Literature Circles Rock!

By Sabrina Völz and Jennifer Kühl

Image cred­it: Tim Geers

As we all know, more and more adults are read­ing less and less in their free time. That’s not a judg­ment, just a fact. Bud­ding book­worms might even be con­sid­ered an endan­gered species, so a few years ago, I start­ed look­ing for a dif­fer­ent approach to teach­ing lit­er­a­ture to stu­dents of all majors and back­grounds. While look­ing for inspi­ra­tion, I came across the lit­er­a­ture cir­cle, an approach that might just engage even the most skep­ti­cal uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent who’d rather be writ­ing code for an app or start­ing his or her own busi­ness. While it has become an inte­gral part of the Eng­lish class­room from ele­men­tary school upwards in the Unit­ed States, this stu­dent-cen­tered activ­i­ty is rel­a­tive­ly unknown in Ger­many. At least it was to me. Dur­ing my research, I found out that lit­er­a­ture cir­cles come in all shapes and sizes and can be struc­tured in many dif­fer­ent ways, so there’s no one “right” way of doing it. That very fact appealed to me and led me to explore unchar­tered territory.

In a nut­shell, a lit­er­a­ture cir­cle is made up of a small group of indi­vid­u­als who read the same text. Togeth­er they explore the text’s con­tent and style while reflect­ing, ask­ing ques­tions, and shar­ing feel­ings, just as any lit­er­a­ture cir­cle would do. Sounds sim­ple, right? It is and that’s exact­ly the point. When I first start­ed adapt­ing the lit­er­a­ture cir­cle to fit my university’s cur­ricu­lum, I didn’t real­ize how this method would rev­o­lu­tion­ize my class­room – at least for a day.

After get­ting every­one psy­ched for the lit­er­a­ture cir­cle, stu­dents receive role sheets and choose their respec­tive role (Dis­cus­sion Direc­tor, Illu­mi­na­tor, Illus­tra­tor, Con­nec­tor, and Word Watch­er). I omit the sum­ma­riz­er role at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el and often replace it with a researcher, who looks into the author’s style of writ­ing. In a high school set­ting, a book would be split up into sev­er­al sec­tions and the roles would change over the course of a learn­ing block. How­ev­er, due to my university’s 14-week semes­ter, in which the sem­i­nars I teach meet only once a week, I ded­i­cate only one les­son to the lit­er­a­ture cir­cle that usu­al­ly cov­ers a fair­ly acces­si­ble nov­el or an engag­ing short sto­ry. Stu­dents are encour­aged to adapt their role to suit their own pur­pos­es and to break out of their com­fort zone by try­ing a role that they would not usu­al­ly be drawn to. There­fore, I try and encour­age shy or more intro­vert­ed stu­dents to take on the role of dis­cus­sion director.

The illus­tra­tor role is some­times a chal­lenge to fill. If the artists are few and far between, I encour­age stu­dents to make use of pic­tures gath­ered from mag­a­zines and google images or try their hand at mod­ern art or stick peo­ple. A few semes­ters ago, one stu­dent made a won­der­ful col­lage with images of Cana­di­an cul­tur­al ref­er­ences employed in Drew Hay­den Taylor’s play, God and the Indi­an. Oth­er stu­dents show their hid­den tal­ents or unleash their cre­ativ­i­ty as Jen­nifer Kühl did, cur­rent­ly a grad­u­ate stu­dent major­ing in Teacher Train­ing for Voca­tion­al Schools at Leuphana. Her illus­tra­tion below was inspired by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Car­ried:  “I sur­vived, but it’s not a hap­py end­ing.” As Jen­nifer has explained, “Viet­nam War mem­o­ries can be viewed as an intense itch­ing that will nev­er stop, like wounds that will nev­er heal.”


As a post-dis­cus­sion activ­i­ty, stu­dents can write essays, reac­tion papers, or share an insight or two with the rest of the class. In all hon­esty, the lit­er­a­ture cir­cle has nev­er let me down. It’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion for stu­dents and instruc­tors alike. It def­i­nite­ly pro­vides a change of pace from the rou­tine of acad­e­mia, and every­one is includ­ed. Stu­dents are put in charge of their own learn­ing and can great­ly influ­ence the direc­tion the dis­cus­sion takes. In oth­er words, they active­ly cre­ate their own mean­ing and hone their crit­i­cal think­ing skills in a coop­er­a­tive learn­ing envi­ron­ment. Known­ing that every­one depends on them, stu­dents often do their best work. Apart from the usu­al tasks sug­gest­ed by the word watch­er role, for exam­ple, I’ve seen stu­dents make live­ly word splash­es, orga­nize vocab­u­lary the­mat­i­cal­ly, or make a word cloud.

As men­tioned above, stu­dents can – if they so choose – expand their hori­zons by tak­ing on a role that they might not nor­mal­ly select if their grade depend­ed on it. And final­ly, they will like­ly have a mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion that is remem­bered for some­time to come. So yes, I tru­ly believe that lit­er­a­ture cir­cles rock. But don’t just take my word for it, try it for yourself.

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