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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, December 2012 (20.2) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Grouping (Vol 20, No 2)

In the “Framework for 21st Century Learning,” the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has articulated its vision for learning that emphasizes core academic subjects, but goes further to include essential skills for success in our world, such as “critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.” (See

In this issue, we focus on group work to build core content knowledge in language arts and to support students’ development in all of the areas of 21st century learning, beginning with communication and collaboration. We know that in order to build skills in communication and collaboration, and to foster critical thinking and problem solving, our students need to work in groups. We also know that young adolescents are social beings and thrive on communication with peers. As their teachers, we must strive to use that social nature in meaningful and purposeful ways that will support communication and collaboration and meet our core academic goals.

Literature Circles

General Discussion Topic

“The ‘Us’ in Discuss: Grouping in Literature Circles by Katherine Batchelor and “Digital Storytelling: Reinventing Literature Circles” by Maryann Tobin give different perspectives on a popular concept in language arts classrooms and a staple when talking about groups: literature circles. Popularized by Harvey Daniels, literature circles are small, peer-led discussion groups that can be configured in a variety of ways. Literature circles are often formed based on student choice of a common reading. For more, see Daniels’s literature circles website at

Literature circles in a language arts classroom are used to foster discussion and construct meaning as students prepare for and lead discussions. If you have never tried literature circles in your classroom, what is holding you back? Does the thought of turning over control to your students create anxiety? Begin by talking with colleagues, examining the articles in this issue, and listening to the accompanying podcasts. What are the essential components of successful literature circles? How can you begin to implement those ideas in your classroom? Do you know anyone who uses literature circles in your school? Can you observe his or her practice as a way to get started?

Key Points

  • Students enjoy literature circles because the activity keeps them engaged while providing support via discussions and camaraderie.
  • Literature circle groups are formed through text choice rather than by reading ability.
  • Literature circles are a key factor in helping students discover reading as a pleasurable, social experience.
  • Literature circles can use traditional print text, or they can be updated to include a multimodal, technological component.
  • Digital storytelling works well with the versatility of literature circles, allowing for multimodal activities.
  • In any form of literature circles, the division of labor provides coordination of the activity and gives each participant a directed purpose for their interaction with the text.

Common Core Connection

Not only does the use of literature circles as a method for comprehending and discussing texts support all of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, the collaboration and communication demands align with the following standards for speaking and listening.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 6–12
Comprehension and Collaboration

  1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Grade 8 standards in this category include: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  1. Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  2. Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
  3. Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
  4. Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views in light of the evidence presented.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Literature circles may seem like an idea that is confined to the language arts classroom, but it does not have to be. Talk with your colleagues about the kinds of reading material they are using in other content areas.

  • Is the science teacher using any informational texts that could be a source of rich discussions in small groups? How can you work together to read material and cover science content in one classroom and use that same material for literature circle discussion in language arts?
  • How can you become a content expert for your team and teach colleagues how to foster literature circle-type discussions in other content areas? We’ve already suggested that you observe someone else who might be a good model of literature circle discussions. Could you be that resource for someone else?
  • How could you and your colleagues take the articles in this issue and model a literature circle-type discussion in your own professional learning community? Try dividing this issue up among small groups of teachers for discussion.

Why Not Try This?

A big part of successful literature circle discussions is making sure that you help students begin with a strong foundation so that they are comfortable discussing their response to literature with each other. This may involve using a variety of team- and class-building ideas before diving into discussions of text.

Batchelor invites us to think about this idea as she suggests allowing students to create rules for regulating reading. She also recommends getting to know other group members by collecting information such as what kind of music or video games they like. Tobin emphasizes the needs for teachers to monitor discourse, working more closely with students at the beginning, but reducing that scaffolding as students become more independent.

Resources for team- and class-building activities:

  • Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke’s book Mini Lessons for Literature Circles provides a multitude of ideas for all aspects of literature circles. In this free sample, you can read about a Membership Grid as a way to collect the kind of information for group sharing Batchelor describes.

