Tag Archives: book clubs

Literature Circles: Savoring Books in a Community of Readers

“What did you think about this …?” “Wait … I missed something here.” “She did what?”

Ever find yourself in the depths of a good book and suddenly wish you had someone to talk to?  Someone who would explain what you’re missing or give you a reason to read on through the weird parts?  I sure do.  And I know that’s why a lot of us join book groups.  Literature circles offer middle grade readers that same great opportunity to savor good books within a community of readers.Parkerboys

What I call literature circles, others know as book clubs, book groups, literature discussion circles (and on and on).  What they have in common is this:  Small groups of readers gather together to discuss a book they’re reading in common.  The goals are multi-tiered, among them growing avid and capable readers, developing understanding through talking with others, building community, enhancing appreciation for good books.

I’ve worked with many teachers over the years who are experts at bringing middle grade readers and good books together in literature circles.  I’d like to share some of their strategies for supporting students in building comprehension and love for reading in collaboration with their peers. This post offers a bare bones structure to help you get started on literature circles for the very first time or to help you refine the way you’re currently using them.  You’ll find quick suggestions for choosing books, guiding students to read and prepare for discussions, making discussions meaningful and productive, organizing written response, and finally, pulling in the arts to extend students’ experience with books.

From this starting point, you can add components and make changes that meet the specific needs of your students and your style of teaching. Of course, one short post can’t answer every question you might have.  For more information, I invite you to visit the Literature Circles Resource Center.

Choosing Books

You can do literature circles with small groups of students reading a variety of books – or with all students reading the same book.  Many teachers begin with the books they have on hand.  Later, they look for books that will invite response – funny, action-packed, meaningful.

Literature circles depend upon student choice – choice in books, choices in what to talk about, choices in how to respond in writing or through the arts.  With some assistance, even struggling readers can construct meaning with others as they talk about books in literature circles.  Therefore, one of the most important principles is to guide students to select the book that they want to read and discuss with others.

Book talk:  Hold up each book as you describe it to students.  You might share a short summary, read aloud an engaging excerpt, or simply tell students what it’s about.  After the book talk, many teachers will display the books in order of difficulty to help students decide whether the book will be one they can read and discuss successfully.  Before students select, ask them to “get their hands on” the book – get it into their hands to read a page or two or look over to see if it seems interesting.

Choose by ballot:  Students select their first, second, and third choice books on a ballot or on a plain piece of paper.

Form groups:  The teacher forms groups, trying to give as many students as possible their first choice book.  However, teachers also keep in mind students who may have a difficult time working together or students who may need additional support as they read the book.  Because you may not have enough books for everyone to have a first choice every time, make a commitment to students to keep track of the choices and to give a first choice at the next round of literature circles.

Reading and Preparing for Discussion

Focus for reading: Help your students think about why readers often want to talk about books with others, and what sorts of insights, details, events, and issues in books make for great conversations.  This is easily modeled during your read aloud as you show how readers respond and ask real questions (“Did you hear how the author painted a vivid image with words?  Let’s read that again;” “I wonder why he’s doing that right now… it doesn’t fit what happened earlier.”).  Start a list of “Things Worth Mentioning” vs. “Things Worth Discussing” to help students understand the kinds of topics/ideas that are merely interesting but not discussion provoking, and those that will really get a conversation going.

Determine how much to read:  Students may be able to read an entire picture book before they discuss.  For longer books, a good guideline is to have students discuss at three points in the book – after the first few chapters (as characters and conflicts are introduced and there is a lot to speculate about), somewhere near the middle (as plot points and characters develop), and at the end (where everything is resolved and predictions, inferences, and speculations are clear).  You can divide the books into reading segments – or you can guide students to look over the book, taking into account how many discussion days you have set aside, and divide up their book themselves.  This will involve a couple of focus lessons:  How to identify good “discussion points,” how to come to agreement on how much each group member can read at one time, how to figure out logical stopping places.

Set a reading, discussion, and writing schedule:  You can use a calendar to either assign groups to discussion days or guide groups to determine their own discussion schedule.  One possibility:  Set the first two or three days as reading days, with a discussion to follow; read for two or three more days (plus do some writing about what they’ve read), then discuss again.  When students are in the middle of their book, you might have more time devoted to writing than to reading.  As groups near the end of the book, you can provide time for them to think about and work on extension projects.

