Full Overview

This website documents Emily Venson’s use of literature circles in a ninth grade Humanities class in a small public middle and high school in Manhattan in March and April 2007.  The school was created in the early 1990’s and currently serves 650 students in grades 6-12. The school offers an interdisciplinary curriculum, and students remain with the same team of teachers for two years in a row.  In order to graduate, high school students have to produce independent research papers and make public presentations to a panel of students, teachers and parents in four different areas.  8th grade students have to present portfolios of their work to a panel of 6th and 7th grade students to demonstrate that they are ready for high school.

In 2007, about 40% of the students were White, 25% Hispanic, 20% African-American, and 15% Asian or Pacific Islander; roughly one quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Over 90% of the school’s graduates went on to college, and over 90% of the students passed the New York State Regents Exams in English, Living Environments and Global Studies; over 70% of the students passed the Math A Regents Exam. 

When this website was made, Emily was in her third year of teaching and in her first year at the school.  The unit documented here took place during a Humanities class which met everyday for anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours and encompassed both English Language Arts and History.  In this unit, the classes involving lit circle discussions of contemporary novels set in the Middle East alternated with days in which students were engaged in a related examination of the history of the Middle East. In the lit circles unit,  Emily focused particularly on helping the students to develop a critical perspective and to recognize their own biases as well as those of others.
The unit began with a day in which Emily introduced the unit and set up 6 discussion groups to help her differentiate instruction to meet the range of reading levels in her class. The fastest readers read Kite Runner, slower readers read Princess, and the slowest readers read Habibi.  During the unit, Emily made some adjustments to deal with personality conflicts within two groups and absences. 
In general, Emily began lit circle classes with 10 minutes of silent reading.  Then Emily presented a mini-lesson in which she taught the students reading and discussion strategies to help the students to identify bias, ask follow-up questions to extend their discussions, and ground their interpretations and arguments in evidence from their texts.  Each day also included lit circle discussions in which each group developed and shared their interpretations of their book.  Throughout these discussions, Emily circulated the room to encourage the students to use the discussion strategies, to deepen their discussions, and to stay on task.
During the unit, students also worked on a group project in which they were asked to assume the role of journalists and to pitch a story to their editor (e.g. their teacher) that examined similarities and differences between the politics, culture, or religion of the country in their novel and the politics, culture or religion of a different place in the world. One group chose to compare the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, based on the book Princess, to the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Another group chose the same topic, oppression of women in Saudia Arabia, and compared it to the treatment of the slaves in North America. Other groups chose such diverse topics as the Taliban compared to the SS Troops and the political climate in Afghanistan compared to Rwanda.

To produce the website, videotape documentation focused on the lit circle discussion of one of the groups reading Princess (Group 1) and their final presentation.  Other documentation was carried out as possible, including the videotaping on 3/23 of one of the discussions of a group reading Kite Runner and a group reading Habibi, and the presentations or powerpoints of the groups that presented along with Group 1 on 3/30.  In addition to collecting curriculum materials and the handwritten timeline that Emily filled in as the year progressed, the site also contains samples of the charts, notes and reflections that a Kite Runner, Princess, and Habibi group completed during the lit circle unit and samples of work throughout the year from six student portfolios.