Mixing It Up:

A Multilevel Book Room and
Flexible Literature Circles

 

Andi Stix

Recently, the School District #2 Office in New York City mandated that all children at the middle school level should read twenty-five books per year. While the burden of this mandate fell most heavily on the shoulders of language arts departments, social studies teachers at Wagner Middle School in Manhattan began to discuss ways they might help improve student literacy, a goal important to all subject areas. We lamented how interesting trade books were being overlooked as a teaching resource. So, we social studies teachers decided to do something.

 

Welcoming Young Adult Literature

Smith and Johnson suggest that, “Literature can become the lens through which content is viewed…[holding] the young reader’s attention while connecting content with the variety of human experiences.”1 Historical fiction can bring historical figures alive for readers and allow them to explore the realities of life, culture, and society during a given period.2 Adolescent students can relate to the characters in the books as they read fictionalized accounts of the events and circumstances they are learning about in class. Even when the setting of a novel is far removed from the reader’s own experience, there are universal characteristics, including the pains of growing up and exploring one’s identity, that every generation shares. Adolescents enjoy reading about other adolescents because they can identify with the protagonists.

Further, the use of literature in the social studies classroom may help nurture children’s creativity and imaginations, leading to the use of higher level thinking skills. Jarolimek states, “Literature and literary materials should play an important part in social studies instruction because they convey so well the affective dimension of human experience. The realism achieved through vivid portrayals in works of literature stirs the imagination of the young reader and helps develop a feeling for and an identification with the topic being studied.”3

Despite such clear endorsements for bringing young adult literature into the social studies classroom, any teacher or team that is planning to do so will face several challenges at the outset. First, most social studies classes are not stratified by student ability or previous levels of achievement, so any changes have to accommodate the struggling learner as well as the agile student. Second, any new literature one might introduce has to match the content of the unit of study being taught. And third, such literature has to be interesting and enticing to students.

 

The Multilevel Social Studies Book Room

We began by creating a social studies book room. Book corners (housed in one classroom) tend to become the property of the teacher in that room. A book room, however, which can be a converted storage closet or a specially designated corner of the school library, is understood (by students and teachers alike ) to be shared property. Funds are often more readily available, and the choice of books can be greater, when such resources are shared by several classes.

In order to accommodate the three grade levels that would be using our book room, we ordered three different colored bins: yellow for sixth, blue for seventh, and red for the eighth grade. When a new book arrived, we typed a descriptive tag, laminated it, and tied it to the appropriate bin through two holes punched at the top (Figure 1). We stamped and numbered all the books so that we could track them. Leaking pens and fruit juice boxes stuffed into a book bag often conspire to destroy school books. Therefore, we provided plastic bags to students for storing and transporting the books. We placed the bins on shelves, with one book propped in front of each bin to create an appealing display. On the wall next to the bins, we posted a master list of the books arranged by content area. Sign-out sheets were placed next to the bins, so teachers could see who had which book at any given time. We established a one-month due date.

 

Student’s Choice

We decided to allow students to browse the relevant collection and then make a short list of trade books they might like to read. This freedom to choose their own books increased the students’ motivation. Atwell states, “Allowing readers to select their own books has a major impact on students’ fluency, reading rate, and comprehension.”4 One of our students said, “I was surprised when [our teacher] told us we could pick which book we wanted to read. Since I was the one that picked it, I made sure I finished it on time.” Having this freedom of choice makes students more responsible to themselves, their teacher, and the class as a whole for reading the book.

We also decided to stock the book room with trade books of varying levels of difficulty within each content area. Our social studies classrooms consist of students with various reading abilities. Always “teaching to the middle” (that is, using only grade-level materials) would be boring for students who read above their grade level and frustrating for others who are not up to speed. Including literature written at varying levels of difficulty can accommodate every student’s needs. In our experience, when teachers first give a clear introduction to each work, and the books are then available for perusal, students usually select ones that they are capable of reading. One seventh grader said, “I’ve never been asked what I wanted to read for class before. When [my teacher] told us to choose one of six books, I took it really serious[ly] and took my time picking the one I thought I would like best.” During a trial period of a day or two, students could switch books if they found that their first choice was too difficult or not of interest.

