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Literature Circles - Are Role Sheets a Necessary Evil?

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In a recent article for Edutopia – (Almost) Paperless Literature Circles – I wrote about how I facilitated this process as a fourth grade teacher.

The Problem

An earlier draft of this article focused primarily on the predetermined jobs/role sheets students completed on a weekly basis: connector, passage picker, wonderer, predictor, etc. Upon reviewing this version, one of my colleagues – Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5) – encouraged me to revise my writing to deemphasize teacher-specified roles, asserting that “ideal” literature circles do not include them. To substantiate her claim, she pointed me in the direction of Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels, which at the time was an unread book sitting on my bookshelf.

The Solution

As a result of Erin’s contributions, I amended my article to contain two quotes from the book:

  1. “As Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels explain, when used improperly ‘these role sheets quickly become mechanical, hindering rather than empowering lively, spontaneous book talk.’” (in regards to making sure the jobs were used as conversation starters for student meetings, but not as the conversation itself)
  2. “If I were to return to the classroom and revise this [literature circle] process, it would be interesting to do away with the jobs and role sheets altogether and have the students ‘take full responsibility for capturing their during-reading responses using Post-its, text annotations, bookmarks, and journals.’”

Erin, Harvey, and Daniels are correct. Ideally, literature circles would not involve role sheets (or they should be heavily deemphasized). After all, in the “real world,” nobody says, “This time while I’m reading I am going to focus on predicting.” Nevertheless, when starting literature circles, I believe these jobs are a necessary evil for two reasons:

  1. The open-ended nature of literature circles can be intimidating for all parties involved. Role sheets help to provide a comfortable starting point and structure for teachers who are not used to promoting inquiry, “letting go,” and running a classroom in which multiple student-centered groups meet simultaneously. At the same time, teacher-specified jobs can provide scaffolding for students who are not accustomed to engaging in inquiry and meeting in groups to facilitate open-ended collaboration.
  2. Reading comprehension instruction generally calls for explicit strategies, which are typically first taught in isolation. Then, the ultimate goal is for students to be able to read independently while almost subconsciously using the appropriate strategy/strategies when applicable to assist in deepening their understanding of text. So, if it is common practice to initially teach these strategies in isolation, I don’t see a reason why we can’t do the same for role sheets. After all, they serve a similar purpose, as they are both vehicles that promote comprehension, but they do not represent comprehension in and of itself. For example, generating inferences in isolation does not necessarily demonstrate a deeper understanding, but the conversation/writing that follows the inferences just might.

Once again, both of these reasons justify the use of jobs/role sheets when starting literature circles. As stated in my Edutopia article, the eventual goal should be “for students to collaborate through the use of their own ‘thick’ questions and without assistance from the teacher, outside resources, jobs, or role sheets.”

In the End

Here are two lessons I learned from writing (Almost) Paperless Literature Circles:

  1. We always have room to improve upon our practice. In writing about how I facilitated literature circles I was forced to reflect upon my teaching. In doing so, I found some “holes,” one of them being a lack of urgency when it came to doing away with role sheets altogether.
  2. Whenever you write/blog, ask for feedback before publishing. I put this idea into action about six months ago, and I believe my work has noticeably improved since then. Receiving constructive feedback is not always easy, but we have to intentionally put ourselves into positions to grow.

What are your thoughts on role sheets? What unique ideas do you have for literature circles? Do you ask for feedback before publishing?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.

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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Thursday, 19 April 2018