It’s Lit! Nonfiction Literature Circles (AKA 5 books you need to add to your summer stack)


I’ve experimented with literature circles off and on over the past 6 years. Some years, I’ve loved it. Sometimes, it drives me bonkers (I sometimes struggle with giving up classroom control). Using Literature circles is a balance between keeping kids accountable during their reading and making sure you don’t commit “readicide” on the text.

First semester lit circles killed the books. We did role sheets, plus Flipgrid videos, plus taking notes on each other’s videos, plus replying to videos. It was too much. The kids got confused and didn’t enjoy the experience. Which is a problem, since the entire purpose of literature circles is to get kids to have choice and enjoy what they read.

Though I still am not fully comfortable with how literature circles work in my classroom, my AP class had an excellent experience in 2nd semester.

I nixed the role sheets altogether, and after the first bad experience with Flipgrid, I nixed that too. My students were responsible for doing the following for each Lit Circle meeting day:

  • 1 Insight: 1 5-6 sentence paragraph discussing what made you think in this section. Consider the following questions if they are helpful:
    • What realization did you have in this section about a theme, event, or person?
    • What connections do you see between this section and other texts or discussions?
    • What quote or statistic [if relevant] made you think? Why?
  • 3 Discussion Questions for your group. These should be DEEP questions, not comprehension
  • 1 Quote analysis: Quote may be marked in your book with a sticky note]. 5 sentence analysis of a quote [this is NOT summary. FOCUS ON LANGUAGE]

I also chose to allot about half a period to the discussion circles each week. This allowed for minimal off-task time.

The culminating assignment of this semester’s literature circles was a book review of their text. I told my students that the best reviews would be shared in this blog, so you’ll see them below. Click here the directions for this assignment.

I feared that the book reviews would become book reports, so we first set out to explore book review mentor texts. I chose 5 professional reviews from the mentor text dropbox on the moving writers’ website.

With their literature circle group, students read through the texts and made a list of style observations with these questions to guide them.

  • What is the format of book reviews? What do you notice about the organization? Where are paragraphs divided? Why?
  • Sentence structure. What kinds of sentences are used? When is it varied? What is the effect?
  • Content: How does the reviewer give evidence for their claims without revealing major spoilers? Are quotes used? How and where?
  • Other style observations: What do you notice about word choice or use of figurative language?

Students came up with this list of “writing moves” for professional book reviews:

  • Engaging intro: often a quote from the book being reviewed
  • A summary of the story is usually early in the writing. Avoid spoilers!
  • Interesting title
  • Graphics, book cover, or picture of the author are included.
  • Varied paragraph structure, few long paragraphs. Paragraph may be one sentence.
  • Quotes, usually of beautiful language, are used throughout
  • Figurative language (often metaphors) are used
  • Reviewer may talk about personal experience that relates to the book.

After the discussion, my students wrote their own reviews of their texts. All our books for this unit were nonfiction, primarily memoirs since this was for my AP Language Class.

Here are some excerpts from the best reviews that were submitted. Check them out! And, more importantly, check out these books! These are some of the best books that I have read in the past few years, and I highly recommend adding them to your classroom. In the words of 90s literacy superhero, Levar Burton, don’t just take my word for it!


just mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson:

This is part memoir, part exposé of inequalities in the legal system. This book primarily focuses on racial injustice in the prison system and argues against the death penalty. This book is by far the best book that I have read in years.

Madison W’s book review is excerpted below:

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson manages to craft a perfect tell-all on his life that is guaranteed to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. You will go from a peaceful state of mind to an anger-filled walk around the house, all in one chapter. Take it from me, I was well-experienced with said walks during my time reading the book. He speaks of his days as a lawyer and advocate for convicts who are either wrongfully sentenced or are facing harsh penalties, including the ever-so controversial death penalty. As a man working within the prison reform system, you get an inside look at what it’s like for prisoners of all genders, ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds. The detail and emotion Stevenson put into this book makes it feel as if you are present in the situation.


