MAT Blog

Literature Circles: A Student-Centered Approach to Literacy

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 17, 2014 3:09:00 PM


Why do our students come to school? Yes, yes, of course because they have to, but why else? Is it because of you? Is it because of the mind-bending lectures we give? If you asked Michael Kahn (see his article, “The Seminar”) these questions, he’d tell you that there’s nothing intrinsically special about us or the textbooks.

No, what makes coming to school “worth it” for Kahn is the collaborative learning experience—or in his words, the “opportunity [for students] to engage in a fantastic dialogue, trialogue, multilogue with a fantastically varied assortment of consciousnesses.”

There are countless ways we can get students working together, talking and learning from one another, but literature circles are certainly one of the most effective. Not only do they encourage open dialogue, creativity and critical thinking, they also push students to take ownership of their own learning experience.

What are literature circles?
When we use literature circles, small groups of students gather for an in-depth discussion of a literary work. To ensure that students have a clear sense of direction and remain focused, each group member is given a specific task. For example, one student may be the designated artist; s/he is responsible for using some form of art to explore a main idea, a theme, or significant scene from the text. Another group member, the wordsmith, might be responsible for documenting important, unusual, or difficult words from the reading. Regardless of each student’s role, each group must collaborate as they read, discuss and critically engage with texts.

The circles meet regularly, and the discussion roles change at each meeting. When the circle finishes a book, the members decide on a way to showcase their literary work for the rest of the class.

To give you a better sense of what literature circles are—and aren’t—take a look at the following chart from Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide, Literature Circles and Response:


What is the teacher’s role in literature circles?
As Harvey Daniels explains in his book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, “the teacher’s main job in literature circles is to not teach.” Instead, teachers use mini-lessons, debriefing sessions and Socratic questioning techniques as they circulate the room, moving from group to group to evaluate student progress. As a facilitator, the teacher is never center-stage. In literature circles, the teacher’s role is supportive, organizational and managerial.

What is the role of each student?
There are a number of approaches you can take, but Daniels believes in introducing literature circles by using predefined roles that students take turns fulfilling. Although the terminology used to name the roles may vary, the descriptions remain similar.

Pam Chandler, a sixth-grade English, reading, and social studies teacher at Sequoia Middle School in Redding, California, defines the roles her students take on in literature circles this way:

  • Artful artist uses some form of artwork to represent a significant scene or idea from the reading.
  • Literary luminary points out interesting or important passages within the reading.
  • Discussion director writes questions that will lead to discussion by the group.
  • Capable connector finds connections between the reading material and something outside the text, such as a personal experience, a topic studied in another class, or a different work of literature.
  • Word wizard discusses words in the text that are unusual, interesting, or difficult to understand.

Teachers will want to begin by modeling the various roles within a small group in front of the whole class before sending students out on their own. However, you may be surprised to find out that once students are comfortable with the group-discussion format, you may be able to discontinue these roles altogether.

How do I evaluate students?
Literature circles are not intended to “cover material”— they are designed to empower students to take control of their learning experiences, to get them excited about literature, and to help them find creative ways to delve into books. Keeping that in mind, teachers who use literature circles do not use traditional methods of evaluation.

Because teachers are not at the center of attention, they are better able to engage in “authentic,” real-time assessment. This can include keeping narrative observational logs, performance assessments, checklists, student conferences, group interviews, one-on-one conferences, and the like.

Keep in mind that evaluation in literature circles is not just the job of the teacher. Just as we require students to take responsibility for their own book selections, topic choices, and reading assignments, we also want them involved in the record-keeping and evaluation activities of literature circles.

For a more comprehensive discussion of literature circles, check out both Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide Literature Circles and Response, and Harvey Daniels’s book, Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, reading ability, reading teachers, student engagement, collaborative learning, Literature Circles

Booktrack Classroom Creates an Immersive Reading Experience

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on Apr 22, 2014 9:56:00 AM

BooktrackOver the weekend, we came across Booktrack, a free web application that syncs digital books to audio, resulting in an immersive reading experience.

