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

Johnny Walters

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Inquiry Question

group of students discussing a bookWill merging technology (on-line discussion board) with Socratic or Paideia seminars assist my students, especially the lower skilled ones, in enhancing their book discussions, their visualization of the text, and their overall engagement with the material?

Introduction

This inquiry project is about a fusion of three distinct strands:

  • technology,
  • reader response theory,
  • and Socratic seminars.
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I have many lower-skilled students, many of whom may not attain the required "threes" to be promoted to the eighth grade. It was mostly for them that I launched this inquiry. I wanted to find out whether or not meeting the students on turf that was familiar and safe to them, i.e. on-line discussion boards, would assist them in talking about, responding to, and picturing what they read. Would on-line discussion boards do a better job of facilitating discussions than would, say, the last four or five cycles of literature circles I have used with my students? Would reader-response (Rosenblatt, 1983) and visualization techniques (Wilhelm, 1997) allow space to increase if students could go on-line, respond to my prompt, and then reply to each other's responses?

Flat Literature Circles 

I first heard about literature circles at the 2001 North Carolina Middle School conference in Greensboro. A fellow Appalachian State University graduate, Kelly Sechrist (2001), presented her techniques of literature circling based on the research of Nancy Atwell and Harvey Daniels. I was immediately hooked. I borrowed Sechrist's (2001) role sheets, introduction letter, project proposal list, the entire package. Ahhh, I thought, students will love me for this. They get to choose everything: the book they want to read, the character they want to portray, the role they want to be, the project they want to design - everything!

But soon, I found gaps. First, being able to choose everything isn't always such a good thing. In the Dave Matthews (1994) song "Typical Situation" there's a line that says, "It's a typical situation of these typical times: too many choices. It all comes down to nothing." Matthews' song echoes the fourteenth century philosopher, John Buridan, whose "logical ass" dies of starvation due to being placed between two equally large and equally succulent bales of hay, but is not given any criteria by which to chose one over the other. Many of my own students were caught up in the Matthews/Buridan dilemma of choice paralysis: they viewed reading a book and discussing it meaningfully as one succulent bale of hay, and neglecting the book, ignoring it and goofing off as the other. Soon it became clear to me that if I didn't do something soon, starvation would soon ensue.  

Also, questions soon arose. I noticed that the role sheets were being completed haphazardly, with students making little or no effort to go beyond the very basic, obvious answers. And though I would meet with each group repeatedly and explain that the discussion leader needs to ask open-ended, controversial questions rather than factual, knowledge-based ones, the latter continued to dominate most discussions. And so, I would say it again: "Open-ended questions, guys, open-ended questions!" Things would be great and I would leave.

Then I would eavesdrop on the group behind me and hear those boring, factual questions springing up like mushrooms on nice green lawn, poisoning the discussions with a monosyllabic yes's or no's. They'll get better at this the more they do it, I told myself. But after four circle cycles, the students were still beginning and ending discussions with questions like, "How did Billie Jo's momma get burned?" or "Where was Janie stolen from?" And these were from the groups who were actually staying on task long enough to ask the basic questions.

I knew things needed to improve for everyone: Students needed to improve their handling of book discussions, and I needed to improve my ability to come up with solid evidence that real thinking and questioning was going on, I needed effective techniques to facilitate meaningful discussion.    

THE THREE STRANDS

Technology

Jeff Wilhelm (2000) refers to research by scholar J. David Bolter, who suggests that "…if our students are not reading and composing with various electronic technologies, then they are illiterate…right now…". Wilhelm (2000) goes on to say that the much more potent, revolutionary writing and reading space known as hypermedia will soon replace print media. This means that as the winds of change sweep through our schools and homes, if we do not ready our students for this radical break from the old paradigm, we do them a great disservice and send them into the future ill-prepared for what they will inexorably meet. This factor intrigued me and inspired me. I want my students to be prepared for the future, to be able to move and breathe easily in the forest of the World Wide Web, to be as comfortable composing on a word-processor as I used to be with a blue medium-tip ballpoint bic pen and lined yellow legal pad, my former favorite writing materials.

Reader Response

But Wilhelm's inspirational ideas didn't end with the technology strand. I also have the perennial struggle to teach my students how to read, how to interact with a text and ways to make meaning from it. Low reading skills, I'm afraid, were one contributing factor to my punctured and deflating literature circles. Perhaps the main reason the literature circle discussions floundered was that many of the students weren't struggling to make meaning from the book, or weren't reading the book, at all. It seemed the higher skilled students would succeed no matter what I did, and my lower skilled students would flop no matter what I did.

 3 boys discussing a bookAnd then I read Wilhelm's (1997) You Gotta Be the Book. It helped me see that readers who don't picture what is going on in the text, can't relate to any of the characters or events, or fail to find any method of accessing Benton's "secondary world," - these were the readers who aren't getting anything out of the literature circles. They don't "see" anything when they read, which is sort of like watching a television show with the screen black; this "black screen" in turn prevents them from identifying with any of the characters, which shuts off their sense of interacting with different roles, which excludes them from the conversation, which introduces confusion, restlessness and boredom, which encourages off-task behavior in literature circles, which starts the process all over again. Then I found myself saying, "Get back to work; if you haven't done your reading, leave your group, sit quietly and finish it up!" Talk about cycles of perpetuated failure! But Wilhelm's (1997) work armed me with a fusillade of reading methods, all of which I was confident would help me help my lower-skilled students.   
 
Socratic Questioning

With the flat literature circles I had been doing with my students, and with Wilhelm in mind, I wanted both to prepare my students and encourage them to improve their own discussions. But while it is true that we need to teach students about these new avenues of technology, it is not true that many kids aren't already technologically savvy. Many students couldn't tell you the price of a stamp, since their primary form of communication is email or chat rooms. And so I wanted to meet my students on their own turf and use a means, which they are both attracted to and comfortable with to create a space where they could work hard, yet have fun. And so I proposed the on-line discussion board. Here my students could talk about what they see, what they don't see, what they agree with, what they don't, what they have questions about, what they have opinions about, and what is happening to them as they read. Based on the philosophical musings of Bernard J. F. Lonergan, 1904-1984, who points out that "Unless one inquires, one does not give insight a chance to arise" (Carley, 1980), I reasoned that the students would have nothing to discuss if they did not first have questions. This truth led me to introduce the third strand of my inquiry proposal, Paideia or Socratic seminars. Perhaps by winding together the technology and the reader-response methods with the Socratic seminar, I could help my students to improve their reading and book discussion skills. Here is how it all played out...

 

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
URL: http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/sum2003/circles/index.html
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