“Aww….,” groaned Nina’s third graders. She had just given the signal to end literature circle discussions. I completely understand why the third graders were so reluctant to stop. I had spent the past 45 minutes dipping into each of the four groups. All of the groups were deeply engrossed in lively discussions about their books. There were debates, giggles, a shed tear or two, furious scribbling in reading response journals, and an occasional trip to the classroom library to get another book that might help make a point. The students in this class truly understand how to be a literature circle participant.
Nine months earlier, at a post conference after the third meeting of the literature circles, the situation had been quite different. “They’ll never be able to do it!” Nina complained. “I think I need to do a whole class novel.” I pointed out to her that her class from the previous year had eventually done a great job with literature discussion once they got going. “But those kids were so much more cooperative. They were self starters and independent,” replied Nina.
I had to admit that it wasn’t going very well. The students were noisy and distracted. Some of them had not read the assigned chapter. A couple of them didn’t even have their books. The students who were talking about the chapter engaged in behaviors such as interrupting the speaker, talking over each other, and looking through their books when someone was speaking instead of giving the speaker their full attention. No, it wasn’t pretty. However, it was also not completely atypical behavior for students who were just learning how literature circles work. I knew it would eventually get better. As a matter of fact, the previous class of students – you know, the responsible, independent class – had started out pretty much the same way.
Now, as the end of the school year approached, we had indeed gotten to “better.” After all of the several fishbowl demonstrations, co-creation of anchor charts, mini lessons, self assessments, and teacher-as-participant sessions, the original state of chaos was an almost forgotten memory of the distant past. But as I looked ahead to the upcoming school year, I knew that Nina was very likely to experience similar frustrations in launching literature discussion groups with her new third graders. She would probably have difficulty recalling how good it would be … eventually.
So I decided to take “after pictures.” We’ve all seen a dieter’s before and after pictures. In the before picture, in addition to be pounds heavier than she’d like to be, the dieter is also wearing an unflattering outfit – probably too tight, with poorly applied makeup and a bad haircut. In the after picture, her clothing is stunning – maybe even a bathing suit! She has a cute haircut and nicely applied makeup. Nina’s class had dropped the unwanted pounds; gotten the great outfit, makeup, and haircut; and was now ready for their “after picture.”
Tomorrow, I’m going to take those after pictures of Nina’s literature circles. I’ll bring my iPad, visit each group, and video-record their literature discussions. Maybe I’ll solicit some volunteers to stay in and chat with me during recess. I’ll ask them if they remembered what it was like to start literature circle discussions. I’ll ask them what they’ve learned. I’ll ask them to give advice to next year’s students about participating in literature circles.
Then, in the fall, when Nina is convinced that this class of students will never be able to have successful literature discussions, I’ll open my computer and show her the footage. She’ll probably just say that these students were more cooperative and independent than her current class. So at the beginning of the next school year, I’ll have to make sure to get some “before” footage, too.
In the summer you are probably basking in the glory of your “after picture” phase. Your students have internalized all of the ritual and routines of the classroom. By the end of the year, they move effortlessly through transitions. You rarely have to remind anyone what to bring to a writing conference or where to put checked-in classroom library books. Your writing workshop, Daily Five rotations, literature circles, or literacy work stations run like clockwork. Just remember this fall to get your before “snapshots,” as a baseline reminder that the “after” will come. It always does.