My senior Short Story and Composition students finished up a study of Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories today. My department head and I are both teaching separate sections of this course, and we have been planning together. We decided to try literature circles, which I admit I have not done much in my teaching career. All of my students read “The Half-Skinned Steer,” which is widely acknowledged for its excellence — it was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, and study aid sites online have begun to pick it up, too. Aside from that one story, I asked them to pick four others to read — their group’s choice.
Borrowing stealing widely from suggestions in Mr. B-G’s post on Literature Circles, I created a handout for my students to use: Annie Proulx: Literature Circles. Each literature circle group member would have a different job: moderator, new critic, psychological critic, and anthropological critic. The moderator’s job was to compose a good list of questions for the group to use, especially when discussion died down. The new critic marked passages in the story and explained their significance to the group. The psychological critic examined character motivation. The anthropological critic examined the influence of society — in Wyoming, as it is depicted in the stories — on the characters and events. Each member wrote a short piece as part of their job — a sketch of the characters, for example, or a list of questions. Students switched roles for the subsequent stories so they could try different aspects of literary analysis.
I thought it was going well, but I received some great feedback today. The students told me first of all that they liked working in the small groups, and they asked if we could please do this again. Second, they said they liked picking what they read. I know it’s not always possible to allow students choice, but in the case of literature circles, I think it works well. I am also torn because I know sometimes students do need a teacher to nudge them in the direction of a story they will like. I know I never would have read much of the literature I read in high school and college if it had not been assigned reading, but I also thoroughly enjoyed it. Another aspect the students seemed to like is the freedom of the assignment. I even let them spread out into more cozy places — study nooks throughout our floor — to work (which of course involves more arduous circulation on my part, but really made for natural “book club” type discussions).
I plan to have them work in literature circles next with a study of Susan Vreeland ‘s Life Studies: Stories, after which we will be at the end of our semester, for all intents and purposes, and will begin working on the final writing project. It’s been a lot of fun, however, and I have to highly recommend Mr. B-G’s helpful post for teachers considering literature circles. One of the things I really like about our senior English curriculum is the academic freedom I am afforded to choose works that students in high school might not necessarily be exposed to. We read Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor, but the opportunity to read authors like Proulx and Vreeland in high school is much more rare.