The Concept of Literature Circles
In 1993, Harvey Daniels and a group of 20 teachers originated the wonderful concept of literature circles as a way of making book clubs work in all kinds and levels of classrooms. I highly recommend that you read about it firsthand in Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. The use of role sheets and how sensible they were first attracted me to the literature circle concept. As soon as I began to read Daniels’s book, however, I saw how roles are secondary to student choices. In fact, the section “Eleven Key Ingredients” (p. 18) elaborates on these choices—everything from temporary group arrangements, topics, and the direction of conversation itself to the selection of books to read. In my classes we start with the roles but stay there only long enough to find our way to the issues. I no longer originate the subject to be discussed. It is crucial that students themselves find, explore, and support those issues.
Daniels sets up four basic roles: connector, questioner, literary luminary/passage master, and illustrator. Each group member is responsible for one role. The connector links the reading (or argument) to life, feelings, other works, or ideas. The questioner “is always wondering and analyzing.” The literary luminary looks for “important sections of the text” to “savor, reread, analyze, or share them aloud” (p. 103). The illustrator makes things visual—charts, graphic organizers, stick figures, maps, and sometimes-wonderful drawings from emerging artists. I still have a pointillism drawing of “the creature” from Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage that not only captures Johnson’s idea of the shape-shifting of that character but also continues to open the passage to other students.
A Vertical Team’s Approach to Concepts
At Hillsborough High we teach AP English Language and Composition in the junior year. After looking at the course goals, we decided which concepts we needed to introduce and practice in earlier years. We adjusted our reading lists for each grade level to include nonfiction works, either as part of a study in fiction or in and of itself. For example, in the sophomore year we now talk more about audience, purpose, and topic than we ever have, and we have subconsciously moved from “theme” to “argument and issues.” These adjustments have improved the study of both fiction and nonfiction.
Literature circles play a significant role in our study. Last year, my sophomore honors English class used literature circles throughout the first semester. Although the students do not choose their core reading materials, they do select the ways of focusing on them and the kinds of presentations that demonstrate their knowledge and emerging understanding.
The Study of Reason
Our study of reason began with the Book of Job because it presents seminal ideas about reason, faith, loyalty, and friendship, as well as important images of God, Satan, a good man, friends, and a wife. The Book of Job is a staple not only in studies of poetry and drama but also in discourses about life’s purpose. It raises foundational questions and, therefore, establishes the topics (or so I originally planned, and certainly the students conceded that you couldn’t have Archibald MacLeish’s play J. B. if you hadn’t first had Job). Robert Frost’s short play, A Masque of Reason, offers other perspectives on both the ideas and images raised in Job, and the play J. B. certainly extends the ideas and images. Two articles topped off our study: MacLeish’s own analysis, “About a Trespass on a Monument,” and a 1959 Life magazine article, “Three Opinions on ‘J. B.’” Small-group discussion, whole-class discussions, lists, questions, and essays illustrated what students knew and wanted to know.
The roles of connector and questioner always work well for us in trying to understand reason. We began with a whole-class discussion of the first kinds of questions: What is the Book of Job? How does it work? What is it about—suffering? The students quickly asserted that Job accepts the physical dimension of his suffering but keeps asking for the reason why it is happening, so we developed our first definition for reason as “cause.” We all got a bit frustrated that the three friends, Elihu, and Job himself could not find the answer, while the reader knows from Job 1:12 and 2:6 that God has allowed Satan to render Job alone, homeless, and in pain. We understood that Job curses the day of his birth, but he never curses God. My students felt that this wasn’t reasonable, so we developed our second definition for reason as “logical.” Neither the evidence nor the inferences made sense. The students then wondered whether the topic might be “faith” or “loyalty” rather than “suffering,” so we added those two to our list and set Job aside to see what Frost had to say about the matter.
Other questions arose: Why does Frost take such a satiric stand on the topics, changing the characters and adding humor? We made more lists of possibilities and set those aside to see what spin MacLeish might bring. Is his play just a modern version of the Book of Job? What reason would he have to do that? We now had three professionals—the biblical author, Frost, and MacLeish—exploring reason and offering not only different views of it conceptually but also different discussions of it substantively. MacLeish’s play, in fact, had been so controversial that Life had published its article with three analytical perspectives from leading theologians, and MacLeish himself wrote his essay with its personal, seductive defense.
We needed more analytical methods to improve our discussion. Enter Harvey Daniels’s encouragement to feel free to invent new roles, even offering such varying examples created by other teachers as cartographer, historian, and biosystem leader. We found this shift to be lively, productive, and easy.
Role-Playing That Worked
My students had long since internalized the basic roles of connector, questioner, illustrator, and literary luminary. They decided we needed two of the optional roles, summarizer and researcher, and together we created three new roles of issues seeker, pro thinker, and con thinker. A discussion clarified that the pro/con thinkers were both summarizers and creators of arguments. They could see what the articles were proposing, and they could come up with their own positions on the articles. With nine roles for groups of four, each student played two or three roles; once internalized, some roles are so natural that they do them automatically. The directions are simple: read the articles through the roles, take some notes, and come prepared to talk about it. I deliberately do not define “it.”
Our 90-minute class periods were indeed exciting demonstrations of understanding three works, two articles, and one’s own ideas. I moved around the room, stopping and taking notes, sometimes chatting with groups. Every group was actively engaged, talking with depth and evidence, using reason itself to get at “reason.”