Students can choose from books or essays in the Booktrack library or write their own story and add an accompanying soundtrack by choosing from over 20,000 professional-quality audio files.

booktrack classroom

Here’s how it works: Say, for example that you choose to read Romeo and Juliet. As you read, you’ll notice a descending marker in the right-hand margin of the page. This marker moves down the page as you read so that your reading speed accompanies the soundtrack. If the marker moves too fast, use the plus and minus icons at the bottom of the page to increase or decrease the speed.

Using Booktrack Classroom
Booktrack can be used in a variety of ways to engage with students. Here are just a few examples:

  • Narrative Writing – Students add music and audio to their original stories.
  • Informative and Explanatory Writing – Students compose essays and articles selecting suitable audio to accompany their text.
  • Literature Study – Students gain insight and increased understanding of the text by creating their own soundtracks for novels, stories, and plays they are reading in class.
  • Read-Alouds – Teacher and student led read-alouds are enhanced through the addition of sound and music to the chapter or act being presented.

In addition to this, Booktrack has assembled a variety of free lesson plans for students at the elementary, middle and high school levels, covering a variety of subjects and learning outcomes. All lesson plans have been created by professional teachers and conform to CORE standards and best practice.

Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading motivation, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling readers, reading teachers, collaborative learning

Teach Beginning Readers Genre With This Free, Interactive Map

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on Apr 21, 2014 3:28:00 PM

One of the best ways to help beginning readers discover books they’ll love is by teaching them about genre. Thanks to the folks over at Book Country, your students can learn all about different genres—mystery, fantasy, romance, science fiction, thriller, and other subgenres—by clicking their way around an interactive map.

The map covers over 60 categories and also connects users to popular books in each genre. Click here or on the image below to try it out.

beginning readers

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Tags: reading comprehension, reading strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading specialist, struggling readers, reading teachers, beginning readers, collaborative learning

Build Connections with These Reading Comprehension Questions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jan 21, 2014 3:50:00 PM

reading comprehension questionsBefore we begin a new novel, watch a movie or read an article on our favorite blog, most adults have already started tapping into a vast collection of knowledge about what they already know or think about the “text” they are about to engage with.

The ability to tap into our schema and seek out patterns to make sense of new information is an essential reading comprehension skill. It’s also a skill we can teach our students simply by posing strategic questions.  

We’ve been reading Judi Moreillon’s book Collaborative Strategies for Teaching Reading Comprehension and would like to share a series of questions you can ask students to help them build connections between:

  • Themselves and the text
  • Multiple texts
  • Texts and the world

Build Connections with These Reading Comprehension Questions

Building text-to-self connections
One of the best ways to model text-to-self connections is by using think-aloud questions. The following questions focus on three areas of text-to-self connection: feelings experiences, and ideas:

  • Have you ever felt like the character(s) in this story? Describe what happened and how you felt
  • Have you had a similar experience? Compare your experience to that of the character(s)
  • Have you heard or read this information before? What does this information mean to you?
  • How does connecting a story or information to your own life experiences help you better understand it?

Building text-to-text connections
Students often do not understand or enjoy readings because they do not see immediate connections between the text and other materials they have already read and enjoyed.  To help them make connections between texts, try asking the following questions:

  • Have you ever read another book or seen a movie in which a story element (setting, plot, conflict, theme, or style) is similar to the one in this story? Describe how they are the same
  • Have you read another book or seen a movie in which the writer used language or text structure similar to that in this story? Describe how these texts are similar.
  • How does making connections to familiar texts help you comprehend the new text?

Building text-to-world connections
When students are able to stretch their thinking and see how a text connects to issues beyond what they are reading, it is much easier for them to invest in this new experience. To help your students make connections from the text to social, historical and contemporary issues, pose some of the following questions: 

  • What do you think the author’s message or purpose was in writing this story or presenting this information?
  • Did the author suggest a message that connects with bigger ideas about the way things are in the world? What do you already know about these issues?
  • What do you think was the author’s opinion or perspective on the big ideas in this text? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • How does making connections to larger issues help you comprehend the text?
Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading motivation, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling readers, reading teachers, collaborative learning

Spark Critical Thinking by Asking Students Essential Questions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 30, 2013 6:00:00 AM

essential questionAs an aspiring educator, I knew exactly what kind of teacher I would be: I would facilitate dynamic discussions; the students would not only read all of the assigned texts, they would devour them. Sure, teaching would be work, but I mostly saw myself as a facilitator—someone who would ask all the right questions and look on as my students marched towards intellectual victory.

