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Technology Expert: Julie Wood
Literature Circles

Transcending Traditional Boundaries: Taking Literature Circles Online
When students see literacy as a powerful tool, they seek to use literacy abilities beyond the confines of the classroom and curriculum. — Raphael, Florio-Ruane, & George, p. 159.

During the past decade literature circles have become part of the educational landscape in classrooms across the nation. Tens of thousands of teachers have enthusiastically embraced this method of "getting at" literature in ways that help students interpret the books they read. In contrast to the old understanding of literacy, in which the meaning resided in the book (with one "right" interpretation), in the literature circle model meaning is more fluid. Drawing on Rosenblatt's (1978) Reader Response Theory, the interpretation of a book is a transaction that takes place between the reader and the text. Everything a reader brings to the experience, such as purpose and context, becomes an important part of the transaction. And in the literature circle format, the teacher places students on center stage; their responses to a book — its themes, its use of language — are central to making meaning.

But even the powerful effects of engaging students in the interpretation of texts doesn't explain the cult-like following of devotees to the literature circle model. After all, "book groups," in one form or another, have been around ever since our early ancestors learned to read and could get their hands on compelling works.

Hallmarks of Literature Circles
Why do literature circles work so well? I agree with my former graduate student, Bonnie Nishihara, who remarked that the underlying philosophy of these book talks calls to mind In the Middle, by Nancie Atwell, a ground-breaking book we read in class. In her book, Atwell describes her longing to transform her middle-grade classroom into a literary dining room table. She paints a picture of lively evenings with her husband and friends spent in conversation about books. Their discussions managed to be in-depth, yet informal. Atwell (1987) notes, ". . . our talk isn't sterile or grudging or perfunctory. It's filled with jokes, arguments, exchanges of information, descriptions of what we loved and hated and why" (p. 19).

How can classroom environments become conducive to such spirited exchanges? Daniels (2001) offers teachers several detailed guidelines, or "ingredients" for creating vibrant, pedagogically-sound literature circles. The most striking ones, to my thinking, are those that emphasize:
•The integration of reading and writing;
•The deep processing of texts;
•Students' active engagement in their own learning by taking on roles such as being the one who finds the connections, the one who develops questions, the one who takes note of literary sections, or the one who responds to a text through art; and
•The fact that students' identities and interests are taken into account in selecting books (along with teacher guidance).

What about students with individual needs? Can they benefit from literature circles? Absolutely. According to Professor Katherine S. Noe of Seattle University, who has researched the effects of literature circles, "the power of working together to make meaning cannot be underestimated for challenged readers, whether their challenges are related to language, learning or motivation" (quoted in Brown, 2001). As with many other literacy activities, heterogeneous grouping can be an effective strategy for less-skilled readers. Through collaboration with more advanced peers, at-risk students can demonstrate their talents and abilities as well as meet the challenges posed by their classmates.

Literature Circles and the Standards
With today's emphasis on aligning curriculum to national standards, teachers need to take a hard look at how they spend every instructional minute. In fact, the literature circle model does dovetail with the standards movement. Specifically, one of the major goals for our students, according to the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association Standards for the Reading Language Arts is for students to develop depth and breadth in their reading, as well as to read for their own personal gratification. Further, literature circles have received recognition from both of these professional organizations for exemplifying "best classroom practices" (cited in Daniels, 2001).

Taking Literature Circles Online
What if we were to take literature circles one step further via telecommunications? What if students were able to transcend school walls and communicate with peers across the country about books? Such virtual conversations could add an important dimension to students' literary explorations without replacing face-to-face conversations. Email would allow them to meet online and participate in virtual "dining room tables." While some children I've taught are uncomfortable corresponding with people they don't know, most welcome the opportunity to talk to children in a different geographic area. And in navigating these new worlds, I have seen children's writing become more sophisticated than when they compose traditional assignments. For example, many learn to develop voice, a sense of audience, and the ability to take on the correspondent's perspective.

Sandy Beck, Instructional Technology Specialist in Cumming, Georgia, is a strong advocate for using new technologies in ways that connect students with the larger world. "Simple activities can get you started," Sandy remarked in a recent conversation. "Even young children — first or second graders — can get involved if teachers first lay the groundwork for online exchanges." Where to begin, though? "One great way to get started," Sandy suggests, "is to exchange email messages about books with children in the classroom across the hall. Before moving into the more elaborate methods described by Daniels (2001), you can have kids first get their feet wet by exchanging a few responses to a book or sharing an original cover illustration."

Discuss your online literature circle experence in a professional discussion board about this topic. You'll be able to tell us what worked well in your classroom and help other educators brainstorm ways to meet the challenges they encounter.

Atwell, N. (1981). In the middle: Writing, reading, and learning with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Brown, M. D. (2001) Literature circles build excitement for books!

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups. Stenhouse Publishers.

Nishihara, Bonnie. (1999) The Classroom as a Literate Environment. In 28 takes on 21st century literacy development.

Novick, R. (1998). Learning to read and write: A place to start. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Lab.

Raphael, T. E., Florio-Ruane, S. & George, M. (2001). Book club plus: A conceptual framework to organize literacy instruction. Language Arts, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 159-168.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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