More Faye Brownie – Response Journals and Comprehension Activities

First of all, all information has been derived from Faye Brownlie’s – Grand Conversations.

As reflective practitioners, teachers and preservice teachers understand the benefits of reflecting on their learning as learning is a lifelong process, and so is our learning. As a particularly chatty individual and someone who learns best through conversation, I felt the greatest connection is learning about the use of discussion groups. But that was last blog posts focus. Today, I am looking at journal responses–off the bat, I am impressed by the amount of scaffolding presented in Grand Conversations. Here is what I learned.

  • Model effective journaling– explain your thinking while writing a response and let students contribute their ideas for what they notice about your process. By working together, this starts the process of co-created criteria for the class and ownership over ones learning.
  • Responses should always include ‘2-specific text references and personal analysis.’
  • Double entry journal (t-chart) with headings “what happened” and “my thinking” is one recommended journal framework.


Double Entry Journal

Faye Brownlie’s Grand Conversations presented these instructions for grade 2/3 learners.

  • Fold a page in half
  • Entitle the left-hand side “What Happened” and the right side “My Thinking” or “Text/Response.”
  • After reading, summarize what happened on the left hand side of the page and then write your thinking about what happened on the right side.


The goal is to have have equal amount of text on both sides–but it is clear that students will begin be more proficient at retelling events. Learning to make connections is a skill that will grow with practice. Here are examples from a grade 4 and a grade 7 student.


The United Journal

This is used largely after students so show growth and proficiency with the double entry journal.

The short version of this kind of journaling utilizes seamless transition in sentences whereby students make written connections to the text without the obvious folded line down the middle of the page. The goal is for students to write responses that shift between the event or meaningful quote from the store and reply to their own writing. It is kind of like writing a diary or log. Now, in 2017 as a man-child, I can’t image writing a log where I would have a fold down my paper and a t-chart–though maybe as an elementary student, that would be perfect!.

Combination Journal

I tried this in a practicum class, it is awesome. Students use sticky notes to mark areas of text where they would like to respond to in their next journal response. Student’s choose one of their sticky notes and write a more deep response about the area they flagged.

Building Criteria for Responses 


Faye Brownie discusses how she utilizes student responses and ask questions about how their work compares to the provincial writing standards and what the found powerful in their own writing. This is one way to build goals as a class and also set individual goals for growth–this is really the heart of what learning is.


What I love about this model is the use of students choosing criteria–it is collaborative and also requires ownership of ones work. For example, using a rubric created as a class, students can find evidence from their writing and compare it to their rubric and self-assess. Students can also ask other students to look for 3 examples chosen from the criteria that they would like peers to look for in their writing. This allows peers to edit work and look for what students are trying to improve on–and, give feedback accordingly. It’s safe, it requires ownership, and students are comparing themselves to their goals instead of other students.

Here is an example from Grand Conversations p. 39.




There are SO many ways to scaffold learning/reflection and to set students up for success in their learning. I am eager to continue my personal growth–the next two targets I have in mind for the final sharing exercise for this EDTE-500 assignment are culminating activities and assessment.





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Building a Community of Learners

Sometimes looking at why things are ineffective is just as important as discussing what is effective–this kind of approach gives learners context and an idea of important criteria to co-create and facilitate learning environments. In short, today I am going share findings on what kind of frequent errors derail student learning and how to create a culture that fosters learning with literature circles.

The majority of my findings are from a fantastic article by Lane W. Clarke, Jennifer Holwadel “Help! What Is Wrong With These Literature Circles and How Can We Fix Them?”

This article highlights how even when literature circles have been explained thoroughly, positive student interactions can be and is often detrimental to success. As mentioned in my previous posts, literature circles are highly collaborative, engaging, and require students to show ownership of their learning. These traits foster growth and help build a sense of unity and teamwork in the classroom–it’s a popular method for helping build a community of learners.


Often, when studying exciting ways to teach it can be difficult to forsee every obstacle that could come up–this is a practiced skill and other times it requires flexibility and adaptability. Because literature circles are collaborative, and collaboration is a learned skill these are some of the factors that can alter the dynamic of a group.

  • Socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Racial and gender differences
  • Student animosity
  • Boys typically sidetrack the most (in this study).

This comes down to knowing your learners and building connections with students. It is often difficult to be entirely inclusive when you know particular students can be disruptive but it’s key to be as inclusive as possible to continue modelling inclusion and community. Every class is different and teachers work to find out know what works best for their students, and it is worth noting connections can take time and canoe quite challenging as a teacher, but it is highly rewarding. Helping students feel safe, part of a community, and gain skills to have meaningful discussion is the goal to keep in mind, these are competencies that will help carry your students for the rest of their lives.


One way to help build community is to be consistent in teaching styles to set students up for success. For example, if a teacher is running literature circles in a manner that promotes slowing down, self-regulating and collaborating it would be counterproductive to follow a lesson that was based speed, working individually, and competition. It sounds like common sense but consistency and routine are excellent for creating an environment where students feel safe.


Another method includes something I think the year 5 B.Ed cohort is quite familiar with–ice breakers and games to get to know one another. Using games where students can learn about what they have in common with their peers, what they can teach others about their peers. After the exercises, have a discussion about what they learned and how it is important to build connections with one another.


The articles focused on a class that had a hard time listening to one another so they adopted a method from a lesson called Sharing Air Time. During a literature circle, students would have a specific number of poker style chip. Each time a student contributed an idea they would have to supply a chip to the centre of the group–after a students chips were gone they could no longer contribute their ideas vocally.  This intention of this lesson was to help students reflect on how often they spoke out and to also demonstrate the growth gained by listening to others.

  • Keep in mind, depending on maturity, students may mock this exercise and see who can get rid of their chips the fastest.

Another idea I like for building community is to brainstorm as a class and create a chart that lists traits for what a good discussion looks like. During group discussions, students can use the chart to compliment those who contribute ideas during the literature circle.


I found it interesting when the articled mentioned Critical coaching. In short, the teacher would enter a group that was deteriorating and help develop students as literature circle participants. The goal was to help cohesion and build community. The focus was on students who were struggling.

Other consideration

  • Allow students options for book choice–but also pick books that are interesting and generate discussions. “Good” books.


Final thoughts:

I really like these ideas because it gives me a lot of ideas on how I could build continuity and a learning culture in my classroom. The article highlights that all issues did not go away, but things improve. The main take away from all of this for me is that learning takes place when students feel safe, have co-created criteria, show ownership of their learning, are given opportunities for choice, and when classroom are consistently building a sense of community through mini-lessons and consistency.








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Why Do Literature Circle Work?

I recently read an a piece of work by Harvey Daniels–What’s the Next Big Thing with Literature Circles?

Harvey recaps recent history of language arts based teaching methods and explains why literature circle is one of the popular methods of instruction now.


For starters, many methods including worksheets often become tedious and overuse becomes common. Harvey Daniel’s explains that the difference with literature circles is due to students actually enjoying their learning. Harvey Daniel’s states there are 4 words to capture why literature circles work: engagement, choice, responsibility, and research.



Students are responsible for sharing their ideas, coming prepared to discuss the book and in small groups of 4-5, each student has the opportunity for airtime. Students are also happy to have the change to work collectively as leaders rather than have everything run by a teacher.


Students have the opportunity to pick what books they are going to read. Compare this to old school novel study where a teacher has to work to ensure students by into a book. If I am being honest, I loved all the books my elementary teachers chose–I imagine they had worked had to make choices based on previous student preferences. But–with allowing choice, students are more likely to take ownership their learning  and have fun.



Literature circles treat students as leaders of their own learning–they give them responsibility that resembles adult book groups. This autonomy and ability to work together to come up with ground rules, self-assess, and create meeting schedules where all members are required to participate.



This area refers to data created to reflect the efficiency of literature circles. I will save you the reading. Literature circles benefit students.



Literature circles are big picture exercises–the goal is to help create students become citizens that can find enjoyment in texts, learn reading strategies and to discern information. Literature circles offer students the opportunity to share their findings in safe settings that have a variety of ways to share their learning–this makes assessment more accurate for students who show their learning based on different preferences.

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Grand Conversations Part A – Book Overview, Group Discussion, and Choosing the “Right” Books.


