Learning about Social Justice through Literature Circles

Winter 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:4, 464-478

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study aims to help make social justice a seamless part of the content (instructional practice of literature circles), curriculum (how to utilize literature within courses), and pedagogy (use of reading, reflection, and discussion to help students expand their understandings).
Drawing on data from 16 teacher candidates in an elementary literacy methods course in 2019, the author seeks to understand how literature circles can help teacher candidates critically reflect on social justice and equity as well as encourage reflection on race and privilege.


Participants, Author Positionality and Study Design
This study occurred in an undergraduate elementary literacy methods course during spring of 2019 at a Predominately White Institution, a private college.
This course was the second in a three-part required literacy sequence.
All 16 of the 16 students enrolled in the course agreed to take part in the study.
All students were females.
Thirteen self-identified as White, two as Latina, and one as Palestinian.
The author is also the course instructor, a White, female assistant professor.
As a White educator in a predominantly White field, she sees it as her responsibility to use her privilege to become a “co-conspirator” – “understand[ing] how Whiteness and privilege work in our society and leverage[ing] [my] power, privilege, and resources in solidarity with justice movements to dismantle White supremacy” (Love, 2020).
Rather than colleagues of Color, it is her responsibility to “unlearn, relearn, and do the self-work that is needed to tell the truths about history” (Aronson et al., 2020, p. 317).
She works to create a classroom space that encourages students to challenge their previously held beliefs–particularly around issues of equity and social justice—engage in deep reflection, dialogue about complex and challenging topics, and take their learning into their future classrooms.
She was present in the room during all literature discussions and saw herself as more of a listener than facilitator; however, she stepped into conversations to ask more probing questions, clarify misinformation, or provide additional statistics to guide students back into difficult conversations.
She recognizes these acts may have changed the trajectory of student conversations, but it was more important to her that her classroom space not perpetuate misinformation or be a place tolerant of injustice.
As the instructor, the author modeled the instructional practices of engaging students in conversation about literature through the use of contemporary novels that bring to light issues of equity and social justice.
She selected young adult novels, rather than children’s literature, because she wanted the participants to be able to authentically engage in the reading and discussion of the texts for themselves, rather than from the perspective of being the teacher.
This aspect was important in the design for teacher candidates to experience the value in the Themes in the selected books include: immigration, refugee status, understanding mental illness, exploring sexual orientation, systemic racism, and police brutality.
Students were encouraged to select a novel that provided them with a new perspective, rather than selecting a text that resonated with their own lived experiences.
From previous class conversations, it was evident that the students themselves read books by predominantly White authors about predominantly White characters.
Selecting books by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) authors about BIPOC characters was important to widening their perspectives; it is important for people to read books that not only mirror their own lives, but also serve as windows and sliding doors (Bishop, 1990).
The author explained the rationale for selecting these particular books to the students and shared how she hoped the novels would allow for the opportunity to engage in discussion on topics they may be less comfortable talking about, yet may need more familiarity with as a classroom teacher.
Groups were arranged of four students each and met weekly for about 30 minutes over four weeks.
Each group created their own reading schedule and determined which role they wanted to hold for each session.
For the first two weeks, participants chose from the traditional roles of:
discussion director, connector, questioner, illustrator, summarizer, or researcher (Daniels, 1994, 2002). For the next two weeks, participants selected from literature circle 2.0 roles (Herrera & Kidwell, 2018): project manager, trend spotter, bias detective, graphic designer, tweeter, or investigative journalist.
Students were encouraged to consider the practice of literature circles, their own views relating to race and privilege, and to consider how the beliefs they hold influence the relationships they have with their future students and the instructional practices they use with those students.
Assigning students particular discussion roles allowed for students to prepare in advance, which encouraged engagement from all individuals.

Data Sources
Data sources included:
(1) audio recordings of weekly literature circle meetings,
(2) audio recordings of final book talks,
(3) weekly written artifacts,
(4) audio-recorded individual interviews, and
(5) audio-recorded focus group interviews.
This range of sources allowed for a multi-faceted view of how small-group literature discussions might support teacher candidates’ critical reflection on social justice and equity.
All students were invited to participate in focus groups or individual interviews upon completion of the course.
They were given the choice to engage in individual interviews or focus group interviews.
The author audio recorded three individual interviews and one group interview (with four participants).
Individual interviews provided students the opportunity to reflect on the experience of literature circles in its entirety, share memorable conversations from group discussions, define equity and justice, and connect justice and equity to classroom practice.
The focus group allowed participants to compare and contrast experiences from the small group discussions, particularly relating to the content of the books and their views on justice and equity.
Participants were specifically asked how teaching for social justice and equity related to literature discussions and what they learned from the experience.
Each source of data illuminated a different facet of how small-group literature discussions supported teacher candidates’ critical reflection on social justice and equity.