Tools to gather information:  Provide simple tools to help your students collect ideas for discussion: Open-ended questions, prompts (“I wonder…” “I thought … because …”, “I noticed…”), quotes, or sticky notes to mark something they want to talk about.  Use these tools only as long as you think students need them – when students seem to be able to come up with their own topics for discussion, discontinue this support.

Making Discussions Work

Having a real conversation about a book doesn’t come naturally to most students.  They will need some guidance, modeling, and practice before they begin to internalize the skills of discussion.  Two key elements of this process:  Model a discussion so that students can see what a true conversation looks like and sounds like; and debrief after each discussion to refine students’ understanding and conversational skill.

Fishbowl:  A very simple form of modeling in which students carry on a discussion in front of the class.  The teacher stops the group at various points to guide the class to articulate what’s working and why.  From this experience, students generate guidelines for discussion, which they then practice and refine.

Debrief:  After each discussion, ask students two simple questions:  What went well?  What are you still working on?  These questions can be asked during a whole-class debriefing, short session with an individual group following their discussion, as a journal response, or on a form for group response.  Use responses to plan focus lessons.

Writing to Think and to Respond

Writing can be a good way to clarify what students want to talk about before the discussion, or to capture their thinking after the discussion.  Before discussion, writing can be used to generate topics for the conversation; after discussion, writing can be used for debriefing and goal setting.  Here are some simple forms of written response that can be used either before or after discussion:

Golden lines:  Capture provocative quotes or interesting words. In the discussion, talk about what stood out for you in this quote and what it tells you about the character or the story.

Focus on theme:  Answer open-ended questions related to the theme:  In what ways is the character showing courage right now?  How is your character dealing with adversity?

Letter to a character:  Write in the voice of one character to another.  Or write to a character from your own perspective.

Extending Response through the ArtsIMG_5978 (Medium)

Many students can articulate their thinking and feelings artistically more easily than by talking or writing.  Although not a requirement of literature circles, artistic response opportunities give some students a welcome”voice.”

Some examples: Here are a few examples of powerful and relatively simple forms of artistic response: literary weaving (see photo), story quilt, and commemorative stamp.  You’ll find more examples, photos and detailed information on planning and evaluating projects at the Literature Circles Resource Center.

Final Words

Suzanne is a middle grader who gave me the best testimonial for literature circles that I’ve ever read.  I’ll let her make the case:


Katherine Schlick Noe has learned everything she knows about literature circles from hundreds of amazing teachers and students who vividly demonstrate the power of reading, writing, thinking, and responding in a community of readers. Visit her at the Literature Circles Resource Center or at her author website http://katherineschlicknoe.com.

Teaching with Themed Literature Units: Older Middle Grade

Recently, I wrote about the value of Themed Literature Units, structured units of study designed to develop crucial literacy skills as students read, write about, discuss, and sometimes respond artistically to high-quality children’s literature.  My previous post, “Finding My Way: Teaching with Themed Literature Units,” introduces a strategy for organizing meaningful literacy instruction around memorable middle grade literature.  The post also offers a glimpse into three classrooms where teachers and middle grade students are reading great books on themes such as “Adapting to new situations,” “Taking risks to help others,” and “Courage is inside all of us.”

Today, I’d like to expand our list with an additional themed literature unit for older middle grade readers in an unusual context — a middle school Spanish class.

Overcoming Obstacles in the Search for Identity ~ 8th grade
Ceinwen Bushey is teaching 8th grade Spanish in a Seattle middle school.  She developed her unit, “Overcoming Obstacles in the Search for Identity” to help her students understand their own quests for identity and to recognize similar struggles in other adolescents in Latin America.  She introduced her students to the unit this way:  “For most teenagers like yourselves, middle school is a time of fast growth – physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. It’s also a time for developing your sense of identity, self-esteem, and relationships with your peers. This is true for kids all around the world, but some have it tougher than others. Imagine having to deal with all the things everyday teens have to deal with, then adding to them some really big obstacles. Think about what it would be like to have to move to a new country, learn to speak a new language, make new friends, eat food you’ve never seen before, not have MTV to watch, not have iPhones or iPads or Facebook, and have people thinking you look weird because you’re different from them. Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to read, write, and discuss the lives of kids your age that are trying to figure things out, just like you, but who are from Latin America and have to overcome really big obstacles like the ones I just mentioned. They are teenagers who have to move to the United States from other countries, and try to figure out who they are; they’re searching for their identity. The end goal of our work together is to promote cross-cultural understanding and develop awareness that the journey toward understanding oneself is universal; that is, it connects us all to one another.”

