Classroom Interactions: from post-grad to middle school

My career changed direction a bit in the last year. I went from training post-grad English teachers in Korea to teaching middle school in Vietnam. Having little experience in the middle school classroom, I worried that the methodology I had spent eight years with would leave me useless in a class full of 12 and 13 year-olds.

Fortunately, I found that the methodology, which formed the foundation of my development as a teacher and the program I spent eight years in, required little modification to be effective in the middle school setting.

Here is a clip of me introducing a literature circle assignment to an 8th grade class. I’ve annotated the clip to show the thought processes related to classroom interaction that go on while I’m teaching. I welcome all feedback, both positive and negative.

Academic Reading Circles: Initial reactions

In my last post (click here), I outlined the academic reading circle assignment that I had planned for this semester. The academic reading circles took the place of focus questions (read and answer questions at home) and the hope was that students would interact with the material and each other, prior to class, more than they have before. If the ARC is successful, students will get more out of each class because they are primed for the new content. In this post, I’ll share some examples of the ARC working and failing, along with the changes I will make for next semester.

There are several things that I overlooked at the start. First, I had planned for students to use the blog as a place to share the specific information related to their role and discuss the content. I had imagined ongoing discussions that were so riveting they spilled into class. What I am finding, though, is that many students treat the ARC like a focus question, simply doing their part and signing off. As you can see in the picture below, participation varies – some classes tend to look around and read more, while others get in, write, then get out.

blog dashboard

Next semester, I will make sure to give detailed instructions related to the direction of, and type of interaction that happens on the blog. Here is an example of what the discussion leader posts:

blog discussion leader post


As you can see here, the discussion leader does a good job of presenting a discussion question to the group, and it’s not outrageous to thin that a nice discussion would follow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very often. Below is an example of some interaction on the blog.


blog interaction 1This type of interaction is fairly common. Students compliment each other on their posts, or share something that was making the post difficult. While it’s nice to see, this kind of interaction doesn’t get the most out of the blog. In addition complimenting and asking for help, I would like to see interaction that promotes a deeper understanding of content. In the next picture, the students begin to develop an idea together. This is the kind of interaction that really gets the most out of the ARC and blogging.

blog development


To deal with this problem I plan to give one more responsibility to the discussion leader. As it is now, the only responsibility for the discussion leader is to:

  • Create the blog post.
  • Create 3 comprehension questions about information in the reading.
  • Create 1 discussion question about something you are curious about in the reading or something you do not clearly understand.
  • Keep track of the time during the discussion so everyone gets a turn.
  • Remind members that they should not read exactly from the textbook.
  • Ensure that no one person dominates the discussion and everyone speaks.

Since the discussions are not happening at the beginning of class, the discussion leader will also lead the group’s self-assessment. After the discussion leader posts their questions, they will respond to the discussion question answers posted by their group members AND keep track of who writes what. The discussion leader will keep track of how many times each member of their group interacted, and what they said. For example, the categories might be something like this:

Group Member Comp. Response Disc. Response Role Response Question Compliment
A 1 2 1 2 2
B 1 2 1 1 1
C 1 2 1 0 0
D 1 2 1 1 1

So, instead of leading the discussion at the beginning of class, the discussion leader has more responsibilities related to what happens online. Now, at the beginning of each class, the discussion leader has each member sign the form (the above table), confirming that their contribution to the blog is correct, and then hands it in to the teacher, who can use it for assessment. Hopefully, signing a form that is handed to the teacher provides just the right amount of push from the top to promote more online interaction.

Feedback and responses from the student survey will be up in my next post.

Thanks for reading!


Lit. Circle Crash Course Results and Feedback

In this post I will share the results of a survey I conducted to see how students feel about the literature circle readings and assignments that they’ve worked on over the past 8 weeks. If it’s your first time here, you can read about my initial experiences planning the assignments here and here. A quick google search yielded several useful results that I used to create this survey. Of the 14 students in the class, only 10 of them responded. Though the group is small, the overwhelmingly positive feedback has cemented literature circles as a feature of all my future reading/writing classes – and it may just spill into my TESOL courses. Here are the results from the likert-scale questions:

How much of the book did you honestly read? 

The literature discussion on Wednesdays helped me understand the book better (1-totally agree, 4-totally disagree).