Educated by Tara Westover:

Memoir of Brigham Young University & Harvard graduate, who had no formal education. Westover was raised in an abusive, isolated Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. Her story covers abuse, the value of education, religion, and a variety of other topics

An excerpt from Brooke M’s review is below:

Westover’s memoir is a story about being in a whole new strange world, where she first feels like a stranger in it, but she ends up being able to figure out her way around. Her story is an inspirational story for her viewers, as she is living proof that anyone can make it in life, even if they first feel like a stranger in a new world. Also, she shows her viewers that is it okay to miss one’s home, as she mentions that she couldn’t help but miss her home in the mountains while she was away, stating, “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain…” Her hometown was what truly made her into the person she is today, as she stated, “I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me.” She stated this to teach her audience that how one starts is not how they will end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.

Westover’s memoir is a story of defiance, in which she was able to set her whole life straight, even after all those hardships she was forced to face. She showed her audience that sometimes, separation between loved ones are for the better, as it will slowly bring peace. Westover teaches that choices in life are very important, as each choice forms you into who you will become, no matter how you started. She is living proof that no matter how hard life will treat you, you must just keep battling through it all head on, never giving up.

born a crime

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah:

This is the memoir of South African Comedian and talk show host, Trevor Noah. In addition to telling his story, Noah discusses apartheid in South Africa, and connects this to still existing racial inequalities in the United States.

Here is an excerpt Maree D’s review:

In his autobiography, Trevor Noah recounts brilliantly what it was like to grow up as a mixed child, not quite black, but not quite white (as he says), in a racial divided society. Through twists and turns he guides the reader through the bustling streets and confusing relationships of South Africa, carefully crafting an image previously unimaginable to outsiders. He shares the joys of his youth, the struggles within his family, and the uncontrollable sense of isolation caused by his skin. Though the sporadic story-telling may leave some bewildered, a careful read of the material can provide an unparalleled look at race, power, and human nature. . .

Noah has risen out of the flames of struggle and systematic loneliness to craft a book centered on what now seems to be an archaic institution, as well as one that carries, living, breathing, depth and courage. Especially in light of growing tensions between racial groups in the United States. . .  It is a book that values honesty and compassion in a world of hate and labels, supporting itself with accounts of religious fulfillment, childhood dreams, and, most importantly, motherly love.

first they killed my father

First They Killed my Father by Luong Ung:

This is a memoir from a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide that occurred from 1975-1979. It is written from the perspective of Luong as a 6-year-old as the events transpire.

Here is an excerpt from the review of Thomas S:

Luong’s journey took her from collective to collective, child-soldier camp, and hidden away under bags of fish to Viet Nam. Her experience is emboldened in her book recounting the horrifying experience in vivid detail, and her testimony stands against any form of denial that the Khmer Rouge (the Angkar) brutally murdered millions. Her book, “First They Killed My Father,” is an astounding read that emanates in its readers the same feelings she felt during her time. . . This work of literature was written for the time she was a youth, no more than 10 years old towards the end, and the childish innocence and aged analysis is seen as she seamlessly transfers between the two passive voices.

This book stands as a testament against coerced government and military oppression. While the Cold War and communism may have been the fears by people during this time, the Authoritarian response is still a negligent one towards the majority. Luong writes, “they are destroyers of things.” It is the perfect alignment of the childish view on atrocious circumstance.


Dopesick by Beth Macy:

Also one of the best books I’ve read. Dopesick details the path from mass prescription of high-powered pain killers to the current Opioid Epidemic in America. A large portion of the book focuses on its role in Appalachia.

Jackie K’s book review is excerpted below:

In my personal opinion, I believe she truly portrayed her thoughts and evidence extremely well. There were so many touching stories, quotes, and shocking facts about the pharmaceutical industry. I do not think this book changed my mind or opinions on anything, but I believe it could have an impact on people who don’t normally sympathize with addicts. It gives many examples of how so many kids and citizens have been forced into addiction through prescriptions that they never wanted in the first place which I believe could influence prejudiced people to reevaluate their views on addiction.


WVCTE is wondering, what is your experience with choice reading and literature circles? What tips do you have? What is on your summer reading list? Join the conversation on Twitter by following @WVCTE or chatting with us on Facebook.

Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. This will be her last blog post as Ms. Gearhart, as she will become Mrs. Kisner in 26 days. She and her students are struggling with a new nickname and welcome suggestions.


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