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

The Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy: A 3-Step Guide for Reading Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 1, 2014 1:07:00 PM


If you’re looking to equip your students with a set of reading strategies that will teach them to take charge of their reading experience and approach texts with a purpose in mind, you might find Dorothy Grant Hennings’s three-step reading strategy useful. While this strategy will be especially useful for secondary students who are preparing for college, Hennings’s Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy can certainly be adapted for use with younger readers.

The Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy: A 3-Step Guide for Reading Teachers

Step 1: Preview before reading
The first step in reading is to preview the selection you are going to read. Why? So that you can find your bearings and gain a general sense of what the selection is about before diving straight in.

There are a few questions you should keep in mind as you preview a selection:

  • What is the topic of this selection? In other words, what is this selection about?
  • How has the author organized his or her ideas on the topic?

To answer these two questions, read and think about:

  • The title. Titles often contain clues about the topic
  • The author. Generally speaking, authors stick to one area—fiction, history, biology, etc.—and if you know something about the author, you can find more clues about the topic
  • The headings. Is the text divided into sections by headings? If so, you may find more clues about subtopics and learn more about how the text has been organized
  • Terms that are repeated at the beginnings of paragraphs or words that are italicized or bolded. Words that are italicized, bolded, or repeated are important to the author. Pay attention to them!
  • The introductory and concluding paragraphs. These paragraphs will tell you more about what the selection is going to be about and what the author thinks about the topic.
  • The illustrations. Do you see any photos, graphs, maps, drawings? These may help you figure out the major focus of a selection
  • The margin notes or footnotes. These sections often contain definitions of key terms, which give you clues about what the selection is about

Step 2: Think about what you already know
Now that you’ve previewed the text and gathered clues, ask yourself, “What do I already know about this topic?” To answer this question, visualize, or picture, things that are discussed in the selection and connect them to things you already know something about. It may be helpful to jot down words or sketch out images that come to your mind about the topic.

Step 3: Setting your purpose for reading
Are you reading for pleasure? Are you reading for a particular course? Before diving into the selection, think about what you expect to learn from reading this piece. If you’re reading for pleasure, you probably already know what you hope to get from the text before reading. But if you’re working with an assigned reading, it’s likely that the instructor expects you to use these texts to learn more about a subject to prepare for a test.

Photo credit: RLHyde / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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Tags: critical reading, critical thinking strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading ability

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

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

5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 16, 2013 12:12:00 PM

group workUnlike a traditional lecture in which information is delivered, group work and open discussions invite a myriad of perspectives and remove the teacher from the stage—which means that things can quickly derail if the instructor is not attentive, responsive and flexible. 

While running group work and open discussions can be challenging, we believe that both can help students learn more about themselves, their peers and their world than they could from hearing a lecture.

While we can’t promise that these 5 tips from Steven A. Schiola’s book Making Group Work Easy will make classroom facilitation simple, we do believe that they will at least get you started.

5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Effective classroom facilitators are deep listeners
Deep listening involves much more than simply hearing what’s going on around you. First, deep listeners are fully present; they aren’t simply catching the gist of what the speaker is saying. They are connected both in body and mind. Second, deep listeners listen in order to completely understand the other person’s point. Third, deep listeners reflect back what they have heard to demonstrate that they understand. Fourth, deep listeners ask clarifying questions. Lastly, deep listeners hear undiscovered ideas—or those that are implied, but left unsaid—by the speaker.

Effective classroom facilitators read nonverbal cues
Before we dive into open discussions, we often like to place our students in groups where we give them a series of tasks that they must complete together. Once each group has finished, we come back together as a class and discuss our conclusions on the topic. As students work together, there are several nonverbal cues we are looking for:

  • What does each group sound like? A low murmur usually indicates that students are engaged and on task. When the volume begins to rise, usually students are wrapping up or finished with their tasks.
  • What does each student look like? Is each member of the group engaged? Is one student doing too much? Do students fully understand instructions? Are they stuck?

Effective classroom facilitators ask clarifying questions
Successful classroom facilitation does require intuition, but it doesn’t rely on it. Intuition will tell us when students are confused or uneasy with a topic, but clarifying questions will confirm it. If students seem bored, uneasy or confused, say something like, “I’m getting the sense that some of you are feeling uneasy about this topic. How do you feel about this topic?”

Avoid making assumptions on observations alone; you may be misreading your students. Posing a clarifying question will help: “I’m seeing that a number of you are kind of slouched in your seats and looking around. How are you are feeling _____?”

Notice how both of these questions are open-ended: They require students to respond and clarify.

Effective classroom facilitators are flexible
When you invite new perspectives, chances are that your students are going to unearth new information and lead you in a different direction than you originally planned. Effective facilitators always have a plan, but they are never afraid to temporarily abandon it to see where detours lead the group. Often what seems like a detour or a dead end ultimately leads back to the plan or to more enlightening destinations than you would have anticipated on your own.