You can probably see where this is going. Once I was handed the keys to the classroom, I was surprised when things didn’t magically fall into place like they were supposed to. (Does this sound familiar?)

It wasn’t that things were disastrous, but they just weren’t the way I imagined. Why weren’t students talking? Why weren’t they as excited as I was about what we were reading? Why weren’t they making connections and thinking critically about what they read?

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that I (not the students) was the reason our discussions fell flat. To spark discussions and critical inquiry, I asked my students a lot of questions. Questions are good, but most of the questions I asked students were what we would call nonessential questions.

To give you a clearer sense of what I mean by essential and nonessential questions consider the following examples from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Essential question: “How do the arts shape, as well as reflect, culture?
Nonessential question: “What common artistic symbols were used by the Incas and the Mayans?”

Essential question: “Is there ever a ‘just’ war?
Nonessential question: What key event sparked World War I?”

Essential question: “What does it mean to be a ‘true’ friend?”
Nonessential question: “Who is Maggie’s best friend in the story?”

As you may have noticed, unlike nonessential questions, essential ones are timeless. Some can even be grappled with indefinitely; they are neither immediately apparent nor can they be answered with a fact or a simple yes or no response. Essential questions force us to interrogate our presuppositions, dig in, explain, defend, question and—hopefully—grow.

If you still sketchy on the difference between essential and nonessential questions, here are seven of McTighe and Wiggins’ defining characteristics of a good essential question.

A good essential question:

  • Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, new teacher, new teachers, collaborative learning

Moving Beyond the Right Answer: 4 Critical Thinking Strategies

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Oct 29, 2013 11:03:00 AM

When our students successfully solve a problem or answer a difficult question on the first shot, it’s tempting to offer them praise and move on. Positive reinforcement is an important part of our job, but according to Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, correct answers still leave ample room for teachable moments. One way Lemov challenges students to move beyond the right answer is by asking them to Stretch It.

critical thinkingHere’s how Stretch It works. When a student answers a question correctly, the teacher offers a reward in the form of a different—or tougher—question to ensure that the student is able to get similar results again and again.

Why do this?

First, asking students to Stretch It challenges them to “push ahead, apply their knowledge in new settings and think on their feet.” Second, it sends the message that the reward for achievement is more knowledge, something far more substantive than praise. Third, it gives teachers a real sense for whether or not a student has completely mastered a concept.

Here are four ways teachers can put Lemov’s Stretch It concept into play.

Moving Beyond the Right Answer: 4 Critical Thinking Strategies

Ask how or why
One of the best ways to assess our students’ mastery of a concept is by challenging them to articulate the thinking process—that is, how they came up with the answer. Here’s how you might put this strategy in place.

Teacher: How far is it from Durango to Pueblo?
Student: 600 miles.
Teacher: How’d you get that?
Student: By measuring three inches on the map and adding 200 plus 200 plus 200.
Teacher: How’d you know to use 200 miles for each inch?
Student: I looked at the scale in the map key.

Ask for another way to answer
There are many ways to answer a question. Challenge students to approach problems and concepts from a different angle.

Teacher: How far is it from Durango to Pueblo?
Student: 600 miles.
Teacher: How’d you get that?
Student: By measuring three inches on the map and adding 200 plus 200 plus 200.
Teacher: That’s very good, but I’m curious: Is there an easier way than adding 200 three times?
Student: I could have multiplied 200 times three.
Teacher: What would the answer be then?
Student: 600.
Teacher: Very nice. That’s probably a more efficient way.  

Ask for a better word
Students often begin the mastery process by grappling with concepts in simple, and often vague, language. When appropriate, challenge students to substitute their word choices with more specific ones.