Results and discussion
Equity-centered literature circles in an elementary methods class
(1) provided teacher candidates an entrance into conversations about social justice,
(2) supported teacher candidates in better understanding themselves,
(3) supported teacher candidates in understanding their students, and
(4) provided only a beginning step in disrupting a system.
This study highlights the importance of an interplay among literature, discussion, and current events.
The books, written by BIPOC authors, drew the students in and they engaged in the young adult/adult literature with authenticity.
Because the topics candidates encountered in the novels were written for mature audiences, the conversations they engaged in were deep and at times, uncomfortable.
The candidates were able to participate in literature circles in a way similar to how their future students will, eager to do the nightly reading and discuss it with classmates the next day (Daniels, 1994, 2002).
In this way, the elementary literacy methods class authentically modeled and engaged candidates in a high-quality instructional practice, literature circles, for candidates to utilize in their own future classrooms (Howlett et al., 2017).
The discussion aspect of literature circles allowed peers to learn about the experiences of their classmates and also the students of their classmates.
Learning with and from each other was important to widening their perspectives (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1980).
Listening to really learn, rather than learning through self-reflection, is an important aspect of Culturally Disruptive Pedagogy (CDP) (San Pedro, 2018).
The discussions also gave candidates an opportunity to talk about uncomfortable or unfamiliar topics; while it is not easy to talk about racism, Whiteness, LGBTQ experiences, or mental health, it is essential for teachers to be able to engage in these conversations (Kaczmarczyk et al., 2019).
Asking candidates to select books representing different experiences than their own was important in creating an environment where no participant was put on the spot as a person with direct experience, making them the “expert” on a topic or the person who needs to respond on behalf of an entire ethnicity (a highly problematic practice).
Findings suggest equity-centered literature circles can act as one instructional method to disrupt the system.
In response to the research question, “How does engaging in small-group literature discussions support teacher candidates’ critical reflection on social justice and equity?” it is helpful to use a CDP lens to discern in what ways the literature discussions did or did not support teacher candidates.
When considered through CDP, the discussions did allow for race-related discussions, a recognition of Whiteness, dialogue and listening to really learn, new knowledge countering previous understandings, working to understand self, understanding it is a process to disrupt systems, and understanding there are multiple perspectives (San Pedro, 2018).
To some degree, the essential components of CDP were recognized within literature circles.
However, some on a larger scale than others.
For example, they provided an opportunity to openly discuss race and sexual orientation, something candidates continue to need to become more comfortable doing (Kaczmarczyk et al., 2019).
They provided time for some candidates to recognize their own Whiteness and how their personal experiences may be different because of it.
Through the content of the books themselves and conversations among participants, candidates were able to recognize perspectives beyond their own.
While the instructional practice of literature circles lays the foundation for this work, it also is important to recognize the role of the facilitator/teacher educator in pushing and probing students while they engage in these discussions, rather than merely listening.
Particularly for White teacher educators, it is important to use our position of privilege and power to operate in “solidarity with justice movements to dismantle White supremacy” (Love, 2020), even when (or particularly when) it causes discomfort.
Importantly, equity-centered literature circles in an elementary literacy methods course highlight where there is still more work to be done.
To disrupt historic inequities, and to be teachers who are social justice allies and coconspirators, candidates need to spend more time recognizing their own biases and privileges and work to learn about the experiences of others.
It is a process to work to disrupt systemic inequities.
With a thoughtful selection of novels, literature circles can provide a space for candidates to engage in difficult conversations and support candidates in working to disrupt a normalization of Whiteness in schools.

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Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6 (3), ix–xi.
Daniels, H. (1994). Literature circles: Voice and choice in the student-centered classroom. Stenhouse Publishers.
Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Stenhouse Publishers.
Herrera, L. J. P., & Kidwell, T. (2018). Literature circles 2.0: Updating a classic strategy for the 21st century. Multicultural Education, 25(2), 17–21. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1181553.pdf
Howlett, K. M., Bowles, F. A., & Lincoln, F. (2017). Infusing multicultural literature into teacher education programs: Three instructional approaches. Multicultural Education, 24(2017), 10–15.
Kaczmarczyk, A., Allee-Herndon, K. A., & Roberts, S. K. (2019). Using literacy approaches to begin the conversation on racial illiteracy. The Reading Teacher, 72(4), 523–528.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.
Love, B. (2020, June 12). An essay for teachers who understand racism is real. Education Week.
San Pedro, T. (2018). Abby as ally: An argument for culturally disruptive pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 55(6), 1193–1232.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Updated: May. 22, 2022