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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

This ain’t your mama’s lit circle…

Several years ago, I started using wikis as a means of allowing kids to create and then comment on one another’s work. I got fairly comfortable with the tool and started thinking about ways to make it even more effective. Each spring, I asked my eighth graders to participate in a literature circle – the old school kind that you learn about in your undergrad. Every kid gets a role, they sit in a circle and tell each other what they found in their book, and you run around trying to make sure everyone has done their part and each of the group’s is actually on task. The problem with this type of literature circle is that it is completely UNREALISTIC! Do you ever see adults get together for book club and take turns pointing out all of the vocabulary words they learned? Me neither.

So, in an attempt to make our book discussions more realistic, and keep me from running around like a chicken with my head cut off on discussion days, we took our literature circles to the wiki. It started off small – a few discussion threads a week, until one student said to me, “Why are we just typing to each other when we can talk this way in the classroom? We are all sitting right here.” And that is when the light bulb went off. What I had created made it easier for me to monitor and participate in multiple discussions, but it wasn’t a game changer for them. I had to rethink this one.

I contacted a colleague at a junior high across town and we spent the majority of our spring break setting up a cross-building literature circle for our seventh and eighth graders to participate in  when they returned. Students would no longer be writing to the other kids in their classroom; they would be working with peers they had never even met. We gave the students their reading assignments and some pretty clear guidelines:

1. Make an “All About Me” page on the wiki as a way to introduce yourself to the group (and get to know the tool in a no-risk, fun, and engaging way!).

2. Participate in five discussion threads which will be opened up by teachers according to the project calendar.

3. With your partners, build a wiki site all about your book. The site should be modeled after Spark Notes and include characters, conflict, important quotes, themes, etc.

4. Complete a mini research task based on a question you develop while reading.

5. Utilize the discussion threads within wiki to plan your project.

6. If you wish, exchange email addresses with your partners or use the link to the Today’s Meet chat space the teacher has set up for your group to have live conversations.

Watching this project unfold was one of the most memorable experiences in my career to date. I observed kids who had been chronically apathetic about school come to life. They no longer had to live up to the role of  “group slacker” because they were working with strangers who had no preconceived notions about their abilities or work ethic. Students who would never read an assigned book picked up their novel because they didn’t want to let their partners down or not be able to contribute to an online discussion. Wiki also time stamps all discussions and page edits. Imagine my surprise when I started reading book chats that were happening between middle school students at nine o’clock at night!

There were a few bumps along the way. There were still students who let down their groups, and a few parents who weren’t too happy about final grades. In the end, though, I think my students and I learned about a lot more than just literature with this project. Check out some of their reflections:

  1. I learned that working online is a lot easier than meeting in person because almost every person goes on the computer at some point in the day. You could be doing work on the wiki as well as being on YouTube. That’s what I did and it was so easy and fun at the same time.

  2. The wiki format made it easy to look at everything that my group had done even if I wasn’t there at the time. Overall, the wiki format helped me to get ideas across to my group members in an easy way!

  3. It was a pretty unique and fun project to work with people in another school instead of always being in groups with the students we know.

  4. I learned that when talking about your novel, it is much easier to summarize parts before your text evidence because it makes it easier for other members of your group to understand you.

  5. This project helped me dive further into theme than I ever thought I would have.

  6. It was really fun to build a website. I never knew how links and pages worked until now!

  7. I learned that online communication is more about planning. When we didn’t plan, communication was bad and things didn’t get done.

  8. Sharing my thoughts on paper was hard. I feel that I was too wordy at times and that the team couldn’t understand me.

  9. I learned that using online discussion is hard. Trying to put my ideas on the computer is hard because … I might not get my point across so (group members) are still clueless (about) what I am trying to say. It is hard to get my point across on the internet.

I would love to just open my wiki site and show you all of their wonderful work, but this project took place several years ago and I do not have student or parent permission to unlock it all. Instead, I have put together snippets of various projects (while protecting student identities) that you can view below. As you read, remember that these were seventh and eighth grade students who NEVER MET IN PERSON! I am still in awe of their awesomeness when I look at the work again 😉

Sample Mini – Research (Complete w/kid spelling errors!)

Need help getting started with a project like this one? I have plenty of resources to share! Feel free to DM on Twitter @mrskmattson.

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