One of my favorite instructional practices in reading that I’ve used for two decades is literature circles, based on the work of Harvey Daniels. A literature circle is a group of students who read the same book and meet together in a book-club format to discuss the book and work together to better understand their reading.
When I first introduce literatures circles in the beginning of the school year, I teach the students various “roles” to use as lenses through which to engage with the text. The roles are Discussion Director, Vocabulary Enricher, Connector, Summarizer, Literary Luminary, Researcher, and Illustrator. Students are assigned a different role each time their literature circle completes a reading, and then the groups meet the following day with each person contributing to the discussion from the perspective of his or her role.
Assigning different roles works for one or two books with students becoming experts at discussing and analyzing text. I find, however, that the novelty of literature circles wears off and students settle into sharing their roles in a “round robin” format that lacks excitement and substantive conversation. When that phenomenon occurs, I introduce the Advanced Literature Circles form that I created that include all of the roles. This format helps students examine a book through all of the desired aspects, better understanding how a reader asks questions, develops vocabulary, makes connections, summarizes, appreciates the author’s craft, and visualizes during the course of a particular reading session. After completing the Advanced Literature Circles form and gathering for the next day’s discussion, students begin to share what their notes in a more natural way as the conversation calls for particular contributions.
Eventually, students become so adept at using this note-taking process to synthesize during reading that they do not need to use their notes to discuss. After months of developing the skills associated with all of the literature circle roles, the students are experts and become so caught up in discussions characterized by high-level thinking and substantive conversation that they do not need prompts. Wanting to capture this type of dialogue in which students abandon their literature circle scripts and move beyond merely recounting the facts of a book, I recorded an impromptu video of a group of girls reading Esperanza Rising. Watch as they analyze and debate their ideas and predictions about the story with a natural passion and love for literature.
I have always believed that my ultimate mission as an educator is to teach students how to think. That is why I was excited for the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which are founded on developing students’ abilities to think critically, communicate globally, express their creativity, and connect across multiple forms of media. These skills are essential for students to be successful in school and in the global workforce in their futures. One instructional strategy that has helped me impart these thinking and communication abilities is Socrative Circles.
A Socrative Circle is an activity in which students work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer through participating in an intellectual conversation centered on a text, video, piece of art, or other form of media. The word Socratic comes from the name of the classical Greek philosopher, Socrates, who developed a Theory of Knowledge. He believed that the answers to all human questions and problems reside within us, and the way to discover those answers was through the practice of disciplined conversation. Socrative Circles or Socrative Seminars have become common practices at the secondary level, but I found a way to implement this practice at the elementary level. The results have been better than I imagined!
First, students watch a video or read a text. I often use short TED Talks that are connected to a particular concept we are studying in social studies, like pollution or entrepreneurialism. Students watch the video twice and take notes. Then, I count students off and they form groups of four to discuss the ideas presented in the video. Students are given a list of questions or considerations that I’ve created beforehand to springboard their small group discussions. After about twenty minutes of substantive conversation, the students push all of the desks to the perimeter of the classroom and form a large circle of chairs. Then, the entire class participates in a whole group discussion about the topic.
During the whole group discussion, I silently observe and take notes about how students participate. The children take the lead and work together to participate in a high-level, mature discussion. This is the result of time spent establishing and following sets of goals and norms.
Listen better to what others say.
Explain your own ideas.
Speak and work with others whether you are close with them or not.
Receive correction and criticism from others.
Ask about what you don’t understand.
Admit when you are wrong.
Think about questions for which answers are uncertain.
Learn from others.
Understand a public issue more deeply.
Be respectful of others. A discussion is an exchange of ideas and not a debate. There should be no side conversations, because each person should be engaged in the conversation and all ideas should be shared with the group.
Read texts and view videos carefully. Your opinions are important, but these opinions are your thoughts about the text or video. Think “claim and evidence”.
Listen carefully to what others say and do not interrupt. Hands do not have to be raised, and you can contribute your ideas to the conversation naturally when another person has stopped sharing.
Speak clearly and loudly so others hear and understand you. Repeat what another person has shared before contributing your questions or ideas to ensure that you understand what he or she said.
Pay attention to your “air time”. We want to hear from all of the voices in our classroom. Gently encourage students who have not shared to contribute to the conversation.
At the end of the discussion, students reflect on the discussion process and their conclusions about the issue being discussed. Then, we brainstorm ideas for taking action or using our new understandings.
In addition to developing thinking and communication skills, the Socrative Circle discussions have resulted in students thinking globally and taking action locally. After our Socrative Circle discussion on plastic pollution in the Pacific gyres, Samantha and Sophie wrote a letter to the editor that was published in The Voice newspaper. Students also started brining in reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic ones. Another discussion about young entrepreneurs motivated some students to research how to create an app. Students are also independently reading articles critically and evaluating them as potential topics for future Socrative Circle discussions. Finally, students really see how how the concepts they are learning about in class connect to the world in important, useful ways.
Since we are currently studying U.S. government, our most recent Socrative Circle was about leadership. The students watched a short video of children talking about the qualities of good leaders, and they also read a list of quotes about leadership made by famous people. Then, the children discussed the video and quotes in small groups and met for a whole-class talk about what makes a good leader. This video highlights some of the deep thinking and ideas from the large Socrative Circle. Based on the conversation, I am confident that my class if full of great leaders!