Teacher: Why did the main character gasp, Janice?
Student: Because the water was cold when she jumped in.
Teacher: Can you answer with a different word from cold, one that shows us how cold it was?
Student: “Freezing.”
Teacher: That’s a good one—how about using one of our vocabulary words though?
Student: Sophie gasped because the water was frigid.
Teacher: Very nice!

Ask for evidence
The older our students get, the more we challenge them to interrogate their presuppositions and commonplace answers. A good way to get students to move away from oversimplifying complex issues is by asking them to describe evidence that supports their conclusion. When appropriate, stress the process of building and supporting a sound argument.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, collaborative learning

Chapter Jumble: a three-part activity for reading teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Oct 8, 2013 9:26:00 AM

reading teachersIn our perusal of last month’s Think Teachers magazine, we came across a creative reading exercise called “chapter jumble.” This activity not only shows students a new approach to books, but also helps them build their collaborative learning skills. Here’s how it works.

Chapter Jumble: a three-part activity for reading teachers

1. Select a chapter book that will capture your students’ attention—and make sure that it’s not too long or beyond their reading level.

2. Determine how you will divide your students into groups. Odds are that your students do not all read at the same level, so be sure to evenly distribute stronger readers among groups.

3. Determine how the chapters of the book will be divided (this will make more sense in a minute; keep reading).

Day 1
1. Present the chapter book to your students. Make sure to emphasize its length.

2. Ask students if they think they could read the entire book in a day.

3. Listen to your students’ responses and agree that they’re probably right: It would be tough to read the entire book in a day.

4. In the middle of the discussion, surprise your students by ripping the chapters out of the book.
Or perhaps use an old book to demonstrate the point. Make sure your students see you do this!

5. Your students will be shocked to see you do this. Now ask them if they could read just a few chapters of the book in one day. Lead them to the consensus that this is quite possible.

6. Once students have reached this conclusion, make sure to explain that you took the book apart to illustrate a point: Books are nothing more than a few chapters put together; when students work on a book in small pieces, the task becomes much less overwhelming.
7. Read a random paragraph from a chapter you’ve pulled out of the book and discuss the main idea of it with the class. Be sure to point out characters, context clues, etc.

8. Ask the students to “fill in the gaps,” recreating what they presume was the story leading up to the paragraph you read to them.

Day 2
1. Before class begins, divide students into previously determined groups.
2. Announce that students will work together to read the entire book in only one day!

3. Distribute chapters of the selected book to each group.

4. Explain that while each group reads, students must write down the main plot details in chronological order. They should also write down what they consider to be the three most important parts of the chapter.

5. Before your students get started, remind them that reading and recording is a group task; everyone must contribute.

Day 3
Each group takes time to confer with each other to make sure a final summary of the chapter is complete.

2. Once all groups finish, begin with chapter one. Each group will present their chapter(s). Make sure that each group discusses the plot, characters, setting and theme.

3. After the final group presents, provide a brief summary of the book. Remind students that by working together, seemingly impossible tasks can be accomplished!

Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading motivation, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling readers, reading teachers, collaborative learning

Let David Hunter Help You Zombify Your Entire Curriculum

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Sep 27, 2013 9:56:00 AM

zombie based learningWe haven’t heard you say “uncle” yet, so we’re going to dish out one more way for you to zombify your curriculum (you can read two related posts here and here). Allow us to introduce our latest find: Zombie-Based Learning (ZBL), a standards-based, zombie-infused curriculum designed by geography teacher, David Hunter.

Instead of using textbooks, ZBL substitutes graphic novels and hands-on projects to teach student how they might use geography to survive a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. If you’re wary of the legitimacy of ZBL, you might be pleased to know that it meets the 2012 National Geography Standards and actually uses the geographic concepts and same kinds of thinking that real world geographers use.

Here’s how the Zombie-Based Learning Narrative is structured:

Planning for the Outbreak
News of a zombie-like outbreak has reached your community. You are helping to plan in case the outbreak reaches your area.