Big Ideas
The unit guides students to understand two big ideas:
The path to self-discovery is a universal human experience and connects us all; and
Tough experiences are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves.

Book List

As older middle grade readers grow, they yearn to figure out who they are and how they can make a difference in this world.  Ceinwen Bushey’s unit guides her middle schoolers to take a cross-cultural look at ways that young people, like them, find ways to overcome the obstacles in their lives as they search for identity.

Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Book Award for the middle grade/young adult and has been named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.

“Finding My Way”: Teaching with Themed Literature Units

Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.
Virginia Euwer Wolff

Each of us must find ways to live with courage and hope in an imperfect world. Middle grade students, in particular, stand on the cusp of self-discovery but are often uncertain how to navigate their path through adolescence.  Many care deeply about fairness, justice, and reaching out to others, yet they wonder Where do I fit in?  How can I make a difference?

In my writing and in my work with beginning teachers, I’ve been inspired by National Book Award-winning author Virginia Euwer Wolff and her quote above.  She goes on, “It’s the kids with the faltering voices … many of us are writing for them.  Not to change them into different kids, but to keep them company while they evolve.”  Books raise questions, offer a sense of life’s complexities, and illustrate how people make decisions under less-than-perfect circumstances.  Fiction and nonfiction can help middle grade readers develop empathy and gain insight into how people – real and imagined – deal with challenges no matter who they are, or where or when they live.  And often, it’s a teacher or librarian who puts the book into a reader’s hands that helps her find her voice.

My job is to help beginning teachers learn how to open the world of literacy to students in kindergarten through eighth grades.  One of the most meaningful assignments we undertake is a Themed Literature Unit, a structured unit of study designed to develop crucial literacy skills as students read, write about, discuss, and sometimes respond artistically to high-quality children’s literature.  Each unit is focused on what I call a “human issues theme” (e.g., working for justice, reaching out to others, persevering despite obstacles, caring for the environment), vital challenges that we all face as members of a democratic and global society.

Here are three examples of units my graduate students will be teaching this winter:

Adapting to New Situations ~ 4th grade
Susie Henderson teaches at a highly diverse urban school in Seattle.  Her students and their families come from all over the world and have had to face the challenges of adapting to new environments.

Here’s how she explains the goal of this unit: “It is my hope that students will make connections to their own experiences and mature/grow in their understanding of the real world through the exploration of this theme. Given that adapting to new situations is a vital skill for all of us, the unit will pave a path for students to explore what it means to adapt and also realize that this is something that all humans do.” 

Big Ideas
The unit guides students to understand three big ideas:
Adapting to a new situation or environment means we find a way to belong in an unfamiliar place or with different people;
It takes courage to adapt to new situations; and
In order to adapt, we must be willing to reach out to others and get to know them.

Book List
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Di Camillo.  A young girl, India Opal, moves to a new town with her father. Her mother left when she was just a baby, so she is lonely when her father, a preacher, is too busy to spend much time with her. India tells a story of how she came to be friends with many interesting people, all because of a big dog that falls into her lap one summer day shortly after moving to her new Florida town.  I will offer this as one of our book club choices.

My Name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada. Maria is a new girl in the United States, who has just moved from Puerto Rico. Her teacher insists on calling her Mary, but she wants badly to be called by her real name, which tells a lot about her family and her past. Book club choice.

Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banarjee. Poppy Ray wants to be a veterinarian. She gets to go spend the summer with her uncle on an island in Washington, which tells her a lot about what it is really like to be an animal doctor. Through this experience, she starts to reconsider if this is what she wants to do with her life. Book club choice.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Born into a wealthy family in Mexico, young Esperanza has lived a good life,. But things change all of a sudden, and Esperanza has to move to California with her mother where they no longer have the life they have always known. Esperanza realizes quickly that her life might never be the same. Book club choice.

The Trouble Begins by Linda Himelblau. A young Vietnamese boy immigrates to the USA with his grandmother to meet up with the rest of the family. He has a lot of catching up to do to adapt to a new life, a new language, and a new school. Book club choice.

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Charlotte, a young orphan in New Hampshire, wants to run away from the orphanage and ride horses. She is a very good rider, but since she is a girl, she is not allowed to in the 19th century. She disguises herself as a boy in order to be able to ride. Book club choice.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Caleb and Anna are excited when their father gets a mail-order bride to come live with them. They really love her and hope she will stay, but she is not so sure about the prairie life. Book club choice.