 

Flexible Literature Circles

Cooperative learning in the middle school classroom has been a popular topic in education journals over the past decade. Meaningful interaction with peers can be a powerful motivation for middle school students.5 But cooperative learning means more than just allowing a freewheeling discussion. Stover states that collaborative learning strategies require structured organization in which students “work together as teams toward a common objective and team reward while demonstrating individual accountability within the team structure.”6

It would have been fairly routine for teachers to establish cooperative literature circles composed of students who had all read the same book, but I wanted to try something more experimental. I applied the jigsaw strategy to the social studies by requir ng the use of two different group settings: one homogeneous, the other heterogeneous. In other words, the first round of group discussions took place among students reading the same book, while the second round of group discussions took place among students reading different books.

Implementing this approach proved to be rather easy. Let’s say there are twenty-four students in the class, and four different young adult books of various difficulty levels from which to choose. Students browse these books in the bins and rank their choices. The teacher then assigns six students to each book and asks them to read a given number of pages by, for instance, the end of the week. The teacher also poses an open-ended question that is applicable to all the books, and asks students to consider the questions as they read. (For example, “Some characters in the story take risks that are likely to cause themselves harm. How do people justify their actions to themselves?”) Students are informed that they will be required to write up their responses and to discuss the question in a group setting. The importance of coming to class prepared should be emphasized.

On Friday, students should first be arranged in homogeneous, “Same-Book Literature Circles.” Thus, every student in a group should have read the same number of pages of the same book while considering the same open-ended question. Students are asked to discuss their answers to the question and to become “experts” on their book, revising their own answers in response to the ensuing conversation. The teacher, meanwhile, should be circulating from group to group, ensuring that all students are participating and that discussion is flowing.

When all opinions have been aired, and students feel comfortable with their enhanced responses to the question, students in each group should count off one through six (in this example). Next, the teacher “jigsaws” students into their “Different-Book Literature Circles,” seating all “ones” together, all “twos” together, and so forth. Students are asked to discuss the same open-ended question in their new groups. Now they will be offering multiple perspectives on the same historical period. In addition, the new group members will have to listen very carefully to each other, asking key questions in order to learn more about the other three books.

This heterogeneous grouping strategy accomplishes several goals. First, the same high standard of instruction is used for all students regardless of the reading level of their chosen book. Second, this standard is also individualized, as students read books that are appropriate to their own reading level. Third, each student is an important member of the group, as he or she is the only spokesperson in that group for a given title. Finally, this type of discussion often piques students’ interest in other books, compelling them in some instances to read additional books on their own.

 

Preparing Teachers and Selecting Books

Before the books for the social studies book room can be selected, teachers need to try out the flexible literature circle strategy for themselves to fully understand how the books will be used. During a lunch time workshop, I used excerpts from four young adult trade books set during the American Revolution to demonstrate the strategy: April Morning, My Brother Sam is Dead, The Fifth of March, and Johnny Tremain.7 Teachers discussed the books, then began discussing the strengths of this strategy and how their own students might respond.

At our next training session, I asked teachers to generate a list of those content areas that they wanted to cover at each grade level. Each teacher was then asked to prioritize his or her list, choosing the five most important areas. Looking at descriptive lists of young adult literature (such as the annual list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People), teachers highlighted the books that might be most useful and relevant.8

Over the next several weeks, teachers read and/or reviewed young adult books corresponding to their areas of interest and then recommended four titles per area (for a total of twelve titles per teacher). Some teachers consulted websites such as
amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com for reviews; others relied on other resources.9 They deliberately chose titles that represented the various reading levels as well as different perspectives on a given topic. Finally, we made a master list of the chosen books and ordered forty-five copies of each—ten for each classroom and five for the teacher to make up for lost or forgotten books. Wherever possible, we ordered hard cover editions because they last longer.

 

Rounding Off Rough Edges

Of course, despite our best efforts, there were some obstacles in the early stages of implementing the book room and literature circles. First, some teachers wanted additional coaching. In these instances, I modeled the lesson early in the day, discussed the model, and observed the teacher delivering the lesson later in the day. Second, teachers soon realized that they were often vying for the same books in a given week. Some of the teachers suggested they teach a few of the areas from a thematic approach, while others suggested we order more books to accommodate the high demand. After long discussions to rectify this problem, we decided that rather than order additional copies of the existing titles, we would add additional titles to the existing list; instead of having ninety copies of four books, we would shoot for forty-five copies of eight books per topic area. This solution would also provide students with a wider range of reading options and a broader representation of reading levels.

The change was successful. New books were added to the social studies book room whenever possible, and teachers started to incorporate their own class sets of young adult literature into the book room rather than keep them separate for their own class to use. Students loved the new freedom to choose their own reading material. Groups ran smoothly, and no one felt left out, frustrated, or bored.