Post Outbreak Survival
The outbreak has reached your area and chaos has followed. You use your skills to survive and find other survivors.

Finding a Place to Settle

You meet with other survivors; now you are trying to decide upon a safe place. 

Building a Community

With your group of survivors, you make decisions to build a safe and sustainable community.

Planning for the Future

Based on what you know about geography and your knowledge of the past, your community makes long-term plans for survival and rebuilding.

Should you choose to use ZBL in your own classrooms, you won’t be tracking down resources since everything you’ll need, from graphic novels and handouts to rubrics and in-class activities, is on the ZBL site.



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Tags: Geography, common core standards, zombie lesson plans, collaborative learning

Six Thinking Hats: A collaborative learning strategy that works

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 10, 2013 6:00:00 AM

collaborative learningFor those of you unfamiliar with Edward de Bono, he is the physician and author behind “parallel thinking,” the term used to describe a learning method in which all members of a group collaborate to explore—rather than argue or endlessly debate—a subject.

He writes about this concept in Six Thinking Hats, a book that essentially aims to improve communication and make decision-making in groups more focused and collaborative.

We’ve found his process particularly useful for group work and problem-solving exercises when we are discussing hot or controversial topics. Here’s how it works:

Six Thinking Hats: A collaborative learning strategy that works

First download edgalaxy’s free PDF printout; it has six cards, one for each “hat” of de Bono’s strategy. Then divide students into six different groups, giving each one a card.  

Each of the “six thinking hats” in this method offers a unique way of looking at an issue:

White hat (information): When wearing this hat, students explore the facts of the issue. They may ask questions like:

  • What do we know about this issue?
  • What information is missing?
  • Where can we find this information?

collaborative learningRed hat (feelings): When wearing this hat, the group discusses how they feel about the issue. Does it unsettle them? Engage them? Do they relate to the issue or feel invested in it? Why or why not?

Black hat (judgement): Groups wearing this hat should consider the risks or negative effects of a decision. Logic should guide this group’s reasoning.

Yellow hat (benefits): Members who have this card should consider the positive effects of a decision; logic should also be used to draw conclusions.

Green hat (creativity): This group is responsible for coming up with solutions to “black hat problems.”

Blue hat (thinking): The blue hat group should be thinking about thinking.  In other words, they must consider what type of thinking is needed to understand this issue. Do they need to summarize, compile lists, ask questions, create a timeline?

Thinking hats provide students with a clear focus—which makes grappling with ambiguous topics not only less intimidating, but manageable, making argument and endless discussion a thing of the past.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, collaborative learning

365 ways to teach critical thinking

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 20, 2013 6:00:00 AM

critical thinkingHow many times throughout the course of your teaching career have you said to students, “Come on now, think critically about this?” We’ve lost count, but one thing we never forget is the importance of teaching our students to persuade, to evaluate arguments, to recognize contradictions and identify assumptions (all critical thinking skills).

Thanks to an online resource (and now a book) called 365 Ways to Make You Go “HMMM…,” our students are honing their critical thinking skills—and they don’t even know it.

Every day, you’ll find a new “hmm-provoking” question on the site. We find that this is a fun way to close out the week and if we have enough time at the end of class, we’ll often spend the last five minutes working through one of the questions. Here’s a sample question:

critical thinkingIn which direction is the bus traveling? (The only possible answers are “left” or “right”). Explain your answer.

Here are two of the answers posted by students:

  • It could go left if it was an American bus because they drive on the right-hand side

-Joey in Year 5

  • It is going to the right because English buses have the door on the left-hand side but since you can’t see the door, it is going right.

-Ofili, Millennium Primary School

Each question asks students to be creative; to think about ordinary things is unordinary ways—and this isn’t the only resource you’ll find on the website. Click here to review some of the other great teaching sources they offer.  

If you’re looking for more ways to teach critical thinking skills, check out two of our recent blogs, Dear Elvis, How Do I Teach Critical Thinking? and 2 Lesser-Known Benefits of critical thinking: FUN...and Ice Cream.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, collaborative learning

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