Recently, many of us have made the switch from our familiar classrooms to some form of a virtual setting. If you’re new to distance learning or hybrid models, you might be wondering how to facilitate virtual learning circles and other forms of virtual peer-based discussion. In this blog post, I’ll share some advice on how to run online discussions, as well as some apps and programs that work best for online book clubs.
But before diving into these strategies for distance learning, I’d first like to share some information I came across while researching online literature circles. My initial intention was to simply compensate for what I thought were some of the shortcomings of online discussions: the lack of human connection, the fragmented flow of conversation, the inorganic setting – these were all aspects of virtual discussions that seemed like disadvantages to me. But experts argued otherwise.
In “Integrating Literature Circles Into Online Learning,” professor Peggy L. Anderson shares the results of her studies related to online literature circles for diverse student populations. She concludes that students responded positively to these adapted literature circles “because they allowed time for reflection, which was often missing in face-to-face class discussions.” Anderson shares that the students saw the “luxury of time” as an additional opportunity, and “noted that it influenced the quality of their conversations.”
It didn’t take much to shift my perspective on virtual literature circles, especially given that many of our students spend a significant amount of their time socializing online anyway. With this information in mind, I began to recognize how some of the shortcomings of live literature circle meetings were actually mitigated by the implementation of a virtual setting.
It made me think of a letter written to me by one of my most intelligent students, who was frankly upset that her reluctance to enter a large conversation with her entire class was reflecting poorly on her transcript. I sympathized with her, but I never considered implementing a virtual discussion to diversify the opportunities for students to engage with their peers.
I’m not here today to convince you that we should move away from in-person literature circles forever; instead, I’d like to share with you how you could best facilitate virtual book clubs or online conversations. Whether you’re considering online literature circles to diversify your approach, or you’re responding to changes within the education system and society at large – this blog post is for you.
How To Assign Novels for Virtual Literature Circles
The first challenge with facilitating literature circles online is finding a way to distribute books to your students. If you’re teaching in-person or meeting through a hybrid model, students simply need to know which day you’ll be selecting and distributing books so that they can either participate or make prearrangements if they are planning to be absent. If you are teaching virtually, there are different approaches you can take to ensure that students have a text to work with.
Your first option is to check with a library. Your local library may offer e-book services for the general public. If you’re lucky, they may even have book sets to lend out. Additionally, your school library may also have a catalog of e-books or subscriptions to a selection of digital library companies.
OverDrive hosts a vast collection of digital books that meet the interest level of a wide range of readers and offers texts in several different languages. This platform is ideal if you are looking to launch an e-book catalog for your entire school or organization. With a model like OverDrive, your library can choose to purchase specific e-books and access them forever.
EBSCO is another service that is ideal for your entire school. EBSCO has a wide range of titles that have been organized in specific sub-categories so you can locate exactly what you’re looking for – categories range from Historical Fiction titles, to Anti-Racist Reading for Youth, to books organized by Lexile® Level. With a model like EBSCO, your school can subscribe to a selection of e-books that can be used unlimitedly for a period of time.
If you’re looking to accommodate students with learning disabilities, there are a number of platforms specifically designed to support students with special needs. Audible is a great option for students who would like audio readings of the novels read as a class. Bookshare also offers a wide range of accommodations for students with print disabilities.
How To Structure Online Literature Circles
There are a number of ways to structure and organize your literature circle groups to facilitate efficient meetings online. To remain organized and keep literature circles contained, it is best to facilitate them using a different platform than the one used to facilitate regular course content. For example, if you use a platform like Google Classroom to meet as a class, it might be wise to create a separate Google Classroom, Google Site, or Schoology page for each Literature Circle group. You can assign students to their groups using your main platform and provide links for them to access material and resources for their specific group. Mondays Made Easy offers a comprehensive Virtual Literature Circles bundle that includes digital worksheets and graphic organizers to support your students with their virtual literature circles.
You can then determine whether or not you’d like your literature circles to be synchronous or asynchronous. For synchronous literature circles, you can either space your schedule out by meeting once a week, or opt for a more immersive approach and meet every day. If you are teaching in a hybrid model, you may also wish to facilitate literature circles for when students are learning online, and use class time to host class-wide discussions. However you decide to schedule your synchronous literature circles, I recommend implementing a single strategy to consolidate student meetings and bring the class back together: select one representative from each group to share the most insightful tidbit from their meeting. This will not only promote classroom unity but also offer students the opportunity to learn about the different books their classmates are studying (and hopefully spark interest in some extracurricular reading!)
For asynchronous literature circles, you can replace the real-time meetings with forum posts or student-initiated question prompts, and provide deadlines to keep students on track. Although this is a different approach to our typical understanding of a book club, there are actually a number of advantages to asynchronous study models. Research conducted by Kennesaw State University concludes that “since asynchronous discussions were not real-time chats, students could continue to revisit their ideas in a recursive thought process.” Additionally, Students can also have an archive of each discussion to revisit during a summative assessment preparation.
Apps for Virtual Discussions
While certain learning platforms offer built-in functions to encourage conversations, you may find your students wanting something more personal and immersive to support their literature circle discussions. Here are a few digital tools for facilitating virtual discussions:
- Padlet: Padlet is a free app to share content and build custom pages for multiple purposes. Padlet would be ideal for asynchronous literature circle sessions so that students have time to contribute to the Padlet page and respond to other classmates’ posts. For a great demonstration on how to use Padlet, check out this instructional video.
- Flipgrid: Flipgrid is another free way to engage students, but this time using video as a medium to express thoughts and listen to responses. Flipgrid is useful for asynchronous meetings and ideal for class-wide prompts from the teacher.
- Zoom: Zoom has gained recent popularity within classrooms and workspaces alike. Zoom is a video-based conference system that offers students the ability to mute their microphones, hide their cameras, and type responses in a conference chat. They can also share documents with one another and screen share. My favorite tool with Zoom is the ability to create “breakout groups” within a conference – you can use this feature for meeting as a class for synchronous learning, and designating time for literature circles before gathering again for consolidating activities or question prompts.
- Google Meet: Similar to Zoom, Google Meet provides real-time meetings with options for video, audio, and text communication. Google Meet includes a great schedule feature, which offers you the ability to create separate links for each literature circle group. Google Meet also provides a free call-in option for students without computer access, or for days when the internet gives out.
- YoTeach!: YoTeach! creates a teacher-moderated chat room for students to meet synchronously and discuss their novels. This program is easy to set up and offers interactive features to promote discussion. YoTeach! is a great option for engaging students without face-to-face contact, but can pose a challenge for those who may struggle with reading.
- Backchannel Chat: Backchannel Chat is another chat room app developed specifically for classroom use. Similar to YoTeach!, this real-time meeting software is great for synchronous learning. Backchannel Chat offers a number of classroom-friendly features, including profanity filters, message amplification, and file sharing. Discussions can also be archived, which is great for assessment or review purposes.
- Twitter: If you practice code-switching in your classroom, Twitter might be a brilliant option for your students. Twitter offers the ability for students to express candid thoughts about their novels. I like to use Twitter with my students to demonstrate the difference between the language we use in the classroom and the language we use on social media.
Are you hosting virtual literature circles this term? If so, what programs and approaches are you using to facilitate peer-based learning? Get in touch with me – I’d love to hear from you! If you’re to teaching literature circles or simply looking for a fresh approach, you may also be interested in The New Teacher’s Guide to Literature Circles on the Mondays Made Easy Blog.