The first 10–15 minutes of the discussions were a “finding our way” time in which the students determined central points for discussion. Some of the groups wanted a prompt. I reiterated that the cool thing was finding the prompt. As I circulated, I saw the summarizer role kick in with, “Well, this article was about …” The researcher quickly helped by bringing forth pictures and notes. For example, in Jesse’s group, Neel began, “I researched Hiroshima because I didn’t get it in class,” and that group was off to see what Hiroshima had to do with things, especially since they now knew that MacLeish’s brother was killed in World War I. Author, purpose, topic, and audience came together in significant ways. The issues seeker then took over most groups, with the pro thinker and the con thinker beginning to argue noisily about their personal positions. Interestingly, in some groups the summarizer actually missed ideas and topics that the issues seeker and pro/con thinkers picked up. I thought I would see overlap, but I didn’t. When the students chose their roles, they chose the way they naturally saw things, and that pattern meant different foci and details.
One group focused on “just” as the center of all the works, moving from suffering to justice and justification. Another group, caught up in the circus/actor metaphor, downloaded a copy of MacLeish’s poem, “The End of the World,” because one article had suggested how much that poem affected the play. I had that poem in my folder and was glad that I had given the students time to find it on their own, to follow a thread of research, and to set up their own analysis and connections. The illustrator and researcher in that group brought in pictures of different play productions, online discussions about the circus, and masks. The use of literature circles encouraged going beyond the assigned reading and finding additional sources.
Different Approaches to a Similar Idea
Two groups in particular represented very different ways of discussing similar issues. The first pair, Jon and James, was theoretical and philosophical from the beginning, and the second, a group of four steered by Crimson, stayed closer to the sources. Both discussions considered the idea of “interpretation” and how it belongs to the author and the reader.
Jon and James independently moved through four issues: acceptance, interpretation, questioning, and love. Even the brief segment of their dialogue (shown below) shows their extended and interactive search. In addition to the Book of Job and the play J. B., they referred to Reinhold Niebuhr’s article, “Modern Answers to an Enigma.”
Jon: “MacLeish went right at the idea: accept whatever we have. I saw that’s a flaw in Job.”
James: “But that was basically MacLeish’s interpretation of J. B. This guy [in the article by Niebuhr] really supports it.”
James then synthesized Job, J. B., and Niebuhr’s “Modern Answers to an Enigma,” and connected them to the reader.
Jon: “But what’s your interpretation of it?” The group moved to the issue of questioning.
James insisted, “God can’t make mistakes,” and asked, “Can we rationalize anything about God?”
Jon: “Should Job have tried to look for a reason in the first place?”
James took the discussion up a notch in his conclusion that Job “asks questions [to] learn about himself.” James theorized that the reader himself is important and that when you read you “take the same journey within yourself.” He addressed the huge issue of “Why read literature?” and asserted that it is the function of literature to “cause you to question.”
Jon then shifted the topic to the role of love in J. B., a point that MacLeish emphasized in his own article, and concluded, “Love and reason [equal] nothing... Love doesn’t do anything for you to understand the play.” Jon began with a quote from MacLeish and moved to his own understanding that “It’s about dealing with what you have. We should value love.”
James returned to his understanding of the levels involved in interpreting these ideas, cautioning, “We’re talking about the opinions about J. B., not J. B. itself.”
The second group represented an emerging ability to work independently. They began by waiting for me to come to their group and get them started. Since I did not want to give them a topic per se, I suggested that “titles are always interesting,” and the conversation began. The group discussed J. B., the Frost play, the Niebuhr article, and Thurston N. Davis’s article, “Arid Repudiation of Religion.”
Keyana pointed to the Davis article and summarized: “So he’s saying that J. B. is lacking religion.”
Crimson reexamined the basic question: “MacLeish himself explained his play thoroughly. Finkelstein is the only person who can reach anywhere near MacLeish in the idea of people asking, ‘Why? Why me?’” Then there was silence, so I again encouraged them to consider the huge idea embedded in the title word, “enigma” [from Niebuhr, “Modern Answers to an Enigma”].
Vicki: “Niebuhr’s article says the modern answers are in J. B.”
Crimson: “Yes, and you never figure it [enigma] out unless you analyze everything deeply.”
Vicki: “So ‘enigma’ doesn’t have any answers either?”
Crimson considered the question and moved to the Frost play: “That’s the idea that we question. When you look at Robert Frost’s work... ”
These two groups represent quite different approaches to the task, each one successful in varying ways. Their understanding of the materials allowed them to question huge ideas on several levels. That synthesis probably wouldn’t have happened without the reading skills developed through Daniels’s literature circle roles—the power of making choices about issues, interpretations, and extensions; and the freedom of exploration. These discussions brought the study of reason to a culminating point. The students realized that all professional writers are thoughtful and implicit in their consideration of major issues. The students also realized—perhaps more importantly—how they could use a professional approach to understanding both fiction and nonfiction.
The Book of Job. Holy Bible (Old Testament).
Daniels, Harvey. 2001. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. 2nd ed. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
Frost, Robert. 1995. A Masque of Reason. In Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. New York: Library of America.
Johnson, Charles. 1998. Middle Passage. New York: Scribner.
MacLeish, Archibald. 1995. “About a Trespass on a Monument.” In Biblical Images in Literature, ed. Roland Bartel, James S. Ackerman, and Thayer S. Warshaw. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press. Originally published in the New York Times, Dec. 7, 1958, section 2, pp. 5, 7.
MacLeish, Archibald. 1989. J. B. Boston: Mariner Books.
“Three Opinions on J. B.” (Comprised of “Arid Repudiation of Religion” by Thurston N. Davis, “Insight Into Our Deep Need” by Louis Finkelstein, and “Modern Answers to an Enigma” by Reinhold Niebuhr). Life, May 18, 1959.