  • Survival scenarios and other collaborative decision-making activities can help your students establish rapport with one another and create group discussion rules and procedures before they are ready for literature circles. Here is a website with many examples:

  • Kagan and Kagan (2009) suggest having teams build shelters to protect themselves from an imaginary rainstorm using nothing but newspaper and masking tape. I once had students build a structure that the whole team could stand in out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows.

Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)

Alternate Grouping Strategies

General Discussion Topic

“Grouping Lessons We Learned from Co-Teaching in a Summer Writing Institute” by Kelly Chandler-Olcott, Jodi Burnash, Danielle Donahue, Maureen DeChick, Michele Gendron, James Smith, Mary Taylor, and John Zelenik chronicles the authors’ experiences in designing and implementing a three-week intensive summer writing institute in their community. All readers may not have the opportunity to plan and implement such a program, but that does not mean that there are not valuable lessons to learn from their experience. In their summer institute, these teachers practiced a variety of grouping strategies and use a similar idea for digital stories that Tobin introduced with literature circles. What ideas can you translate from this article into your own practice, even if you are not able to replicate the same situation?

Key Points

  • Think-pair-share is a grouping structure that allows students to share writing in progress and teachers to engage students during direct instruction.
  • Students learn a great deal about effective group work when teachers can role play as a model.
  • Decisions about how to group students are important and play a necessary role in the success of group work.
  • Co-teaching situations allow teachers to give students increased support and feedback as well as encouraging them to think about writing for a wider audience than just one individual.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing 6–12
Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
Grade 7 standards include:
5. With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

Using This Article with Your Team
The co-teaching lessons in this article can easily be adapted to teaching teams, whether they are content-area teams, grade-level teams, or interdisciplinary teams. The authors provide the following suggestions that can be adapted to your teaming structure:
•    If you have a preservice teacher or an intervention aide or specialist in your classroom, include that person in planning and monitoring group work. The more adults available to circulate, supervise, and consult with student groups, the more feedback and coaching they receive. Supporting group work might also be a way that parents who want to remain involved in their child’s classroom into the middle school years could also be helpful.
•    As part of the planning process, clearly define the roles and responsibilities in the co-teaching setting—who will speak when, what information each teacher is responsible for covering, which groups of students each teacher will take primary responsibility for monitoring. In your team, this may also involve discussions of flexible scheduling, who needs more time for a longer activity, where short-term compromises can be reached.
•    If you do not or cannot share actual classroom space and teaching time with your teammates, use their knowledge of your students to help in making those grouping decisions. Consider discussing group configurations at team meetings so that everyone is consistent. It may be helpful for some students to keep the same groups in multiple classrooms or it may be advantageous to make sure you are changing groups in each subject area.

Why Not Try This?

Teachers in this institute used Think-Pair-Share as a core group strategy. A basic Think-Pair-Share strategy begins by posing a question or problem to students, having them think about it and formulate their own response first (they may or may not record that response individually), and then sharing it with a partner.
•    In a traditional setting using cooperative learning, students begin in home groups of four students. In a Think-Pair-Share activity, students are instructed to turn to one member of the group to share. There are a variety of ways to make this run smoothly. Students can count off by fours or can have a permanent number assigned to them between one and four. Then the teacher chooses a pairing from the four using a spinner or drawing numbers (pairs may be 1 with 3 and 2 with 4 or some other combination). It may also be that students are taught to designate partners as face partners or shoulder partners, based on the seating arrangement.
•    A close cousin of Think-Pair-Share is Numbered Heads Together. Beginning in groups of four, students are numbered off. A question is posed or a prompt is given. Students consider their individual response first, then share their answers or responses as a group, then a number is called and that student responds for the group. During discussion, students may have to summarize everyone’s responses or come to consensus on the best answer.
•    A third variation is Stand Up-Hand Up-Pair Up. In this version, students are given a question to answer or a prompt to discuss and everyone stands and puts a hand up. Students partner with someone not in their home or base group. Students put hands down as a signal that they have found a partner and are ready to discuss. This activity will often finish with a sharing before shifting partners again.
Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)


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