There is something especially exciting and enriching about discussing literature in a group setting. Homeschooling families tend to devour books at home, but we don’t always discuss them chapter by chapter. We often assess our students’ comprehension with a few questions or some chatting about the book. Analyzing books to death often takes the pleasure out of reading.
For the past couple of years I’ve been teaching a literature circle class at our co-op. I perhaps shouldn’t call our class a “literature circle” because it doesn’t fall into the typical literature circle format of student led/teacher observer. (This page gives a good overview of a typical literature circle.) For various reasons—including physical space, time, and meeting limitations—I tweaked the concept so that we basically have a discussion-based class, teacher-facilitated, but with lots of projects and student input.
My main goal was simply to introduce middle-school kids to discussing literature in preparation for high school and college. The literature circle is a perfect forum for practicing analysis and interpretation, cleverly disguised as a really fun time with friends. That’s a key, by the way: make the class fun!
The literature circle doesn’t have to be taught in a co-op setting; I realize that not all homeschoolers have enrichment classes/co-op available. You might find a few friends within your student’s reading level and invite them over for a weekly meeting. I do recommend meeting weekly or bi-weekly. A monthly meeting turns this into a book club rather than a fresh, lively discussion while students are still in the midst of reading a particular book.
The literature circle also doesn’t have to be just for middle-schoolers. Keep in mind that elementary students generally need more hand-on projects and less discussion. And high schoolers need much, much more than a literature circle for an English credit. Middle school seems to be the perfect age for a literature circle, as they are mature enough to sit still and have meaningful discussions.
So how do you go about teaching a literature circle?
1. First, decide on a theme. So far in my classes we’ve done:
- World War 2 Experiences (Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, and Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan)
- African-American Experience (Roar of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor; Sounder by William Armstrong)
- Poetry: various poets
- Overcoming obstacles (Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret, Mockingbird by Katheryn Erskine, Tangerine by Edward Bloor)
Other ideas for themes:
- any war or historical time period
- immigrant experience in America
- short stories
- cultural books (in other countries)
- animal books
2. Once you’ve picked a theme, it’s time to pick your books. I generally cover two or three books in a 10-week time period (one 50-minute class weekly), depending on the length of the books.
I highly recommend browsing these fantastic resources before you pick your books. Glencoe offers free literature guides on a variety of books for middle- and high-school readers. Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Call of the Wild would make a great trilogy for a survival-themed unit, and the guides are all easily accessible. Or Shiloh, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows would be a wonderful coming-of-age unit featuring boys’ relationships with dogs. Schmoo offers even more guides, although you have to pay $5.95/year to “unlock” many of their resources. (Still, $5.95 is a pretty good deal!) Signet and Random House have decent guides, as well.
Picking books requires a lot of pre-reading. I usually read 6-8 books before finding the perfect three. Unless you know your co-op families very well and have similar values/opinions, I recommend erring on the side of safety. Avoid books with cursing, disturbing/graphic scenes, etc. If you pick a book that has something in it that you think might be disturbing, give the parents a heads-up.
Once you have decided on your books, you’re ready to get started!
Tune in for the next installment soon. I’ll be discussing how to facilitate the class, how to get them thinking, and more. I hope I have gotten the wheels turning in your head. If I have, go and scout out the resources above and start thinking about how you can start a literature circle where you are.
Sarah Small has been homeschooling for 11 years. She has her master’s degree in English/creative writing. She writes about homeschooling, family, and life in general at SmallWorld at Home. She also offers SmallWorld’s WordSmithery, an ongoing series of free creative writing lessons. Photo credit: laurentzziu.