several class periods to discuss a work of literature in-depth. Some of my students describe literature circles as a “book club,” but with more structure and academic rigor. The literature circle format is a student-centered, collaborative approach to teaching literature originally developed for and primarily utilized in elementary and middle school classrooms. The objective of literature circles is to promote in-depth, student-driven discussion and higher order thinking skills in younger students. Because literature circles promote “collaborative classrooms where students take increasing responsibility for choosing, reading, and discussing books,” I have found that the literature circle class structure also can be successfully adapted to the college classroom as well (Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles 7). Harvey Daniels explains that literature circles usually exhibit several key characteristics, including students first choosing their own reading selection and then coming together in “small temporary groups…formed based on book choice” (Daniels 18).

One class of students might be separated into several small groups, with each group reading a different book. Another unique characteristic of this teaching strategy is that students use written responses to guide their reading and discussion; the fact that “discussion topics come from the students” means that the “[t]he teacher serves as a facilitator, not a group member or instructor” (Daniels, Literature Circles 18). When they go well, literature circles promote student-centered and student led small group discussion. The proponents of literature circles claim that as a result of students having choice in their reading materials and more autonomy in discussion, they are more likely to continue reading outside of class and to become life-long readers. I have found that the use of literature circles promotes intellectual autonomy with college students who far too often look to their professor for the “right” answers instead of learning to develop ideas for themselves. Indeed, some students even tell me that they read the books from other literature circles after the semester is over.

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Literature Circle Group Member Roles and Daily Writing
What distinguishes the literature circle format from other small-group discussion formats is that each member of the group has a specific group role and prepares an assignment before class period. The students assign themselves one of five roles and prepare a brief, one to two page paper based on that role to guide their group discussions. The idea behind the specific group roles is that “readers who approach a text with clear-cut, conscious purposes will comprehend more” (Daniels, Literature Circles 13).

Before we begin the first literature circle, I give students a handout that explains each role and my expectations for the short paper each group member will write:  

  1.  Summarizer: Prepares a brief and concise summary of the day’s reading assignment;
  2.  Question Asker: Develops about 10 higher-order discussion questions to promote critical and analytical thinking about the literature;
  3.  Connector: Finds connections between the book and other literature and literary movements studied in this class or other courses;
  4.  Close Reader: Locates significant passages and analyzes them in relation to the larger work, the unit theme, and the overall concerns of the course;
  5.  Researcher: Finds background information on the author or historical or cultural contexts that will enhance the group’s understanding and interpretation of the literature.

The students bring their papers to class and use them to guide their group discussion. When the group meets during each class session, the student re-assign and change roles, so by the end of the unit, each student will have performed each role at least once. The papers students bring to class based on their group member role are informal but structured; in my classes, the daily literature circle writing is a form of “low stakes” writing that cumulatively accounts for about 20 percent of the entire course grade. At the end of each literature circle unit, students are assigned a major, formal essay that integrates elements of their previous literature circle papers. Every instructor will develop their own grading criteria and method, but I assess the daily literature papers based on the following criteria:

Full credit Reasons to lose points
Content *Makes a substantial and meaningful contribution to the group’s topic/discussion

*Promotes deeper and more meaningful understanding of the literature

*Questions and close reading are analytical, not descriptive

*Writing has a clear focus and purpose

*Limited or partial discussion of the topic

*Does not promote a deeper or meaningful understanding of the literature

*Limited discussion and analysis

*Focus and purpose are not clear

Development *Fully treats topic; no areas in need of further discussion

*Connects research, questions, and ideas back to the literature

*Undeveloped ideas; expanded explanation or analysis needed

*Connection to the literature isn’t stated or is unclear

Details *MLA format

*Relevant and scholarly sources (for Researcher role)

