Mixed-Ability and Mixed-Grade Literature Circles

Building community, reading comprehension, and student leadership

By: John Helgeson


Tying shoes. A simple activity that's typically performed one or more times daily. Once people learn how to tie shoes, they can do so almost without thinking. One of my favorite activities to do with teachers and students is to teach them how to tie their shoes in a different way, one that is supposedly quicker and more efficient. The task challenges thinking. It builds community with groups of educators who know each other and those who are meeting for the first time. Once groups move through this simple process, they are already successful at thinking outside the box.

Working through a challenge to learn something new stimulates the brain and teaches people of all experience and expertise levels that all people are capable of doing something differently. Challenging what has always been done and being willing to take a risk encourages and promotes the innovative thinking that is needed for teachers to effectively teach all students to read.

Adolescence is a time when learning reading skills is critical to student success in high school and college. Reading for pleasure is encouraged throughout elementary school, but by the time students reach fourth grade, the amount of reading at home, and the interest of students to do so starts to wane if not embraced by the community, parents, students, and teachers. Two years later, when they enter middle school, students are approaching the tipping point. Of course, at any time in one's life, one can renew a love for reading, but if teachers can reach students during adolescence, the chance to instill a love for reading is greater.

Involving students in authentic conversations about fiction and nonfiction texts encourages students to read critically and builds enjoyment. The challenge for teachers is to find impactful texts, utilize age-appropriate discussion strategies, and create a safe environment where different perspectives are respected and appreciated. The more thought-out, developed, and practiced, the more effective the classroom discussion process will be.

Literature circles have been used in classrooms for several years. The traditional format is to assign a chunk of reading to a group of 3–5 students and have them discuss the text through assigned tasks or roles. The format is relatively basic, but there are several variations that accommodate the needs of all types of students. As with any instructional strategy, successful implementation requires preparation, establishment of routines, and practice. Moving beyond a traditional experience to include mixed-ability and mixed-grade activities extends the experience for teachers and students.

Preparation

When preparing for mixed-ability and mixed-grade literature circles, establishing a purpose for bringing classes together and determining common instructional practices are first steps to take to ensure an efficient, effective, and engaging experience for teachers and students. The overall purpose may include goals such as building community, working on reading comprehension skills, developing higher-level discussion habits, and motivating students to read in and out of the classroom.

When combining classrooms, an initial focus should be on building community. One way to build classroom and school community is focusing on a topic all students can find value in such as growth mindset. Locating a variety of texts, including nonfiction and media formats, adds to the interest levels and skills students engage in to analyze materials. Beginning in individual classrooms, teachers can establish functional groupings and model reading, speaking, and listening strategies students need to complete basic comprehension and analysis tasks. Teacher teams decide which tasks are necessary for their students. For example, tasks could include teaching students a common before-reading strategy such as identifying text features and predicting what the text will be about, a common during-reading strategy such as sketching the main ideas of the text, and a common after-reading strategy such as finding textual evidence to support conclusions made by the author. These tasks provide all students with exposure to common reading strategies and tools to be successful. Once groups are formed and classes mixed, teachers can provide students with opportunities to extend beyond these tasks or opportunities to receive scaffolded support.

Establishing Routines

Part of the preparation of mixed-ability and mixed-grade literature circles is the establishment of routines. Teachers should never assume students are going to know how to interact in a group, discuss a text, read a text, move from one seating formation to another, or move to and interact with other classes and students. Instead, teachers may need to teach and practice these behaviors. It may seem elementary for teachers, but taking a moment to do so may reduce or eliminate classroom management issues.

Students at the middle school level can be socially awkward. This is a part of development, and students are awkward at different moments. One moment they can appear to be inappropriate and immature and the next moment insightful and serious. Providing students with discussion prompts and social responses helps them practice appropriate ways to respond. Likewise, giving them opportunities to do so in a non-graded environment allows them to safely take risks while practicing discussion and group behaviors. For example, a teacher may provide discussion prompts for a text and walk around while students practice using as many of them as they can despite whether or not the discussion evolves. In the same way the teacher can look for listening behaviors such as looking at the speaker, nodding, asking follow-up questions, and providing polite responses such as saying thank you or encouraging other students to contribute. At the end of the model lesson, the teacher can lead a discussion regarding what was observed and what could be improved.

When preparing for mixed-grade and mixed-ability settings, teachers can lead students in the upper grades and classes in leadership lessons. Routines may center around fulfilling leadership roles during discussions and in classes where younger students join. Students of all ability levels in the higher grades are thus given the opportunity to be leaders whether or not they are normally considered natural leaders in their classes. Lower grade teachers can focus on more of the discussion routines so students feel equipped when meeting with higher grade students.

Practice

Practice needs to occur throughout the process. Practicing reading, social, and discussion habits in assigned classrooms, mixed classrooms, and mixed groups increases effectiveness when building community through a variety of discussion formats such as:

Pair Groups Discussions—Teachers divide the class in half and send half to another classroom. When the new half enters the classroom, students sit in pairs to practice in order to get acclimated to the new room as well as to older or younger students. Once the comfort levels increase, the pairs can become small groups.

Speed-dating Discussions—Students engage in multiple conversations with multiple people adding to the comfort level of new environments and people. Each conversation is brief as students switch discussion partners every 2–3 minutes. Teachers view students interacting with each other from different classrooms to help decide which partnerships are positive and which ones are not the best fit when considering future literature circle groupings.

Corner Discussions—Students move to an identified corner of the room to discuss topics with a larger group of students based on their answers to specific questions or interests posed by the teacher. Students move to a different corner as new questions and responses are presented. A variety of questions and interests forces the groups to mix and discuss with new people.

Prep Discussions—Students begin the discussion in original classrooms and then switch to mixed discussion groups to give them opportunities to share in a familiar setting before transitioning to a new environment.

Flexible Seating Discussions—In their discussion groups, students are given the option to stand, sit, go into the hall, or sit on the floor.

The conversations in all of these activities can be based on texts students have read in their classrooms. These can be short paragraphs, videos, sound bites, or quotes. Short texts allow for brief discussions and multiple opportunities to connect giving them the skills they need to discuss longer texts in a mixed-ability, mixed-grade setting.

Progression

Once routines and expectations have been established and students have had some time to practice in their home classrooms and in an alternative setting, the mixed-ability, mixed-group literature circle format can begin to progress beyond the initial steps of building a community. Teachers can make informed decisions based on observations of discussions and formative assessments tiered toward teaching up to all students. Discussion group formation can be more purposeful according to student needs. Assigned texts can also be more purposeful according to the standards teachers wish to address.

The frequency of meeting is up to the teachers. Initial activities may be brief, so an entire class period may not be needed. Future discussions may occur once a week. The benefit to students is immense. The process builds community amongst students and teachers, develops student leaders, and challenges students to move their understanding forward. Teachers collaborate on effective teaching strategies and discussion of data that transcends a classroom and grade level.


John Helgeson, Ph.D., taught middle school students for 18 years and has presented at local, state, and national conferences. He is currently the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist in the Northshore School District, Bothell, Washington.
jhelgeson@nsd.org


Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.

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LiteratureLiteracy

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