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

About Making Meaning in Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 6-8

Individual Workshop Descriptions

1. Introducing our Literary Community
2. Encouraging Discussion
3. Going Further in Discussion
4. Diversity in Texts
5. Student Diversity
6. Literature, Art, and Other Disciplines
7. Assessment
8. Planning and Professional Development
9. Starting in September...




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Framework of Optional Teaching Strategies

Beginning the Literary Experience

Easing Access Before Reading
Create a context for the literary experience:
  • evoke broad personal, historical, cultural, or conceptual connections
  • invite the literary experience (stepping into the text and exploring possibilities) as opposed to seeking information
Conceptualizing the "Assignment"
Provide students with opportunities to engage in varied activities with thought-provoking literature:
  • experiences might involve creating, performing, or observing books, movies, plays, poems, or dramatic interludes accomplished jointly or alone, for themselves or for other.
Continuing the Literary Experience

Inviting Initial Understanding
Keep students' thoughts at the center of concern:
  • tap students' present envisionments - what is presently on their minds about the piece
  • encourage wondering and hunches as well as more fully formed understandings
  • do not use this time for evaluation, but for sharing initial understandings and beginning to explore beyond
Developing Interpretations
Help students examine and extend their envisionments by questioning and building upon their current understandings. Focus on students' comments to help them:
  • explore and extend envisionments and seek possible explanations
  • reflect on changes across time
  • consider multiple perspectives from within the text and their own experiences
  • use conflicting views within the discussion as an opportunity to explore rather than curtail thinking
Taking a Critical Stance
Help students refine and sharpen their interpretations by objectifying and analyzing their understandings, the text, and their experiences:
  • examine related issues from text, literature, and life
  • build texture by examining alternative perspectives
  • use others' perspectives and related possibilities to challenge and enrich own responses
  • analyze, explain, and defend own interpretations in light of text, other readings and experience
  • consider received interpretations in light of own and others' responses
  • generalize to life by theorizing about the human condition; consider moral, message, and/or theme
  • explore textual features and literary concepts from perspective of their own responses.
Stocktaking
Mark end of meeting without shutting off thinking:
  • close session by summarizing key issues, noting changes in ideas, and pointing to concerns not adequately addressed as yet
  • leave room for further exploration of possibilities
  • invite continuing envisionment-building
We have found that these strategies support the principles of instruction and scaffolding described in previous work (e.g., Langer 1992, Roberts & Langer 1991). The teachers use them as lessons evolve, providing options to help them decide what to do next in response to students' immediate needs as well as what to do as students' understandings develop.

Also, we have come to see differences between these strategies and the more traditional approaches the teachers had formerly used. While more traditional instruction encourages teachers to base educational decision-making on learning experiences and tests that focus on "fixed" understandings that students acquired in their past (what the students "understood" or didn't when they read the work, completed the assignments, or took the test), here, the teachers focus on the students' developing understandings. The more thought-provoking lessons motivated by this framework of instructional strategies take place when teachers look for, listen to, and take their teaching cues from students' "meanings-in-motion" - as students' understandings are in the process of being formulated. This, we feel, needs to become an essential element in the new pedagogy.

This framework of instructional strategies is part of the development of a practical, response-based pedagogy to replace the more traditional positivist theories that presently underlie literature education. I hope that these ideas, combined with the other studies in this project and the related work of other researchers, will help provide the kind of specificity teachers need to internalize their own approaches to response-based instruction.

In general, then, when these options underlie teachers' decision-making in the instructional environment, students are supported to explore, rethink, explain, and defend their own understandings. They begin with their own initial impressions, and use writing and discussion as well as further reading to ponder and refine their developing interpretations. The social structure of the class calls for (and expects) the thoughtful participation of all students. The teacher assumes that there will be multiple interpretations to be discussed and argued, and the students learn that pondering and defending horizons of possibilities that "counts" as evidence for literary thinking and knowing.

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