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Learning in Circles

Posted on March 8, 2010 at 7:53 PM

The following is a hypothetical conversation that will no doubt occur in some fashion in many good schools, where teachers are focusing on strengthening adolescent literacy to help students meet the growing communication demands of our information-based society. Although the speaking characters in this script are fictional, resemblance to actual teachers is, fortunately, inevitable.

Place: A middle school faculty dining room

Time: A few quiet moments between morning and afternoon classes

Date: Not quite winter, but showing signs of it

Mary opened the microwave cautiously, leaning away from the rising steam escaping the door. "So the plan is to pilot these readings and questions in your classes, and then what?" Having burned her fingers once already this week on a smiliar little black tray, she gingerly cradled the edges of the dish and walked toward the table.

"Then, optimistically, I'll see an improvement in both their reading comprehension and their collaborative skills. The inner circle of students opens up true dialogue; they challenge each other's comments and interpretations." Bill tore off a paper towel, wiped the knife and the countertop, and took his orange and sat opposite her at the table. "And the outer circle listens quietly and then provides feedback on the group's reading behaviors and interactions."

The teacher he sat next to looked up from her salad, smiled hello, and then asked, "Are you talking about those reading circles? I see some of your kids out in the corridor, sitting knee to knee, having great fun arguing about the roles they're playing, the responsibilities they're supposed to be 'fulfilling' - but what are they reading?"

"That's a different model, Helen. Harvey Daniels' book, Literature Circles, published by Stenhouse, describes that model, and I have a copy if you want to borrow it. I've used that model for a few years now. And yes, they do a lot of wrangling about their roles, which is why I separate the groups and give them space. Daniels suggests having one student identifying vocabulary, one choosing passages with interesting or memorable language, one making connections between the literature and the students' own lives, one illustrating a passage and inviting speculation about the elements in the illustration, and one working as a facilitator of the group's discussion - that's the coveted role for many of them! I have them exchange roles as they move through the beginning, middle, and end of a book. The books they're reading are titles they've selected from the old sets of novels we used to read in the 90s: Paulsen's Hatchet, O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. We still have multiple copies of so many good books. The kids are grouped with students who've chosen the same title. They do eventually get past the roles and discuss the specific interpretations and perspectives that they've brought to the group, and they can be pretty creative in later putting on skits to entice the other groups to try their book next.

"But Mary and I were talking today about another type of circle. I joined a summer workshop this year and read Matt Copeland's book, Socratic Circles, also published by Stenhouse. Copeland refers to the work that Mortimer Adler had done more than twenty years ago; do you remember the Paideia Proposal? Adler modeled seminars, using Socratic questioning, to bring students to 'enlarge their understanding' of ideas and values. We used some of the Great Books selections in that effort. I remember the district purchasing multiple copies of classic literature. We didn't know then that those were the financial 'good-old days' - but apparently they were.

"Copeland suggests using shorter reading selections to allow for more frequent dialogue and more frequent practice of collaborative behaviors. The model that he recommends divides the class into two groups, which he calls the inner and outer circles.The circles carry out two different roles; midway through the session, they switch roles. He chooses readings that invite the kids to make connections to their own lives and to find some deeper meaning that they can continue to talk about and build on throughout the year."

"What kind of short readings? Are they things you have to go looking for outside of your curriculum?" asked Jim, beginning to pack up his thermos. "Or is this something the English department will supply for you?"

"This is a model that a teacher in any department can use," said Bill, eating the last slice of his orange. "Copeland gives a great list of ideas for many content areas in his book. It's very easy to find appropriate pieces on the Internet, and many of the old classics are in public domain."

The room was quiet for a moment as teachers glanced at the clock and realized that their afternoon sessions would begin soon. The noise of lunch-bag zippers and chairs scraping against the floor drew Bill's attention, and he began to stand.

But Helen spoke up again, and asked,"How do you know which pieces are in public domain? I read a lot of science articles, but I'd be nervous about reprinting any of them."

"I'd be careful about reproducing anything new without asking permission from the publication. Ken was in the summer workshop, too, and he searched copyright law on line to find the answer to that question; he found good information on 'Fair Use' for educators. He can do a better job of explaining the law than I can; I'm sure it will come up at the faculty meeting next week. Still, a lot of material is available. Don't be afraid to read down to the copyright note of an article; you might find that it says, 'May be used for educational, non-profit purposes.'" Bill stood and wiped the table in front of him.