Disclaimer: This post is largely focused on the mechanics of literature circles with tools and activities to generate quality discussion. The theories and the “why are these methods effective” are located in a different posting. There is SO much information that without a clear focus, these posts become larger essays and I know you are itching to skip to the conclusive last paragraph. Spoiler: Dumbledore dies—and you can probably get away with reading the intro and closing.

There are many exciting works that capture the hearts of readers—Harry Potter, online memes, and the greatest work of non-fiction to date, Faye Brownlie’s Grand Conversations – A Unique Approach to Literature Circles. I am still a noobie in the world of literature circles, but my greatest wish, nay, academic craving is to one day facilitate a literature circle program. Shoot for the moon and you will land among the stars, or at the very least  accrued academic debt and the ability to conceptualize literature circles. Okay, let’s get on track—this work is arguably the standard for literature circles and has been utilized by people all over the world. There are too many videos count (I only have my fingers and toes to help me count with) on youtube and online sources that use Fay Brownlie’s methods and or extend them or personalize them.


Literature Circles are broken down into these key components:

  • There are collections of books made available for students.
  • ~ 6 different titles with 5-7 copies made available (for a class of 30–obviously scaled differently for our classroom composition)
  • Titles need to be appropriate reading level and something students want to read.
  • Students meet in discussion groups twice a week to talk about the book chosen. The teacher joins the discussion-student led. Students can tease but do ruin surprises for what they know will happen in story. Students will be at different parts of the books
  • After completing books, students choose another book and join another group for that book.
  • Two or 3 times a week students respond in journal to the book they are reading. Journal entries require additional effort and skill and students become better versed in their journalling.
  •  Every 2 weeks all students complete a comprehension activity based on the novel they have completed reading
  • 75-95 minutes are most effective for group discussions

Here is an example of how to set students up for success as active participants in literature circle discussion.

The Say Something strategy: Building Group Discussion

Why: Literature circles require cooperation, openness/safety, and a foundational set of rules to garner respect amongst the group. The goal is to generate conversation—like an adult book club. I think most people have felt unsure whether they should share their opinion or doubt their understanding and feel embarrassed—whatever the reason, this is one way to address this as a class.

This is paraphrased from the book. A teacher will acquire a poem and share it on the overhead—a student will read the poem outlaid and the class will read silently. Students will share their connections, thoughts and feelings they had—this class whip around is key. The teachers makes the kind of response they are looking for clear for each student such as big ideas, personal connections, or what the student wonders about. This activity is meant to highlight how everyone thinkings and interprets information differently and enriches everyones learning though various perspectives. This activity can be extended and practiced using additional poems. While this approach starts very structured, it acts as a guide before students start to feel more comfortable and feel the desire to share aspects they found interesting, challenging or what have you.

This resource and all other resources I have read agree that an effective discussion includes:

  • All voices are heard
  • All students must feel included
  • All students must have their ideas respected
  • The discussion should move us to new understandings.

Choosing the Right Books

The books are a vehicle that are going generate hours of discussion for your students, but  literature circles are not implemented right away. It is suggested that literature circle do not start until around halfway though the academic year in order to discover student interests and be able to gauge books that will be appropriate for the various levels in the classroom.

When preparation is laid out, deliver the book options with energy, enthusiasm and curiosity! Give brief overviews, read passage that showcase writing style—the goal it to expose students to different options that they can connect with and enjoy when they work on their own.

Additional details to include:

Page count should be stated, and remind students that book groups are fluid—picking books based on friend groups will be ineffective for individual learning, the groups will change as students finish at varying rates. It is also to be mindful of how easier novels are presented—put the ownership like “for students that feel they are busy with soccer, eating dirt,” etc. Create backup plans for students who pick books that are not a good fit and keep some in store and present them to students that shows you understand what topics they are interested in.

This chapter shares so many ideas and I want to share them all, but that will be far more plagiarism than reporting. Once again, these ideas are not my own, my name is not Faye Brownlie and these are her ideas, not Robert Michael McMullen’s.

Chapter 2  finishes by recommending a poster is created with every students name on it and what book they are reading/have finished. It also acts as a visual and cues the teacher who needs more support

Final thoughts:

This is a skill that has so many moving parts—it requires a lot of setup but turns into an activity that students look forward to. I will try to improve my reporting from this book but the thing is, every page has gold on it. My overall recommendation is to stop reading this (you probably did) and pick up Faye Brownlie’s book.

The next post will focus on running a discussion group and the roles of the student and the teacher. It will be shorter.

Sloppy summary: Invest time picking the “right” books for your class. Get to know your learners, create an environment for sharing and be excited about the books your are sharing—this will energize and motivate students.

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Literature Circles – Why, Mr. McMullen?

Hi, and welcome to my first ever blog post. I cannot guarantee action, or drama but if it helps, try reading this in Jim Carey’s voice.

New things are exciting– particularly when it has to do with trying new foods, convincing your significant other to see a movie you want to see, or the day you start investigating literature circles. For people like us, today is the day for at least one of those. I picked this topic based on my belief that reading skills can be applied in all aspects of learning and fosters enjoyment. I want to help students gain confidence with their writing and have fun while doing so. As many educators realize, people do their best and demonstrate growth most often when they have a sense of enjoyment and engagement in their learning. I am hoping to realize what it is about literature circles that makes it a widely practiced methods. I asked the greatest resource on the planet–google. Then, I asked the greatest person. I have censored her name, so we will call her Hermione.


Hermione  referred me to a book called literature Circles by Faye Brownlie. The book is not currently in at the library or at chapters but it is on Amazon and I will have it shortly. However I found these 6 principles that represent the 6 T’s of Exemplary Elementary Reading Instruction on SD.5s Literature Circle guide on line–it refers directly to Faye Brownlie’s research.

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Literature circles aim to create meaningful connections between student and text. Often, writing and journalling can seem tedious and laborious as a student–given a topic they have no control over. One aspect of literature circles that I think is worth noting is the use of conversation in small groups with other students. As I understand it, students are encouraged to share what they believe about content they read, often with students who are reading the same book. Additionally, literature circles utilize discussion groups as a method to practice many skills including the following.    Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 6.13.07 PM.png

Discussion groups are key to literature circles. This is the part where 4-7 students at a time meet with a teacher to discuss a reading. The teacher has a simple role and is not intended to dominate conversation, but instead, to foster and facilitate student ideas and sharing. How is this done? I will get back to you. Lets continue this overview.

The student role is to come prepared with a contribution to share with their classmates and to follow the rules listed along the left side. Students practice discussion, taking turns, listening and making connections to theirselves, to the text, and to the world around them. You probably just read this twice, but on the off chance you didn’t read it the first time– cool-awesome-great.


Accountability and learning how to best critique oneself and others is another great skill developed by literature circles. What I like most about this method so far is the use of journalling. Most journals that I see (my pink unicorn diary) are only edited by maybe one source (thanks mum). Editing and learning how to create a finished product for various levels of publication and showcasing is one of the strengths of this method. For examples, students have 3 key edits on a given piece of learning. Students learn to edit and give themselves feedback to enhance their work in addition to receiving suggestions from peers, and their teachers. Feedback is meant to be constructive and very descriptive–this helps learners identify how to check their own work and their peers. The online passage outlines a few more helpful and meaningful intentions including that not all work should be marked. I like this idea and I think it reflects a more natural way of writing and flow.

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I hope this acts as a successful teaser into round world of literature circles. If you are just tuning in and looking for a summary, be honest, then this last paragraph is what you are looking for.

What we know about literature circles so far:

Discussion groups: 4-7students, students led, teacher facilitated, important rules for active listening and contributing respectively. Use stories and sharing to help develop connections to self, the text, and the world.

Journaling: Allows students to share their knowledge and create work that has received 3 different edits/feedback including from ones peers, a teacher, and an edit by the original author. This also acts as a great opportunity for teachers to assess student learning as students will develop a piece of writing 3 times.


What I am going to focus on next:

I hope this is easy enough to follow–as a learner I tend to start by taking a subject, finding major parts of a subject, loosely studying those parts and then diving in to particular intricacies and specifics. My next post will be based on Faye Brownlie’s Grand Conversations – A Unique Approach to Literature Circles and will focus on group discussion.







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