Taking Risks to Help Others ~ 5th grade
Toby Steers teaches fifth grade across an open-concept “hallway” from Susie.  He wanted to help his fifth graders get ready for the challenges that lie ahead next year in middle school.

Toby explained the unit in a letter to families: “While reading books, students will learn about dangerous times and places where people showed great bravery to help other people.  Students will also learn that, when they stand up to a bully on the playground or apologize when they have hurt someone, they are taking important risks too. The goal of this unit is to learn about how to take important ideas from reading that help students make important decisions in their lives.”

Big Ideas
Taking risks to help others means accepting that bad things might happen to you;
We need courage and determination to take risks to help others; and
Taking risks means overcoming doubts.

Book List
An Apple for Harriet Tubman
by Glennette Tilley Turner. A picture book exploring the early life of Harriet Tubman and connecting with her open heart and courage to help others as she became an adult.    From this book, students will learn that we need courage and determination to help others. I will read this aloud to get students thinking about risks at the beginning of the unit.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter.  An amazing Iraqi librarian risks her life to save the cultural heritage of her country.  From this book, students will learn that taking risks to help others means that we accept that bad things might happen to us.  I will use this book in a literacy strategy lesson on identifying character traits that different risk-takers have in common

Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs.   A boy leaves his family in Mexico to try to cross the border into the United States to earn and send money back to his family.  Along the way, he takes many dangerous risks, always remembering the hunger and poverty of his family that he is trying to help.  From this book, students learn that we need courage and determination to help others.  I will use it as a longer read-aloud over the course of the unit.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.  Parvana lives in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and must dress as a boy to work in the market to support her family.  At this time, girls and women were not allowed to be in public by themselves and, since her father is under arrest, none of her family can safely leave the house.  From this book, students will learn that taking risks to help others means overcoming doubts.  Book club choice.

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez.  Tyler makes friends with a girl whose parents are undocumented farm workers on his father’s Vermont farm.  When Mari is threatened with deportation, how will their friendship survive?  From this book, students will learn that taking risks means accepting that bad things might happen to us. Book club choice.


Courage is Inside All of Us ~ 5th grade
Mo Newton’s fifth graders are also facing the big step from elementary into middle school.  Like Toby, she wanted to help them develop the inner strengths and skills we all need to face big challenges.  She chose to focus on the power of finding the courage that lies within each of us.

Big Ideas
We all can build the strength to be courageous;
Even though we are afraid, we can still show courage; and
We can show courage in big and small ways.

Book List
Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry. Mafutu is afraid of the sea and is taunted by his community for being a coward. When he can’t handle the teasing anymore he decides that he has to conquer his fear and show his community that he can be brave. This story shows Mafatu’s journey and how he was able to discover courage.  One choice for students to read and discuss in book clubs.

The Dandelion Seed by Joseph Anthony.  A beautifully illustrated picture book about a dandelion seed that is afraid to let go. The seed decides to find the courage to allow the wind to carry it on a remarkable journey.  I will use this book to teach several of the literacy skills in our unit.

Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper. In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sylvia Patterson is asked to be one of the first African American students to enroll in Central High School. While she is trying to decide if she can summon the courage to do this, racial tension and violence explode throughout the city. The time has come for Sylvia to gather up the strength to walk through the doors of Central High School.  Book club choice.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. In 1943, ten-year-old Annemarie and her best friend, Ellen, live in Copenhagen, Denmark. Ellen is Jewish, and her religion makes her a target for the Nazi soldiers. For protection she moves in with Annemarie, pretending to be part of her family. Annemarie finds herself in a dangerous situation where she has to find the courage to help Ellen escape. Book club choice.

Something to Hold  by Katherine Schlick Noe. Kitty’s family has recently moved to an Indian Reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon, where she is one of the few white children. She struggles with feelings of loneliness, wanting desperately to be accepted, but feeling like she does not fit in anywhere. Throughout the year, Kitty faces many challenges that force her to discover that even she has courage inside.  This will be our class read aloud during the unit.

Research tells us that learning experiences that are personally meaningful and engaging also may be more memorable and long lasting.  Themed Literature Units can be one way to engage students with learning that stretches their hearts as well as feeds their minds.  You can learn more about teaching with thematic literature at the Literature Circles Resource Center (click on “Themed Literature Units”).  And please contact me if you would like more information about any of these particular units!


Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Book Award for the middle grade/young adult and has been named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.