The literature discussion on Wednesdays helped me connect personally with the book.

The literature circle on Wednesdays made me think about things in the book that I had not thought of.

The literature circle on Wednesdays made me feel pressured to keep up with the reading and do my homework.

How much did you enjoy your book? (1- I really enjoyed it, 4-I really didn’t like it)

So far the results are generally very positive. On their own, though, these numbers don’t really say much about how students perceive the experience themselves. The following responses shed some light on how students perceive the literature circles as a whole.

In your opinion, what are the benefits of literature circles?

  • Normally I don’ t have a lot of chance think about books after reading them but through this time I read some of books and I had some times to think deeply about the books. Also it helps me improve my creativity.
  • Use english lot
  • The benefits of literature circle is that you keep up with reading thoroughly.
  • I liked it because I have done this in my previous school in Canada.
  • I like how when I read, I am so focused on my role to do following role that I was provided.
  • I could find other people’s thoughts and compare with mine.
  • Literature circles made me to understand the book better.
  • It make me read books.
  • Make me r.e.a.d english text
  • I could understand some parts of story that I couldn’t understand.
  • It forces me to focus about little details in the book.
  • I think the literature circle helps me understand the book better.
  • Sometimes there are parts that I don’t fully understand. By discussing with my literature circle members, I can understand the story better.
  • I can know several opinion about the book.

What could the teacher have done to make the literature circles more fun?

  • Need more activities, roles and more interesting books
  • Choose the part umm.. everything was good! Maybe next time, choose a book with a movie!
  • We can read a book, then when its done we can see a movie together before the exam week to relax.
  • I think playing quiz game would make more fun.
  • Asking something and answering it will make the class lively.
  • Choose moer easy book….
  • Just ok :)…
  • Explain more about each role with examples?
  • Or actually participate in discussions with a role! I think you’re doing great 🙂
  • less amount of homework

What it is that you like or dislike about literature circles?

  • Everything is fine. Since elementary school, I’ve not in any literature circles and the chance of reading a book was getting lower because of studying.
  • Discussing and sharing ideas with friends are really fun and helpful.
  • It’s really a good way to expand my horizons.
  • Little bit hard to understand the book(took lots of time), so it gives me pressure
  • I liked everything about a literature circle, except the time management problem.
  • Sometimes the discussion had ended up early because case 1, some of the group members had forgotten their work, case 2, the discussion didn’t go smoothly because some of the group members didn’t even had a chance to read a book. They should be more responsible for reading.
  • I liked literature circles having many roles like summerizer, questioner, and connector etc.Because of many roles, the class wasn’t boring.
  • I like this class because it is not boring .But the book is little difficult for me.
  • Sometimes our team talks about other thing that is not related to topics. Also talking is not easy
  • I like questioner and I dislike travel tracer
  •  In my opinion, sometimes some roles do not match with certain chapters. For example, word wizard definitely is not needed for this new book, future of us.
  • I like literature circles because I can hear about different opinions and share ideas.
  •  I like we can share many thought but sometimes it is hard for me to understand the story of the book and to read a lot of amount pages.

Are you looking forward to doing this again? So, what does all of this mean for me? Well, my first thought is that my last minute attempt to run literature circles effectively worked. The success we’ve had so far, however, is a result of the literature circle itself; it does what it’s supposed to do – it gave students real reasons to read and provided adequate opportunities for students of different levels to scaffold each other. In many ways, my contribution was minimal, and I like it that way. In the future, there are several things I will do to get more out of the experience. First, I will manage the roles more effectively. At some times, with some texts, certain roles should be avoided. Second, to encourage reading and give students a choice in the roles they take, I will let them choose. Beginning with the second book this term, I let students choose their role. I made one rule, or guideline, regarding role choices that worked really well. I told students they could choose their role as long as they didn’t pick the same role as someone else in their group. Roles were selected on a first come first serve basis. So, for example, if I want to be the summarizer, I need to make sure that I post my summary on the class blog before anyone else. I found this to work really well because it pushed students to read and post earlier in the week, which resulted in more thought being put into each assignment. Like most of the of the students, I am also looking forward to the next reading. Our next writing pattern is persuasive writing and this time I’ve chosen the text. I chose the first chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers. Students will write about the relationship between talent, dedication, and opportunity. As I said before, I will go through the possible roles and make sure they are all relevant to the reading before assigning it. Now, how can I bring literature circles into my graduate SLA class? Time to get into academic reading circles.

