I hear the voice at the door. “Is Ms. Cunningham here?” A man peers in and can’t spot me—a frequent occurrence in my classroom. I’ve taken a seat with one of the groups to join their discussion, taking on the role of facilitator, my most preferred hat to wear as a teacher. Around the classroom, small groups of students are assembled. They are studying a variety of novels depending on their interests and comfort with reading, determining their own schedule and pace. Many questions and observations come up during our conversations on literature, and I can be a participant, learning alongside my students and guiding them to expand their thinking and make new connections. One group is studying All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque, 1995), and this novel, set during World War I, has provoked many questions from my students, all of whom started with an interest in this particular period in time. As an English teacher, I’ve been unable to resolve their queries— they already know more about this topic than I do—and, therefore, I suggested they invite the vice-principal into their conversation to try to get some answers. He’s a former history teacher with a longing to be back in the classroom, so he’s an eager participant. Although I’m working with another group, I don’t have to strain too hard to hear snippets of the lively debate around the technicalities of German warfare in the 1910s.
This scenario that played out in my English 12 class embodies the elements that I value most about literature circles (LC)—student-led discussions about topics of interest, the teacher as facilitator, and reciprocity in teaching and learning. An LC format is student-centred: students read a selection of their choosing and discuss it with others who are reading the same selection. Specific roles for group members can help to scaffold learning and prepare students for free-flowing, student-led discussion, which is the ultimate goal (Daniels, 2002). Thus, LCs have the power to dramatically change the landscape and dynamic of a classroom.
This scenario sparked a curiosity in me about the potential for LCs in an interdisciplinary context. Although LCs are used in many English and social studies classes, they need not be limited to the humanities. Harvey Daniels (2002), a leader in the introduction of LCs, reflects that perhaps the name has limited the adoption of this teaching technique as it “implies that the structure only works for fiction and only in reading or language arts classes” (p. 200). Paula A. Magee, Aimee Lee Govett, and Jane H. Leeth (2019), who have used non-fiction LCs to promote inquiry-based learning in their secondary science classes, assert that “students learn best when they can connect abstract ideas to real events,” which students can explore through literature (p. 126). Articles can also be discussed in an LC format which can provide students with opportunities to “critically analyze and discuss science text, helping them to become better consumers of science information” (Calmer & Straits, 2014, p. 625).
Since novels cover a vast array of topics, they could be incorporated into many different types of classes, making perfect springboards to further research and reflection. Science fiction, for instance, is fundamentally interdisciplinary and could be a natural fit in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes. E. E. Nunan and David Homer (1981) explain that science fiction could be useful in “bridg[ing] the gap between real science and school science” and prompting students to contemplate “how science affects individuals as social beings” through the contextualization of a narrative (p. 317). For example, while reading the science fiction novel The Last Book in the Universe (Philbrick, 2002), I wanted my English 9 students to understand that the scientific concepts explored in the literature, such as genetic modification, weren’t purely fictional. Short videos and non-fiction texts helped to add real-world context to the ideas presented in the novel. Students were then able to explore ethical questions in context and extrapolate their understanding of the novel to their own lives and the world around them. Science fiction can offer students an opportunity to think about “the future of not only the novel they are reading but, in juxtaposition, the world in which they live” (Bucher & Manning, 2001, p. 41). Literature can also be a useful tool in the development of empathy (Bucher & Manning, 2001; Nussbaum, 2010). Consequently, literary discussions may offer students opportunities to contemplate the ethical implications of STEM discoveries and innovations, as well as to help them recognize and understand significant decisions and consequences in those fields.
I was able to explore the connection between literature and interdisciplinarity further during the research for my master’s thesis as I examined the potential benefits of including literature (short or long fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, etc.) in secondary STEM subject classes. The literary arts can reflect the A (for arts) in STEAM, which can offer a more holistic approach to STEM education. I wanted to understand how and why teachers in subjects outside of the humanities were incorporating literature, and I found that several of the STEM subject teachers that I interviewed had previously included iterations of LCs in their classes. My findings suggest that there are multiple benefits for incorporating literature in general in STEM subject classes, such as increasing engagement by appealing to the interests of a variety of students. Literature can also present an opportunity to increase the representation of diverse perspectives in classes. In addition, the inclusion of literature in secondary STEM education can offer opportunities for students to understand the topics they are learning in context and reflect on how the seemingly disparate subjects they study in school merge in the world beyond the classroom.
Although LCs are not the only way to study literature, they deserve consideration because of their ability to engage, represent, and connect students. LCs can centre students in their own learning through their emphasis on inquiry and student choice. The focus on group discussions around common topics can help to build relationships between students and strengthen the classroom community (Whittingham, 2013). The Universal Design for Learning model, which is being adopted by teachers and districts throughout Canada, promotes the concept that students should “have many ways to express themselves, demonstrate what they know, and engage with material” (Colburn, 2010, p. 8). Thus, LCs inherently fit into Universal Design and can offer subject-knowledge accessibility to a broad range of students. They can also easily be adapted to an online learning format (Whittingham, 2013).
An LC framework could be adopted across the curriculum with numerous potential benefits for both students and teachers. Teachers could introduce LCs as a technique to increase contextualization and inclusivity in their classes.
Those who want to try, without committing at first to an entire novel, could test out an LC approach using articles, short stories, or poems. Sharon Kane’s (2020) book, Integrating Literature in the Disciplines: Enhancing Adolescent Learning and Literacy, is an excellent resource for teachers who would like to add literature into their secondary classes but aren’t sure where to start. My hope is that more teachers, in a variety of subjects, can experience the many benefits of an LC approach in their classes.
Bucher, K. T., & Manning, M. L. (2001). Taming the alien genre: Bringing science fiction into the classroom. The ALAN Review, 28(2), 41. https://doi.org/10.21061/alan.v28i2.a.9
Calmer, J., & Straits, W. (2014). Reading to understand anatomy: A literature circle approach. The American Biology Teacher, 76(9), 622-625. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/stable/10.1525/abt.2014.76.9.9
Colburn, A. (2010). The prepared practitioner. The Science Teacher, 77(3), 8. http://tinyurl.com/ybutkfe9
Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs & reading groups (2nd edition). Stenhouse.
Kane, S. (2020). Integrating literature in the disciplines: Enhancing adolescent learning and literacy (2nd edition). Routledge.
Magee, P.A., Govett, A.L., & Leeth, J. H. (2019). Using nonfiction texts and literature circles to rethink science learning. In C. Tai, R. M. Moran, L. Robertson, K. Keith, & H. Hong, (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Literacy Integration in Classroom Environments (pp. 124-140). Information Science Reference.
Nunan, E. E., & Homer, D. (1981). Science, science fiction, and a radical science education (science, science-fiction et éducation scientifique “de gauche”). Science Fiction Studies, 8(3), 311-330. http://www.jstor.com/stable/4239438
Nussbaum, M. (2010). Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton University Press. http://www.jstor.com/stable/j.ctvc77dh6.11
Philbrick, R. (2002). The last book in the universe. Blue Sky Press.
Remarque, E. M. (1995). All quiet on the western front. Ballantine Books. (Original work published 1929).
Whittingham, J. (2013). Literature circles: A perfect match for online instruction. TechTrends, 57(4), 53-58. DOI:10.1007/s11528-013-0678-5
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lindsay was a secondary English and French teacher for 13 years in Delta, BC. She took some time away from the classroom to complete her MA in Curriculum Studies at the University of British Columbia, where her research focused on the integration of literature into secondary STEM subject classes. She is currently a Faculty Advisor with the Teacher Education Office at UBC.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.