Literature Circles: A Powerful Practice to Support Differentiation

Literature Circles. Of all of the practices I introduced as a teacher in the Primary Classroom, I believe this to have been the most powerful. For me, literature has the power to connect us all beyond age, nationality, language, culture, religion or gender and also has the power to provoke thoughts and opinions that lay the foundations for a much deeper understanding. Stories are the way in which we begin to make sense of the world, and literature circles provide a framework through which we can support our students in discussing and sharing their opinions in order to be able to develop deeper understandings.

So, given my enthusiasm for Literature Circles I was delighted to have an opportunity to share this practice with teachers during our recent professional development days at Berlin Metropolitan School. We ran 17 teacher-led workshops in total, that teachers from ElC, Primary and Secondary could sign up to attend, and also our CCEP ( Co Curricula Education Program) educators joined in to both offer and attend workshops.

The theme for our professional Development Days was ´An Inclusive Culture of Learning´ and focused upon differentiation in the classroom. This was the perfect forum for discussing Literature Circles, as indeed, one of the elements as an international educator in a multilingual classroom that I found most appealing when I was first introduced to the practice of Literature Circles, was that they allowed for natural and authentic differentiation for all learners.

The presentation for this session outlining how Literature Circles can support differentiation can be found  by clicking on the link below. by emaze

Sharing Literature Circles with such a diverse group of teachers generated a great deal of interesting discussion and suggestions about how we can implement these at our school.  Teachers came with a variety of experiences of Literature Circles and from working with students from a range of ages. What struck me most was how this framework can function for our youngest students right the way through to our oldest learners. I love the flexibility they allow, and left the session posing questions about how we could transfer this structure to other disciplines or subject areas perhaps, or even work in a bilingual framework. I am looking forward to seeing what interesting ideas our innovative teaching team develop to support deep learning for our students of all ages and abilities through use of Literature Circles as a framework.

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The True Value of Student-led Portfolio Conferencing

2014-04-16 11.23.52I was first introduced to the concept of a student-led portfolio conference many years ago, and quickly became a strong advocate for their use as part of any effective reporting and assessment practice within a school. For further information about student-led portfolio conferences please have a look at the links below:

Student-led Portfolio Conference prezi

Blendspace lesson link: Student-led Portfolio Conferences

The whole process of student-led portfolio conferencing just made complete sense to me from the very beginning, and so I am always taken aback when educators around me require a great deal of convincing into their value and effectiveness as part of the learning process. In the world we live in today, in order to be successful, we must become extremely self-reflective and able to self-regulate and evaluate.

Now, I could list the many valid reasons as to why this type of conferencing has a positive educational impact upon learners, however, following our recent ‘Portfolio Conference Day’ at ISM I was reminded as to the fact there is one over-arching reason to value these:

learner pride = sense of fulfilment

For anyone, at any age, I would argue that pride and feeling valued are crucial in gaining a sense of fulfilment as a learner. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want all learners to feel and achieve? No matter what ‘level’ or ‘grade’ or ‘score’, learning to learn, motivation to learn and gaining fulfilment or feeling proud, is essentially what we should aspire to enable all our students to gain.

Student-led portfolio conferences facilitate young learners in developing crucial life long skills of self-reflecting and communicating effectively. The conference does so in a way in which the learner is encouraged to:

  • feel valued to have those most important to them take time to sit down and listen
  • meet in a space where they can be the ‘leader’ and feel confident
  • exhibit pride in their learning progress
  • find value in, and be encouraged to learn from their mistakes
  • share personal goals in their learning.

Some of the comments by students following our conferences, reinforced for me just how valuable these conference are.

“I felt proud of myself and I also felt quite confident.”

“I’m happy looking back at all my old work and seeing how have improved since then.”

“I felt smart, important and proud.”

“I think my parents enjoyed listening to me show them my work.”

(Year 6 student reflections on their conferences.)

For me, learner pride & fulfilment are the true value of student-led portfolio conferences.

Enriching Comprehension Skills – Imaginative Illustrator

I currently teach Literature Circles lessons to two Year 6 classes each week, generally my favourite part of the week, when we can immerse ourselves in reading together! One of the greatest challenges in a multi-lingual, multi-level classroom is managing student groups to ensure everyone is understanding what they are reading and moving beyond this to actually questioning that understanding.

In order to address this, recently I developed some lessons to support students in deepening their understanding and engage them further in the role of Imaginative Illustrator as part of our Literature Circles. This role is often a student favourite, essentially there is a belief that it is the easiest! Draw a picture and talk about it. Seems simple, right? I decided to challenge this assumption and encourage students to reflect and use their critical thinking skills at a much higher level.

We discussed visualisation and ‘making a movie in your mind’ as the strategy that most students use to help support them in this role. I then introduced 3 further strategies that might help to develop this further:

1. Envision maps

Essentially this means having some paper handy so that the reader can doodle or note words that are significant for them whilst reading.

2. Post it

The reader uses post-it notes to mark pages in the book or a ‘golden line’ a powerful sentence that inspires the reader.

3. Image pin it

This can be done in a variety of ways, essentially using visual images to make a collage which reflects the reader’s understanding of the text. For example, using magazines and printed images to make a collage or perhaps digitally, using the app Pic Collage.