Giving students a choice about what they read and providing activities that demand cooperative learning allowed them to take ownership of their learning while showing respect for other students, whatever their reading ability. Incorporating literature into the social studies curriculum and cooperative learning into instruction made the social studies classroom a more interesting, more pleasurable, and more productive learning environment for both students and teachers. G

 

Notes

1. J. L. Smith and H. Johnson, “Models for Implementing Literature in Content Studies,” The Reading Teacher 48 (1994): 198.

2. M. A. George and A. Stix, “Using Multilevel Young Adult Literature in Middle School American Studies,” The Social Studies 91, no.1 (2000): 25-30; See also References.

3. J. Jarolimek, Social Studies in Elementary Education (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 207.

4. N. Atwell, In The Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998), 37.

5. H. Daniels, Reading Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom (York, ME: Stenhouse, 1994), 10.

6. L. T. Stover, Young Adult Literature: The Heart of the Middle School Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996: 91.

7. Howard Fast, April Morning (New York:Batam/Random House, 1983); James L. Collier, My Brother Sam is Dead (New York: Scholastic, 1989); Ann Rinaldi, The Fifth of March (San Diego: Gulliver/Harcourt Brace, 1994); Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (New York: Yearling/Random House, 1987).

8. The list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People is now published annually in the May/June issue of Social Education. Back issues for 1999 and 1998 are available at www.socialstudies.org/resources/notable.

9. A. Stix, A Guide to Using Young Adult Literature in the Social Studies Classroom (New York: The Interactive Classroom, 2000). E-mail: astix@cloud9.net.

 

References

Alverman, D. E. and S. F. Phelps. Content Reading and Literacy: Succeeding in Today’s Diverse Classrooms (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998); Aronson, E. The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1978.

Bilof, E. G. “The Killer Angels: A Case Study of Historical Fiction in the Social Studies Curriculum,” The Social Studies 87, no. 1 (1996): 19-23.

Gallo, D. “Listening to Readers: Attitudes Toward the Young Adult Novel,” in V. R. Monseau and G. M. Salvner, eds., Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992).

George, M. A. “Young Adult Literature in the Middle School Literacy Program: Why? How? What?” Impact on Instructional Change 27, no. 1 (1998): 19-27.

Guzzetti, B. J., B. J. Kowalinksi, and T. McGowan. “Using a Literature-Based Approach to Teaching Social Studies,” Journal of Reading 36, no. 2 (1992): 114-22.

Hipple, T. The Universality of the Young Adult Novel, in V. R. Monseau and G. M. Salvner, eds., Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992).

National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994.

Savage M. K., and T. V. Savage. “Children’s Literature in Middle School Social Studies,” The Social Studies 84 (1993): 32-36.

Sewall, G. T. “American History Textbooks: Where Do We Go from Here?” Phi Delta Kappan 69, no. 8 (1988): 553-558.

Smith, J. L., and H. Johnson. “Dreaming of America: Weaving Literature into Middle-School Social Studies.” The Social Studies 86 (1995): 60-68.

Van Middendorp, J. E., and S. Lee. “Literature for Children and Young Adults in the History Classroom,” The Social Studies 85 (1994): 117-20.

 

Andi Stix, Ed.D., specializes in middle school education and is known for her work in assessment, social studies, teaching strategies, and increasing literacy throughout the content areas. In 1991, she founded an educational consultant company, The Interactive Classroom in New Rochelle, NY. Her program received the Social Studies Programs of Excellence Award from New York State as well as the Social Studies Programs of Excellence Certificate from the Middle States Council for the Social Studies in 2000.

 

 

Figure 1. Two examples of book tags. Each tag included the title; author; date of publication; reading level (easy, average, or difficult), a brief description of the book (including whether it was historical fiction, biography, autobiography, or other nonfiction), and page length.

 

A Light in the Storm:
The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin
by Karen Hesse. 1999.
Reading Level: Easy.
While assisting her father who is the lighthouse keeper at Fenwick Island, fifteen-year-old Amelia describes the tension between her father who sides with the Union and her mother who favors the Confederates during the Civil War. Historical fiction. 169 pages.

The Heart Calls Home
by Joyce Hansen. 1999.
Reading Level: Difficult
After serving in a black regiment in the Union Army, Obi learns to be a carpenter, but faces storms, disease, and bigotry in the in the settlement of New Canaan, Connecticut. He searches for his would-be fiancee Easter, who moved to Philadelphia to become a teacher. Historical fiction. 175 pages.