A crash course in literature circles (2)

Part 2

So… In my last post, which you can find here, I described my haphazard attempt at setting up a literature circle in the days leading up to the first day of class. In this post, I will let you  know what happened on the first day of discussion. In a later post, I will share student reactions to the circles.

Overall the first day was a success. The only major wrinkle in the first hour was the students who were unprepared because they never received the blog invitation. Though it’s time consuming, taking students through the necessary sign-up steps is a must. Students who signed up successfully posted a summary, list, or picture (depending on their role, like this…

The discussions began with the summarizer sharing the summary they’ve prepared for class. From there, the questioner leads the discussion until all participants have contributed something specific to their role. Prior to the class, I worried about timing – would 40 minutes be too much time, or not enough? Turns out that 40-50 minutes is just about right for the amount of reading they had. Once the discussions started, they continued naturally until the end of class. The connector, I believe, plays a central role. Connecting the text to events in their lives really adds life to the text and discussion. I was pleasantly surprised at this.

Writing classes are leveled, and my group is the highest level group, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant gap in proficiency levels among students. On the first day, when I asked who traveled the farthest to get here, I heard “Chicago” and “Toronto.” So basically, the class is a mix of intermediate-mid/high students whose English education has been solely in Korea, and several students who have studied/lived abroad for a considerable amount of time.

This mixed high-level class really highlights the positive aspects of the literature circle framework. Students talked, mostly in English, about all aspects of what they had read. Everything, from main ideas to vocabulary items or cultural references that were confusing, was shared. When they didn’t understand each, they explained, they provided examples for each other. They connected events from the text to their own lives. The weaker reader and writers, though quiet in class, weren’t as quite. They had a week to read and prepare something for one specific role and they did it.

So, to wrap up what happened, students discussed main ideas, specific information, and specific language related to the text; all students participated in English; and they all left with a much better understanding of what they read.

Now only if my profs had considered academic reading circles when I was doing my coursework…

In the next post I’ll share some student feedback. Thanks for reading!!


A crash course in literature circles (1)

Part 1

Last winter, given the task of planning for a new semester of English Reading and Writing, I did nothing. In the past, hours spent planning for unknown group of students led only to frustration – so this semester I waited. I waited some more, and a few days before the start of the semester I noticed that I would be teaching a high-level group (determined by placement tests). Excited at the thought of teaching reading/writing to a group of students who were not traditional dance majors, I scoured the web for information on literature circles. Literature circles had been sort of a buzz word on the 4th floor, but I was on the outside looking in as I hadn’t had the chance to try them out. First I had to figure out what they were. A cursory google search yields something like this – plenty of information to get started, right? Back to what they are…

Defining Literature Circles

1. Students choose their own reading materials

2. Small temporary groups are formed, based upon book choice

3. Different groups read different books

4. Groups meet on a regular, predictable schedule to discuss their reading

5. Kids use written or drawn notes to guide both their reading and discussion

6. Discussion topics come from the students

7. Group meetings aim to be open, natural conversations about books, so personal connections, digressions, and open-ended questions are welcome

8. In newly-forming groups, students may play a rotating assortment of task roles

9. The teacher serves as a facilitator, not a group member or instructor.

10. Evaluation is by teacher observation and student self-evaluation.

11. A spirit of playfulness and fun pervades the room.

12. When books are finished, readers share with their classmates, and then new groups form around new reading choices.


Now that we know what they are, what’s next? Well, the above #1 says students should choose their own material. I pre-selected several books that the students could choose from. Since I teach freshman reading/writing at a women’s university, and I am not Father Tiresias (thank you Genesis!), I searched for popular young adult fiction. Students settled on Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. With 15 students in the class, one group read Asher and the other two read Bach. Each member of each group had their own role each week. To make sure the students actually did the reading, I had them post a summary of their role on the class blog as comments to my original post where roles were assigned.

So, to sum up, before the first day of actual discussion I had:

a. assigned groups and books

b. posted page numbers and roles on the class blog

c. briefly described the structure of ‘discussion’ days

I will describe the first day in my next post. In a word, it was… mind-blowing.