In Common: National, Regional and Local News from the Coalition of Essential Schools – Literature Circles: Promoting Student Choice and Voice

Last fall, Andrew, the Public Allies Teacher Fellow in Language Arts and Literature, approached me with wide eyes about an idea he had for a literature class._Lit Circles_Harvey Daniels_ he said._You_ve got to check them out._I knew I had heard of them.I had just seen Daniels lead a session at the National Council for the Teachers of English Annual Convention.His focus had been on reading strategies; he mentioned Lit Circles, but I didn_t really know what they were.Andrew explained that they were, in the words of Daniels, _small, peer-led discussion groups whose members have chosen to read the same piece of literature.__Sounds great, Andrew.Let_s do it._

That conversation changed the way we taught literature this past year at Eagle Rock School.Daniels and his colleagues had been _dazzled by what the kids could do when given choices, time, responsibility, a little guidance, and a workable structure.Our [Daniel_s] students were reading lots of good books, thinking deeply about them, writing notes and journal entries, and joining in lively, informed literature discussions._A similar thing happened here.

During winter trimester we taught _Literacy Revolutions,_ a course to study post-colonial literature and theory.In honor of the value of self-determination, students were given the freedom to choose from a selection of short stories, articles, poems, or novels.The instructors _sold_ the texts, and the students self-selected into reading groups.They determined their reading schedules, wrote responses to their reading, and discussed the texts together in class.Andrew and I would often be a part of a reading group, not as leaders, but as members of the discussion.

Some students were excited about reading in ways they had never been before.It wasn_t about the teachers standing at the front of the room, telling them what they were going to read, and then driving the content of the discussion.Andrew and I had no _agenda,_ other than to expose students to post-colonial literature and theory, and in a constructivist manner, see how the students ran with it.We often began class with _mini-lessons_ on history, theory, or reading strageties.Then the students had the opportunity to discuss the content they had learned and the texts they had read.They constructed their own meaning; some, for example, saw parallels between a colonized person and a high school student.Students then explored specific issues in depth to pursue credit.

After the success of this class, I decided to offer _Whatever the Heck You Want_ where the students would have even more choices.__Choice_ was the theme of the class.Students had the opportunity to find whatever texts they wanted, to _sell_ to their classmates.With the Literature Circles model they read, responded, and discussed works such as Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Naked by David Sedaris, Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, _The Yellow Wallpaper_ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and _The Guest_ by Albert Camus.Again, they selected issues like the death penalty, women_s rights, and the colonization of Algeria to pursue credit.Students said they really liked getting a choice about what they read and studied, instead of having it forced upon them.They also enjoyed being exposed to the books their class members had decided to sell.

Giving students ownership over what they read and how they respond is a powerful way for them to see the value in reading literature, learning from it, and applying it to their lives.They can also gain valuable reading comprehension and analysis skills in the process.Steven Maestas _paid more attention to what he was reading._And Dexter Friedman said, _I read with a pen in my hand for the first time in my life._After experiencing Literature Circles, students are in a better place to become life-long learners, motivating themselves to read and critically think, without imposition from a teacher.

Source: Daniels, Harvey.Literature Circles.Portland: Stenhouse, 2002.

Eagle Rock, a CES Mentor School, is both a school for high school age students and a professional development center for adults, particularly educators.The school is a year-round, residential, and full-scholarship school that enrolls youth ages 15-17 from around the United States in an innovative learning program.The students share two characteristics:They do not expect to graduate from high school (and may have dropped out of been expelled) but they have a passion about making changes in their lives.Otherwise, they are a very diverse population.

The professional development center hosts educators from around the world who wish to study how to re-engage these students in learning, keep them in school, get them graduated, and help them go on to make a difference in the world.

Accredited by the North Central Association, the Association of Colorado Independent Schools and the Association for Experiential Education.

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