Discussing Literature with Other Readers

Why discuss literature?

  • To explore essential human emotions, conflicts, and ideas through stories and narrators
  • To have deeper understanding of the world and ourselves
  • To build community, especially in respect for differing viewpoints
  • To give us a forum to talk about difficult issues and practice discussion skills

How do you know if your discussion is going well?

  • Participants are eager to talk and engaged in listening
  • Feels like a balanced combination of planned agenda and spontaneous conversation
  • Opposing points of view are shared and discussed respectfully
  • All voices are heard equally and naturally; no one dominates
  • Text is the center of the discussion
  • Discussion moves easily and freely
  • Individuals leave the discussion with a greater understanding and awareness of the text
  • The overall experience is fun

Troubleshooting Suggestions:

  1. Be positive: don’t focus on what isn’t going well, but what is going well and do more of that.
  2. Try two different protocols. Ask the group which one they liked better and then use that one again with a different focus or question.
  3. Gauge the level of understanding of participants using thumbs. If several participants are at moderate or low level of understanding, spend some time talking about the book on a factual level. Gauge comprehension after this discussion.
  4. Try a slow whip: use one of the whip questions or open discussion starters, give everyone a minute or two to jot down a few notes, then go around the circle. Sometimes, folks just need a minute to think.
  5. A variation on a slow whip is to try a quick (30 seconds) pair discussion within whatever protocol you’re using. Pairs can try out ideas on each other and then share with the group. Then compare ideas between groups.
  6. Go back to the text.
  7. Disagreement is okay; in fact, it’s good! Be respectful and strive for everyone in the group to see the text in more than one way.
  8. Have everyone take a deep breath, relax, and remember that the discussion only lasts ninety minutes, everyone gets to evaluate him or herself, and the goal is for everyone to come away with deeper ideas about the book.

A. Whip: This can be done at any point or multiple times in the discussion. Go around the circle and each person talks for less than a minute. Other participants listen and can respond after the whip has made a full circle.
Whip questions for beginning of the discussion:
How did you like the book?
How did you respond to a certain character?
What did you care most about in the book?
Describe your level of understanding.
Whip questions for the middle of the discussion:
How did you respond to a plot event?
What passage(s) made an impact on you?
What points do you agree or disagree with?
Whip questions for the end of the discussion:
What comment made today most affected your thinking?
What have you learned most about the book/the issues raised by the book today?
What questions still linger for you?

B. Run Through Characters: Works well at the beginning to make all participants aware of the characters.
As a whole group, make a master list of all significant characters.
In whip style, go around the group and each person says one thing about the character. Try not to just be factual. Use adjectives, refer to specifics in the text, point out dilemmas and contradictions in the characters. Keep going around until the group runs out of comments. Participants can pass.
Go through the process with other important characters.

C. Ten Words or Less: This can be done as individuals or in pairs.
On your own or with one partner, summarize the book in ten words or less. Give everyone three minutes.
Share the summaries: the writer reads the summary and another participant asks a question or makes a comment in response to that summary. The writer responds and talk can open from there. Move to the next summary.
Commit to each summary earning one comment or question from another participant.

D. Open Discussion Starters: Sometime what the group needs is freedom to talk. Ask one participant to let the group know when ten minutes have gone by and check in with everyone to decide whether to keep going in this format or try another discussion method.
Compare/contrast two characters.
What would you want to ask the author?
Does the style of the book and writing match its message? How?
If a chapter were added before or after, what would it look like?
What did this book make you think about in your own life?
Did the book remind you of anything else you’ve read?
Look at the opening sentence and closing sentence. Discuss.

E. Three A’s Text Protocol--Best For Nonfiction.
What parts of the text AFFECT you? In pairs, compare notes and find 2-3 passages that make and impact you
What do you AGREE with in the passages? Start with one group’s passage and let participants discuss what they agree with.
What do you ARGUE with in the text? Give participants time to explore the counter view.
Repeat with another pair’s passage.

F. Leveled Questions: Works well when you find a particularly rich detail or plot event that participants seem eager to discuss.
Everyone composes three questions about the episode on his/her own:
Factual: A question that can be answered with the text; Ex: What time of day does this event happen?
Interpretive: A question with multiple answers,but answered with the text; Ex: Why does a character choose a certain course of action?
Evaluative: A question that includes something outside the text; Ex: Does the situation remind you of a world event?
Go through all the factual questions, then interpretive, then evaluative. Let conversation move freely from the responses. Be aware of the time.
Check the group’s desire to move onto to another episode or keep talking about this one.

G. Passage Path: Try this if you’ve talked with your books closed for a while. It is helpful to use the language of the book as a way to open a discussion to start a book. Works for fiction and non-fiction.
One person starts by bringing the group to a passage that felt significant. He or she briefly explains why the passage feels important.
The rest of the group should be thinking about other passages that compares or contrasts (for any reason) to the original. When a participant feels she has one, direct the rest of the group members to the page number and read the passage aloud. The participant explains the connection to the first passage; others can contribute.
Repeat #2 until as many passages have been brought up as there are participants in the group, or for a small group, go around twice. Feel free to make connections to passages discussed earlier.
Be aware not to but undue pressure on individuals with this protocol, but work together to find and explain the connections between the passages.

H. Another Point of View: Works well for both fiction and non-fiction. Also works to extend a discussion about a passage that the group seems eager to discuss and gets participants looking specifically at the text.
Choose a scene or longer passage that is ripe for discussion.
Together, examine how the story is narrated. Describe the narrator’s position, level of power, and tone. Open discussion for three minutes or until you’ve covered it.
After you feel content with the discussion in #2, re-examine the scene from another character’s or narrator’s point of view, especially a person who has a different level of power than the narrator.
Discuss the scene/passage openly from both points of view.

I. Channel the Author: This works well to discuss the craft of the book.
Divide the group into two.
Each mini group composes a question directed to the author.
Examples: What do you want a reader to learn from your book?, Why did you write this?, Why did you divide the book into these chapters?
One mini group goes first and asks the other group their question. The other group gets a minute to confer and then a minute to respond to the question in the voice of author.
The whole group can openly discuss the response and ideas it generates.
Repeat the steps with the other mini group’s question.