Effective facilitators are humble and know that a successful outcome is about the group
Remember that you are there to facilitate, not do all of the work for your students. It may be tempting to give your students the answers or resolve the conflict for them, but that’s not the facilitator’s job. Your task is to guide, challenge and redirect students so that they have to work together to solve the problem. Your students may become frustrated when you refuse to give your opinion or give away the “answers.” But we believe that it’s when students struggle that they learn the most about themselves and each other.

If you’re looking for further reading on seminar-style classes, we highly recommend Michael Kahn’s article, “The Seminar.” You can find it by clicking here.


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

5 reasons you should consider using classroom blogs

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Apr 29, 2013 9:27:00 AM

classroom blogsDespite the fact that blogs have been around since the 90s, classroom blogs are a relatively new phenomenon and one, we might add, that we fully endorse. If you’re skeptical about the benefits of classroom blogs or simply don’t know where to start, read on.

A blog is nothing more than an online journal where writers—both new and experienced—can share their thoughts, post pictures or music, and connect with readers. We can think of a handful of sites that will host your classroom blog for free, but we suggest stopping by Richard Byrne’s site; he’s written an excellent article that will help you pick the best platform. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’d like to talk about the benefits of classroom blogs.

5 reasons you should consider using classroom blogs

Classroom blogs encourage writing across the curriculum
“Writing across the curriculum,” is a pedagogical movement that began in the 80s, but the last time we checked, it’s still going strong. No longer are students simply writing in their English courses; they’re also writing in history, science, and even in their math and gym classes. Classroom blogs are a great way to meet federal and state mandated literacy standards while still allowing students to get creative with their content.

Classroom blogs are a liberating change for students
Blog posts are typically informal, short (500 words and less) and, generally speaking, you’ll find lots of paragraph breaks, bullet points, headlines, and even pictures. It’s not often that students get to use any of these things in their own work. Chances are that they’ll find blogging to be a nice change of pace from the traditional writing parameters they’re used to working within.

Classroom blogs expose students to a potential career path
One of our colleagues recently told us about a student who allegedly “hated writing.” Several weeks into the school year, she learned that this student—the same one who “hated writing”—actually wrote for several well-respected mountain biking blogs. In fact, he had worked out a partnership with a few parts manufacturers who regularly sent him bike seats, tires, helmets, and luggage carriers to review. He would try out the product for a month and then write a review for the company. Not only was he paid for his reviews, he got to keep the parts!

This student is certainly unique, but there are lots of people—apparently even people who “hate writing”—who make a sustainable living at blogging. You never know, but exposing your students to this medium just may open up a future career for them.  

Classroom blogs making writing authentic
Ask your students about the purpose of their writing or their intended audience. Most likely, they’ll say, “I don’t know” and “You’re the audience.” These are fair answers. Most of our students write because they have to. And while we can ask them to write to a hypothetical audience, they know darn well that we’re the audience.

Classroom blogs make writing authentic. Instead of writing to you, students will be writing to an audience of (at least potentially) millions of Internet browsers.

Classroom blogs are a simple way to connect with parents
continue to underscore what common sense has always told us: Parental involvement (or lack of) impacts student success. Classroom blogs are quite possibly the easiest way to keep parents engaged and up-to-date on what’s going on in the classroom. They’ll also enjoy commenting on your students’ posts and sharing them with others.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, classroom blogs, writing strategies, Writing, writing skills, technology in the classroom

Dear Elvis, How Do I Teach Critical Thinking?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Apr 18, 2013 9:30:00 AM

critical thinkingLast week we read an article in the Huffington Post suggesting that 93 percent of employers agree that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." This wasn’t particularly surprising to us, but it did inspire us to share an activity that will help your students hone their critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills; it’s called the “Dear Elvis Advice Column” and it comes from our friend, Nothy Lane.

Dear Elvis, How Do I Teach Critical Thinking?

Here’s how the activity works: The class is presented with a question from a hypothetical advice seeker named Elvis (Nothy’s basset hound); the problem is that this canine is too busy to answer all of the letters he receives—that’s where Nothy’s students come in.

After she writes the question on the board, students work in groups to read and generate realistic responses to the anonymous advice solicitors.

Here is on example of a letter to Elvis that her students answer:

critical thinking

"Dear Elvis,
My kids wanted a dog, but I thought they were too irresponsible to take care of one. They insisted they would feed and walk the dog if I got them one. Now we have Spot and I am the one who does all the work. How do I get my kids to live up to their word?"

In addition to being engaging and fun, this activity supports persuasive writing, creativity, and critical thinking (because students get to work in groups and give advice rather than listen to it). Nothy has also found that this activity is a fun way to “teach them - and let them teach me…to examine an issue from different sides. Is someone right or wrong? Is this just an unfortunate event? Should the advice seeker get help or work things out himself?

When they finish, students take turns reading their answers aloud. Following this, the entire class discusses which answers they like and why. You may be surprised at how purposeful and considerate their answers are.


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