*Sources cited correctly with Works Cited

*Few/no mechanical or usage errors

*Deviation for MLA format

*Questionable, non-scholarly, or irrelevant sources

*Uncited or dropped sources

*Errors that distract from meaning and clarity

How to Incorporate Literature Circles into American Literature Courses
The literature circle format has also solved a problem that I often have with teaching early American and nineteenth-century American literature courses—I don’t know what to cut from the syllabus due to the prolific and exciting recovery work that has been done in the field over the past few decades. With the literature circle format, one class of students can simultaneously read several different texts at the same time. For example, in a lower-division class I teach on the slave narrative literary tradition, the class together reads the narratives of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Frederick Douglass (1845), Harriet Jacobs (1861), and Solomon Northup (1853). At the end of the semester, my twenty-student class breaks into four different five-member groups to read different slave narratives such as those of Mary Prince (1831), Henry Bibb (1849), Henry Box Brown (1851), or William Wells Brown (1855).

In an early American survey course for non-majors, after reading several works of literature from an anthology, at the end of the semester the class forms literature circle groups to read several present day adaptions of the literature we have just read or contemporary historical fiction dealing with the social and political themes addressed in the earlier literature such as issues of slavery and race in the development of the United States, the role of women in the era of the New England Puritans, or the place of American Indians in early American society. In the past, students have had the choice of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979); I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (1986); A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008);Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011); or When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011).

I have previously written about how I have used the literature circle approach in a nineteenth-century American literature seminar for English majors called “Canons of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” The entire course is based on several literature circle units that each expose students to a wide range of canonical, underrepresented, and popular nineteenth-century American literary traditions. For example, in the first unit, “The Indian Reform Novel,” students form literature circles around Hobomok (1824) by Lydia Maria Child, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper, or Hope Leslie (1827) by Catherine Maria Sedgwick. While I have used the literature circle format in courses that emphasize the earlier periods of American literature, it would also work quite well in courses that focus on contemporary American literature as well.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of the Literature Circle Format
Literature circles promote the type of student-centered discussion that I valued as a feminist teacher and scholar. Often the students run the class sessions themselves and I fade into t0-he background as they explore and share their own ideas based on their literature circle papers. However, since I’m not leading discussions or preparing the daily discussion questions that students explore in class, I am not always sure if students are catching on to the key passages or nuances in plot and character that affect the cultural work and meaning of the text. But I can check for student comprehension by reading their daily responses and then supplementing gaps in student comprehension with facilitative comments on those daily papers and brief class lectures.

Structuring the class like this places the responsibility on the students, so that they end up doing most of the intellectual work of the course. Once I step back, I find that the students are usually capable of filling in the gaps and making the connections that I would usually make for them in a traditional lecture or professor-facilitated classroom format. And the near-daily writing, met by my constant feedback, improves student writing and promotes the development of sharper arguments in their final essays. Indeed, the five tasks—asking questions, summarizing, researching, making connections, and close reading—are all required of any strong literary analysis paper at the lower- and upper-divisions. With the literature circle format, students isolate and practice the specific intellectual skills they will use for longer writing assignments.

While most students hate “group work,” the collaborative benefit of literature circles should not be overlooked. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a clearinghouse for liberal arts education research and advocacy, has identified 10 high-impact educational practices, including “Collaborative Projects and Assignments,” which promote students’ “learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences.” My students have told me they like being able to choose their own texts and come up with their own reading schedules with each other, and that they are more likely to do the class reading because they have to answer to their classmates and group members if they don’t. In my experience, students genuinely enjoy hearing and learn from the perspectives of their group member; in end-of-semester evaluations, students consistently comment that the literature circles provide opportunities to interact with the literature and their fellow students in deeper and more meaningful ways. Perhaps the strongest testament to student appreciation of literature circles is that many of my former students are now employing this collaborative learning method in their own K-12 language arts and English classrooms.

I teach at a liberal arts colleges with small class sizes of no more than 20-25 students, and I’m not sure how the format would work in larger classes, although I imagine the format could be adapted. The discussion-based nature of literature circles may create some limitations for online courses, but I think the different discussion roles could be applied and used to facilitate dynamic student interactions in online and hybrid courses as well. I would love to hear how other instructors use the literature circle format in their American literature courses.

Bio: 

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Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”