As a class, we practised applying these strategies by listening to different story extracts in order to practise together. Here are some examples of student application of the strategies.


Imaginative Illustrator Pic Collage


Students embraced these strategies and continue to experiment with them in order to discover which are the best fit for each of them Individually. Recording what they were actively thinking as they were reading, and preparing ideas before they actually completed their illustrator role students were much more capable in summarising what had happened in the story; demonstrating greater skill in considering character, plot and setting in more detail. Using these tools has enriched their ability to connect with a story and produce more thoughtful and meaningful illustrations.


Primary School Vs Middle School Girls Football Match!

It was with great excitement and anticipation that the Year 6 Primary School girls gathered after school on a crisp January afternoon.  The girls had only had a number of football training sessions with ‘Coach Jones’ but were enthusiastic and confident in facing their first match challenge against the Year 7 girls. The final result was a 2:2 draw. A rematch is planned between the Dark Devils and Pink Panthers very soon!

What is a classroom?

For teachers and children thoughts are turning to getting ready for back to school around this time of year. Students in many countries are buying new backpacks, pencil cases and school supplies, whilst teachers endeavor to get classrooms ready and organised for the arrival of their new students. Bulletin boards are being papered, materials labelled and posters go on display. Of course, all of this is important in order to get the classroom ready for learning, after all the classroom is the ‘hub’ of learning, isn’t it?

But what is ‘The Classroom’? It really got me reflecting on some discussion that Year 6 were engaged in at the ‘deciding’ stage of our collaborative, inquiry-based exhibition project earlier in the year. The students were brainstorming and discussing the idea of ‘ childhood’ and their teachers presented them with a photograph to comment on using a web 2.0 tool, Voicethread. A simple photograph and question sparked a lengthy and engaging discussion, both inside and outside ‘the classroom’, about what the similarities and differences were between classrooms.

Year 6 Voicethread

Discussion ensued as to whether a classroom is your physical environment or whether what is happening with the people gathered together makes ‘the classroom’. As one student pointed out ‘it’s about the people not the things.’

As happens frequently, I was impressed and inspired by the reflective comments of students and with the subsequent exhibition project that developed. Their comments struck a chord and really started me thinking about the differences between classrooms globally, both historically and today. I recently came across an article titled ‘An Intriguing Glimpse of Classrooms Around the World’ Julian Germain classroom portraits, which showcased the photographic work of Julian Germain,, who has been traveling the world taking portraits of classrooms. These portraits provide us with insight as to how varying learning environments are for students worldwide. I wonder how much these varying environments shape the student learning taking place in them today?

We are now in a world where learning in a ‘classroom’ isn’t confined to the traditional space but is online, virtual, global and, in many cases, multilingual. The classroom, as the Year 6 students pointed out, isn’t the physical features and materials but the communication between learners and sharing of knowledge. Our students are inspiring us to think outside the traditional; in a digital age learning ‘classrooms’ are everywhere from webinars, to twitter, Showme to The Khan Academy, the traditional image of a classroom has evolved beyond four walls.

What does this mean for our learners? How does our teaching and learning have to adapt as the classroom environment evolves? Recent books such as ‘Are we getting Smarter’ by James R Flynn present research suggesting although IQ scores are rising, this is centered around human adaptation rather than us getting smarter as a society. Adaptation. Evolution. How will we continue to challenge and support our learners as the concept of ‘the classroom’ environment evolves?

Learning to Make Mistakes

Mistakes, errors, corrections, shouldn’t haves. Whatever you want to call them, we all make them, most of us daily. In fact, education, learning and indeed life is all about making them, yet our students are often most afraid of mistakes. The focus for learners is more often than not on what wasn’t done well and what wasn’t learned. What we got wrong is important but only because it tells us what we need to do next to improve. Empowering students with the knowledge and skills to be reflective as learners is the key. We shouldn’t erase our mistakes, we should highlight them!

Teaching students to use ‘what went wrong’ or the mistakes they have made, is how we can ensure the process of lifelong learning is instilled from a young age. Teaching students to accept mistakes, take control of them and use them to their advantage is a gift that we must give young learners. This is not to be misinterpreted though, we are encouraging students to get things wrong, although, if by doing so students learning is enriched, why not? Taking risks and accepting when we are wrong are skills and concepts that are extremely challenging. So how do we begin to ’empower’ young learners and arm them with using their mistakes to reap positive rewards?

One simple strategy is lead by example. If we show as adults that we will take risks and accept when we are wrong, young learners will do the same. Fear and embarrassment of ‘being wrong’ or failing sends the wrong message to students and reinforces the belief that all mistakes should be erased and forgotten.

Another strategy is to reflect upon how we, as adults, respond to mistakes. Using powerful vocabulary that is focused on future learning is essential. When a child makes a mistake respond with:

‘What would you do differently in the future?’

‘How will you remember that next time?’

‘I remember when I made that mistake, I learned…….’

Demonstrating that we learn from mistakes reaffirms to a child that they are not ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’ and prevents the blocks that we ourselves may have had to face as learners when we were growing up.

Find more good strategies and links here: