Literature circles expose Falmouth 6th-graders to social issues

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FALMOUTH — Middle School teacher Katie Coppens hopes to make her students more aware of social issues and inspire them to find solutions through literature circles.

Coppens said literature circles, or social issue book groups, are a good way for small groups of students to read at the same pace, while also being introduced to issues ranging from the environment to poverty to civil rights.

She said it allows them to gain both knowledge and perhaps a passion for a specific topic.

Students are participating in the literature circles this fall in preparation for an upcoming unit called the solutionary program, which was first tested as a pilot program in the sixth grade last spring, Coppens said.

In the solutionary program, Coppens said, students first learn about a range of social issues, then select a topic of interest and work in a group to learn about the root causes of the problem and the systems that perpetuate it. Then each group creates an action plan to solve the problem.

“By having students take part in social issues book groups, they (can use) reading to improve their awareness” of problems that confront people both at the local and global level, she said. “The experience of reading these novels also connects to our reading curriculum with the emphasis we put on understanding the theme of the novel.”

With the help of a grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation, Coppens has been able to purchase several books for students to choose from.

The titles now available include “Trash,” by Andy Mulligan, which focuses on extreme child poverty; “Refugee,” by Alan Gratz, which looks at the experience of refugees from three distinct points in history, and “Secrets in the Fire,” by Henning Mankell, a book that discusses landmines and the impact they have on civilians long after a war is over.

“All of the books for our literature circles are beautifully written with characters that draw the reader in,” Coppens said. “(What’s) amazing is to see how passionate kids become about these topics.”

Ultimately, Coppens said she hopes the books “spark excitement” in her students.

She said the literature circles are mostly student-led, although teachers will also provide some discussion questions.

During each circle, Coppens said, “students will have different roles, such as discussion leader and question-asker, to help them take on more ownership of the process.” And, she said, “an emphasis is put on not just following a script, but letting the discussion take tangents and follow the path of interest and curiosity of the group.”

“Many of these topics also lead to a natural discussion of empathy, which is important for us to foster in our students,” Coppens said. “I did not have (as many) titles available to me last year, so this grant is really exciting because it will help the sixth-grade teachers build a library of books available for literature circles.”

In addition, Coppens said middle school librarian Cathy Potter has “taught our students the analogy of looking at books as mirrors or windows. Books that are like mirrors allow students to identify with characters and/or the conflict in the book, while books that are like windows allow students to see a whole new world that they might not have otherwise been exposed to.”

Coppens has noticed while the social issues books often start off as windows, they “become like mirrors as students (come to) care for, and identify with, the main character.”

“It’s when books come alive to students in this way that they gain empathy for others and a passion for coming up with solutions to the real-life problems that the characters are facing,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Sixth-grade students at Falmouth Middle School this fall are participating in literature circles to raise their awareness of social issues.