Mary looked up and asked, "You didn't get a chance to answer my question, Bill, 'What next?' You sound enthusiastic about these circles - both types, Literature and Socratic. But will you have time to use both in your classroom? I know we're heading into the depths of winter, and kids spend more time reading on these long dark nights, free of sports activities, but in the classroom, won't you have to back off and return to your curriculum's scope and sequence, given the state testing that will come with spring?" She lifted the now-cold black plastic tray and dropped it into the trash can, returning to the table to pick up the stack of math tests still awaiting correction.

"The Socratic circles can happen within half an hour, which is one way that they differ from the more formal Socratic or Paideia seminars. And the pieces I chose for my students relate to my scope and sequence, and to the theme we've chosen this year. The rich dialogue and respect for each other's perspectives, and the collaborative behaviors that the kids are building are an important part of the larger picture of their education. And the Literature circles - they build enjoyment and appreciation of what groups can bring to each other - that's time well spent, and much of that time happens outside of class time, on those long winter nights of reading and responding in a focused role. It's nice to anticipate that they'll rediscover a love of reading and that those warmer afternoons in spring and fall could find them reading outside, truly a wireless activity. I'm going to keep both models going this year. 'Adolescent Literacy 'is the buzzword in educational literature right now, and the current research reaffirms that reading more extends a student's general fund of knowledge, which in turn opens the door to deeper understandings. I'd like to trust that with today's emphasis on literacy; we may be entering a period in which money will again be allocated for extending classroom libraries, bringing in multi-genre and multi-level accessible text, so that teachers in all content areas can use these circles."

They walked into the energetic flow of students exiting the cafeteria and knew that their discussion would have to continue on another day. As they rounded the corner into a quieter corridor,they heard quick footsteps approaching from behind. Bill turned and saw Agnes, the school's long-time media specialist and librarian extraordinaire, moving at her usual break-neck pace, still carrying her unfinished tea in one hand, a novel in the other, and he smiled and held the corridor door open for her.

"Charles Dickens is responsible for instigating copyright law here in America," Agnes offered to the pair."He was justifiably annoyed that work he had produced in England was being reprinted here without any financial benefit for him." She smiled up at them and added, "I wonder whether you might find that story in public domain somewhere, and share it with your students?"

By Terry Palardy, with fond memories of Annetta. Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 2006



Categories: teaching, collaboration

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Reply Terry
7:32 PM on May 15, 2010 
Sands says...
I have never considered using fictional writing in socratic circles. I like this idea. Do you think that using an essay that a student in the class wrote would work in a socratic circle?

If the author of the essay is a confident student, willing to share ideas and be receptive to others' perspectives, I think it would benefit both the author and his/her classmates ... particularly if the essay is related to the class content. Great suggestion - go for it!
Reply Sands
10:33 AM on May 15, 2010 
I have never considered using fictional writing in socratic circles. I like this idea. Do you think that using an essay that a student in the class wrote would work in a socratic circle?
Reply Mary Lyman
3:06 PM on March 23, 2010 
I love remembering Annetta!
Reply Terry
9:38 PM on March 12, 2010 
Agreed. I wondered aloud today, with my classes, as I have in the past, how different our attitudes and respect for various technologies would be had the sequence of development been different. If we had evolved from the telegraph and telegrams in Morse Code to Ham Radio transmissions of that same Morse Code, and then to binary language and eventual email, still involving digital entering of data for messages, and then later developed the telephone, with its real time communication and actual voice contact, how differently we might feel about speedy texting, perhaps keeping the rich literacy evident in the eloquent writings and oratory of earlier, less hurried generations
Reply Trish
2:44 AM on March 9, 2010 
I hope, and expect, that the focus will remain on Adolescent Literacy as central to curriculum development, and that it doesn't get lost in the shifting changes of buzzwords that come and go. While it is true that technology is shaping much of society, there is much to be lost if students do not develop an ability and desire to absorb information from "old" sources. Not everything can be transferred through digital data.