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Virtual Circles: Using Technology to Enhance
Literature Circles & Socratic Seminars

Johnny Walters

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Book Choice

In Carlesen and Sherrill's (1988) Voices of Readers: How We Came to Love Books, there is a study which charts the types of activities that are most likely to produce readers. Not surprisingly, one of the most important experiences is the allowing of individual freedom of choice in the books they read. I have found, however, that freedom alone hasn't always helped my students become better readers; so for this study I chose one of my personal favorites, Holes by Louis Sachar (1998). Perhaps this was not the best choice for a book, because my project was so successful in generating reader response both on-line and during the seminars that I can't be sure it was a result of the seminar techniques or the wonderful book.

Set Up

First, I set up a Zoomerang survey (, Appendix C) that I hoped would give me good student feedback on prevailing attitudes about reading in general, and my literature circles in particular. I asked each student to respond to the questions before we began the book. I also asked each student to complete an exit survey so I could observe any growth they may have achieved.

Next, I created a handout for a reading schedule that began on Friday, April 12, and ended Monday, April 22. Students were to read roughly twenty pages in class every day, except for Wednesday, April 17, the first "practice" seminar, and twenty pages for homework each night. On the exception day, Wednesday, I planned to go over the requirements and expectations I tailored specifically for our seminar on Holes, preparing the students for the second, and final seminar to be held Tuesday, April 23 (Appendix A).

Third, I created my on-line discussion board and posted the first question. I tried to upload the link onto my Web-folio so that students could easily access it from there, but I reconsidered when I realized that both links were just as difficult to type in. I ended up copying the link onto a document page and telling the students to type in the address to the minute dot and hyphen, to ensure they arrived at the intended Web destination. This method worked well.

Fourth, I created a status-of-the-class keeper, on which I kept track of where the students were in their reading. Although I intended to check this daily, I ended up checking only five times.

Fifth, I created a roster for each student to inform me which homeroom they were in. This was important because it was during homeroom that the students who didn't have access to the Internet at home were to complete their on-line responses. Students signed this roster and informed me of the name of their homeroom teacher, whom I then contacted and secured permission for the students to go to the computer lab and work.

Sixth, I readied things for the Socratic seminar. I created a seminar guide, a question guide, a point keeper with both positive and negative points, and an exit ticket . (I posted the entrance ticket questions on the discussion board, and would have liked to have done the same with the exit ticket; time restraints, however, made the old-fashioned paper exit ticket quite useful.)

Seventh, I created a handout with different ideas for different types of learners (Most of these ideas I borrowed from a teaching strategy book called Instruction for All Students, by Paula Rutherford [1998] .) The presentations themselves would be done in front of the class in a forum called a "Know Show," taken from the idea that as an alternative means of assessment, a project needs to show what the learner has learned about the material. Thus, students will show what they know.

Student Response

My project consisted of students with average to low reading and writing skills. All AIG (Academically/Intellectually Gifted) students are sifted out of the regular language arts classrooms, leaving the students who really do need to enhance their reading and writing skills. Although the study was originally to consist of eighteen students, one student went in for heart surgery, leaving seventeen. Another student was away on vacation to Mexico for the first week of the project; this left him considerably behind, though not out of the game. When he returned, he was very excited about the unit. This small number is a statistician's nightmare, and it certainly does need to be expanded to larger sample size; but I am confident the range of students' skills is a fair representation of my overall student population.

student working on an AlphaSmartsI introduced the students to the unit by taking them to the computer lab, where they completed the on-line Zoomerang survey (Appendix C). The responses they gave confirmed some of my suspicions. First, although 39% of my students claimed they enjoyed reading on their own, 33% said they felt from neutral to very negative about reading. This ratio certainly reflects the quality of literature circles I had been having. Strangely enough, however, only 22% of the class (4 students) reported feeling slightly negative about literature circles. When asked about what students like most about literature circles, ten out of eighteen students said they most like the fact that in literature circles, students can choose the pace they want to read the book. The next most likeable thing was the fact that the teacher allows projects to compose a sizable portion of the student's grade (33%). When it came to drawbacks of literature circles, once again ten out of eighteen students reported feeling most frustrated with the fact that not everyone reads the book. There was a tie for second place between the fact that many students would rather work by themselves, and the fact that many students do not understand what the teacher (i.e. Mr. Walters) expects from them. One question reached a high level of consensus; when asked whether they felt group interaction helps the students to better enjoy and understand the books they read, thirteen out of eighteen students said yes. Furthermore, twelve students agreed that it is their responsibility to help others around them understand the books we read in class.

Combined with the students' responses on what they liked about literature circles, these last two pieces of data helped me see that most of the students were in favor of interacting with a group in order to better understand the literature they read. Armed with this data, I resolved to do things differently. I was chagrined at the number of students who listed one of the top negative things about literature circles as not understanding what the teacher expects from them, so I determined both to clarify the goals of the project with the students, the reading schedule (which goes directly against the higher rating students gave to setting their own pace), the concept of Socratic seminar, and the use of technology as a means of moving the discussion about the book outside the classroom.

