Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Making Meaning in Literature Grades 6-8
Conversations in Literature — Workshop

About Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

Individual Clip Descriptions

1. Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom
2. Building a Literary Community
3. Asking Questions
4. Facilitating Discussion
5. Seminar Discussion
6. Dramatic Tableaux
7. Readers as Individuals
8. The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community
9. Whole Group Discussions

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Every effective reader knows that engaging in literature brings many rewards. Literature's words and images are great cultural storehouses, affording readers a glimpse into the things centuries of people have thought, experienced, and valued. Through its poems, plays, short stories, and novels, readers can escape their own lives — if only for a few moments — and become a part of things past, present, and future. As they live within the world of the text, readers can also consider a host of possibilities, stretching their minds to acquire an acute awareness of what they are and who they might be.

The key to this process is active involvement. Readers who interact with literature, experiencing the emotion of the plot with the characters and identifying elements both familiar and strange in the story are better able to enjoy the true fruits of a text. Effective readers both expect and seek out this textual encounter, creating meaning by comparing the literary world to their own thoughts and experiences.

A decade of research conducted by Dr. Judith Langer, Director of The National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement at the State University of New York - Albany, has clearly demonstrated that this kind of experience with literature is something capable readers do as a matter of course. Dr. Langer talks about this process as one of creating an envisionment of the text. Envisionments are constantly evolving, painting rich pictures of understanding that effective readers construct as they make sense of what they are reading.

In the workshop series Conversations in Literature, readers from all aspects of the educational community exemplify Dr. Langer's findings through their thoughtful conversations in literature. You may want to consult this workshop series and its Web site at www.learner.org/envisioningliterature/ to learn more about envisionment building and its implications for the classroom.

In her research, Dr. Langer found that students in all stages of learning and at all ability levels can and do create envisionments — if they are scaffolded by teachers who create an atmosphere in the classroom where they are supported to do so. In such an atmosphere, teachers expect that, as they read, students will probably have more questions than answers. They anticipate that the time they spend together will be a time for talking through these questions, working together as a literary community to dissect, unravel, and move forward within the text. In such a community, each learner is expected to offer a particular perspective on the text, and is respected for doing so, not only by the teacher, but also by his or her peers.

In this approach to interacting with literature, the teacher is no longer the sole source of information about a text, or the arbiter of what is a correct or incorrect interpretation of its words. The text itself is not looked at as a source of information, where readers go about their work trying to find the names of characters, a plot event, or validations for a generally-accepted interpretation of the text that long-ago literary critics have offered. Rather, in an envisionment-building classroom, the task before readers is more open-ended. They read to explore the entire universe of the story world, seeking possible meanings and alternative interpretations. Simply put, they read literature as literature, not as a nonfiction article or a "how to" book, where the sole purpose is to converge on kernels of information.

In this library series, you will visit with language arts teachers and their middle grade students, all working together to construct the kind of literary communities where envisionment building flourishes. With the help of our advisors, we have chosen these eight classrooms to represent as many geographical, ethnic, social, and student achievement levels as possible. The eight teachers you will meet have found a variety of ways to respect and support their students as they work. These classroom visits were captured as they occurred, offering a glimpse into some innovative ways of establishing and nurturing a literary and highly literate community in which all members move forward as diverse and respected voices.

A Word about the Educational Focus of the Project

Throughout this library series, active and engaging literary education is promoted. In celebrating these practices, these teachers have made these basic assumptions about their work and their students' work:

  • Good works of literature are an important part of every language arts curricula. They can help students as they learn to read, write, speak, and listen.
  • Readers can purposefully interact with a variety of literature, relying on what they know and what they have experienced, and employing not only their logic but also their intuition, to make sense of a text.
  • In this interaction, readers form unique and diverse understandings that grow richer as they are shared with their peers in a respectful classroom atmosphere. These understandings are firmly rooted in the text.
  • Through active engagement in a text, students develop strong mental muscles of logic and analysis on which they can rely throughout their academic career.

Different Audiences, Different Purposes

Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8 can be used by many members of the educational community to promote engaging, interactive involvement with literature in and out of the classroom.

Classroom teachers can use this library series:

  • As a professional development resource, exploring the envisionment-building process.

    In these videos, teachers will be able to observe the teacher attitudes and behaviors that foster a growing community of learners focused on interacting with literature, where students of all ability levels are succeeding. They can reflect on their current practices, and revisit the goals they have for their work and that of their students. Teachers can work with these videos individually or together with other teachers, using the suggestions in the guide that accompanies each video to direct a professional development workshop.

  • As resources for curriculum planning and text selections which highlight the importance of active interaction with works of literature.

    Teachers can also use the text and teacher techniques showcased in the video as a springboard when they plan similar or adapted experiences for their own students.

Preservice teachers can use this library series as a practical resource to observe actual classroom events. They can see how teachers present materials related to literature, and the ways they react as students deal with these materials. Because these experiences were recorded as they occurred, viewers will see a complete picture of what happens in an actual class, a stage where the plays aren't scripted and the actors are exuberant improvisers. In this way, these video experiences give flesh to the bones of educational philosophy in a way texts never could.

Teacher educators can use these video clips to enhance their instruction, introducing preservice teachers to the realities of the classroom focused on teaching literature. Each clip could be used as a case study to examine and assess teacher planning and implementation, teacher and student attitudes, the ways in which each lesson succeeds, and the reasons behind its success.

Administrators, including supervisors, principals, and content or team leaders, can use this library series:

  • As a personal resource to explore new emphases in a tested and highly successful method of language arts instruction.
  • As the centerpiece for professional development seminars, to introduce groups of teachers to the ideas and pedagogy that support envisionment building in the classroom.

All educators can also use these materials for community outreach, sharing models of sound classroom practices with educationally-oriented organizations, such as the PTA. Through them, they can see how students excel when they are encouraged to develop and depend upon their own mental acuity to engage in works of great literary merit.

This library series can also be used to show families successful language arts classrooms throughout the country. Teachers can use the video clips as models for appropriate ways to support their children's education at home, either as a partner with a school or in a home schooling situation. Activities or discussion questions from the guide can be reproduced as handouts to spur parent participation.

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