Enhancing Literature Circles with Blogging (from the Marshall Memo)

(Originally titled “The Virtual Circle”)
In this Educational Leadership article, Massachusetts teacher Stacy Kitsis describes how she improved her high-school literature circles with online discussion groups. Previously, she had students choose books from a list of titles thematically related to the curriculum, assigned them to small groups, and had students read their books in literature circles about once a week, taking 3-4 weeks on each book. The downside, she says, was that conversations within the groups frequently stalled, even when students liked their books.
In her new approach, literature circles continued to meet once a week, with students posting comments on a class blog in between. Kitsis provided prompts (for example, Talk about a moment that stood out for you), quickly approved entries, and added comments. At first, she required that every student contribute one comment a week, limited to 200 words, and provided a rubric on ideas and topic development, evidence from the text, style and voice, mechanics, and contributions to the group. Themes emerged from exchanges and students incorporated them into final products presented to the whole class.
Kitsis reports that blogging increased the level of student involvement inside and outside class and provided rapid responses to comments without putting undue strain on her. “In my classes,” she says, “I saw students who almost never turned in traditional homework regularly contribute to the blog.” Blog entries helped students get past the stilted silence to substantive discussions. Comments ranged from simple clarifications (openly admitting confusion), predictions, connections, evaluations, and challenges of others’ ideas. Students who had been superficial before were forced to expand their contributions, and students who had never interacted with each other found themselves engaging in give-and-take online. Some groups got so involved in a book that they continued blogging after final assignments were handed in.
The system helped the teacher, too. “The virtual environment enabled me to listen in on multiple conversations without missing a word and without changing the dynamic with my presence,” says Kitsis. “Because students interacted and got feedback from their peers throughout the discussion, they needed less feedback from me.” Her role was supplying prompts, monitoring the online discussion, and visiting groups when they met during class time to share reactions, point out significant comments, give background information, and prod students to dig deeper.
The system was also paper-free. “I happily abandoned the messy stacks of spiralbound reading journals, often containing weeks of assignments that students completed in one furious sprint the night before they were collected,” says Kitsis. At first, she printed out posts and used the rubric to comment, but eventually she just gave a “check,” “check-plus,” or “check-minus” in her grade book.

Assessing the new system and looking at the final blog, Kitsis learned a great deal:
- Which prompts worked best, which books needed to be removed from the book list, and where students most commonly got confused;
- How to pace the work to accommodate students with limited Internet access;
- Deciding on alternative assignments for students who preferred not to share their ideas online;