The students were immediately engaged in the book. On the first day of in-class reading, which was Friday, April 12, all students present left the class excited about their reading. I heard comments like, "I'm going to finish this book over the weekend," and "This is really interesting." I told the students to be thinking about their personal response to the book so that they could prepare themselves for the on-line message board.

The first day of on-line discussion presented problems. On Friday, I told the students they needed to finish the discussion thread before they came into the classroom. Although many students did go to the computer lab to type their message, some didn't. I allowed the ones who didn't complete theirs to respond during the first part of class. Before I allowed the students to read, I gave them a mini-lesson on flashback. This was a literary term they knew from previous short stories, but many had forgotten what it was, and even some of my better readers were mildly confused at the movement of the story from the present to the past, then back to the present.

Then came the reading. I went around and logged the page numbers each student had read, and used this as a daily class work grade. Not surprisingly, there was already a wide disparity between my more skilled and the less skilled readers. The target reading completion for Monday was up to page forty; actual pages completed ranged from twenty-two to sixty-five. Although I was loath to require such a rigid reading schedule, I kept remembering the languishing literature circles where I allowed students to choose their own schedules. This more defined method seemed both to provide some of the structure absent from my literature circles, as well as to keep the students accountable for their work ethic. (Readers who were not at the target page were only marked down if I knew their effort was to blame rather than their skill.) The daily reading continued on until Thursday, April 18. On this day, I walked the students through a "practice" Socratic seminar, defining and clarifying our purpose, our methods and our procedures. Students reported feeling a bit anxious about the seminar, but excited about it nonetheless.

4 students looking at a computerOn-line discussions dipped both in quality and consistency. Although Monday was a productive and meaningful day, Tuesday and Friday were particularly disastrous to the progress of the project. On Monday I was reminded that our school was chosen to participate in a field test for the EOGs (End of Grade Tests), and because only the sixth and eighth grades were involved, and the exploratory teachers were proctoring the exams, the seventh grade would have to hold all students in the classroom from 8:00 am to 12:45 pm. This meant no second block for two days out of the week, and thus no meeting with my second block project group. Needless to say, most everyone fell behind.

But not everyone. I had five students who informed me at the introductory seminar on Thursday that they were finished. I hadn't thought of this...or, well, I guess I did. But I was too busy to worry about it. I wish I had worried a little more, because suddenly, I had five students who were bright, needed a challenge, and were most willing to engage. The only problem: I hadn't thought of the next stage for those who finished early. And so I improvised. I told them about the projects, allowed them to respond to the online prompts, encouraged them to take the Accelerated Reading (AR) tests on Holes, and even worked with them as an attempted source of inspiration. My on-the-fly projects were successful, their endeavors weren't. I published something, they didn't. I knew what I wanted to see, they had little idea. I learned to plan for the early finishers; they learned that finishing early means they get to play. Here, I can truly say, you live and learn. I should have had materials, project samples, proposals and ideas ready for them. Next time, I will.

On-line Message Board

One of my objectives was to determine if using technology would assist my students, especially the lower skilled ones, in enhancing their book discussions. I can truly say it did.

High Successes

First of all, some of the responses I got were direct displays of what Wilhelm would refer to as visualization techniques. Most of my stronger readers had comments that pointed to the vivid imagery Sachar uses. For example, in response to my prompt, Stephen writes,

I don't know what it was that did it but something cught [sic] my interest. I feel this will be a very good book. Sometimes I can feel the heat that Stanley felt while digging his first hole. I could see the blisters on his hand. This book has some good concrete imagery.- Stephen, response 1

Stephen was allowing pictures to form in his head, images that show he's "getting it." Stephen, by the way, scored very high on the Holes AR test, and came up with a fabulous technology project using images to bring to life the "If only, if only" poem.

Unwittingly following Rosenblatt's (1983) cue that "...the literary experience must be phrased as a transaction between the reader and the text" (p. 34 - 35), David, who was late starting because of his vacation to Mexico, began to identify with characters in the book, and, following Wilhelm's cue, also began to see things in his mind: (Note: his writing on the discussion board was really, really tempting for me to clean up, but I have left it just as he said it.)

So far this book is realy cool. That dosent happen alot with me and other books. when I first started to read this book I thought of stanley as a short skinny kid. But as it turns out stanley is a kind of chubby kid.I fill sorry for stanley cause of all the people who pick on him even his teachers. In a way me and stanley are the same in a way. We both get blamed for all the things I dont do! - David, response 1

David, by the way, is a short, skinny kid who is sometimes picked on by teachers who think he's guilty of sedition. (He rarely is, but he associates with those who are guilty. ) Thus, his quote completely reflects his life. He is truly enjoying and understanding this book because he is able to see what is described, able to discuss what he sees, and able to relate to the character. As Wilhelm (2000) puts it, he is "becoming the book."



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Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
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