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Conversations in Literature


The group demonstrates another important vantage point that competent readers adopt: that of stepping outside the text and using what they find there to rethink what they know. As they discuss Shakespeare's Hamlet, they plumb the familial relationships included in the text to find points of congruence between the text and their own lives, and lessons they can take away from this examination. Dr. Langer stresses that, while not all texts speak explicitly to readers in this way, seeking the places where one's life intersects with the lessons of literature is important for all readers.


When readers step out of a text and rethink what they know, they mentally cast themselves out of a text and reenter their own world. It is here they can learn from the text. When they stand in this position to a text, readers reflect on the decisions and choices they have made in their own lives, the things they have done, and dilemmas they have faced. Something they have encountered in the text — an event in the plot structure, a character’s actions or reactions, for example — plunge them back into their past to consider other possibilities. Not only can readers learn about other cultures, eras, and even their own lives from the text, but also they can sometimes become cognizant of the information they are learning from it.

Readers are not always provoked to rethink their lives as they read. However, when they do find points of congruence between what they are reading and what they have lived, readers respond in many deep ways, rethinking a past decision or event from a different perspective, for example. They find alternatives that may not have occurred to them previously.

At times, readers deliberately enter a text to find a message there that they can translate into their own lives. But most often, especially when the literature is rich and complex, these moments for reflection present themselves serendipitously.

When such a connection is made, readers find themselves contemplating: How could they have reacted differently? How could they have felt differently? What else might they have been able to think about in that situation? Some other questions that readers mentally pose when they step out of a text and rethink what they know might include:

  • How might I react if I were in a similar situation as the character in the text? Was I ever in a similar situation? Do I know anyone who was?
  • What can I learn from the situation in this text?
  • Why did I feel a certain way or act a certain way when I found myself in a situation similar to the one in the text?
  • What were my choices? Did I make the best ones?
  • How else could I have handled it? What should I do now?
  • What did I gain from that decision? Was it the right one?
  • How could I act if I wanted to become a more ______ person?

In asking and answering these questions, readers come to see literature as a portal, through which they can look at themselves, recreate their own identities, and imagine who they might become.

The text world can remain open to readers long after they have put the text aside. They can return here as they reconsider and think through what they have done, or said, or thought from the perspectives the text has offered them.

The opportunity to gain insight about one’s life by reading literature is at the heart of why many of us continue to read. This program presents panelists engaged in a lively discussion about Hamlet, where each member of the conversation connects with the text on a unique personal level. The panelists demonstrate how this drama has been an opportunity to rethink their own life story from the vantage point of the text world.

For a complete guide to the workshop session activities, download and print our support materials.

Key Points

  • When stepping out and rethinking what one knows, readers leave the text world and revisit their own world, in order to rethink their own lives.
  • Some texts strike a chord within us, illuminating our own life experiences, choices, decisions, and actions.
  • Readers use the text as a springboard to ask questions that focus on their own lives. In doing so, readers learn from the texts and extend their envisionments.
  • The process of stepping out and rethinking what one knows does not occur as often as other stances. This stance requires that readers make a personal connection to the text.
  • During the conversation in this program, the readers make a connection to Hamlet based on its themes of familial relationships and parental expectations.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the mental processes that occur when readers step out of a text and rethink what they know.
  • Offer a personal example of the way in which a text they have read caused them to rethink a previous event, decision, or opinion.
  • Demonstrate through example one way in which the text Hamlet might cause readers to rethink a past event, decision, or opinion.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, you may want to read the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Select a passage from the text that you personally connected to or that made you reflect upon a life experience and rethink your way through it.

Some online resources you may want to consult include:

If you have not already done so, you may also consider reading Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature, Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments,” pages 9-23, which examines the envisionment-building process and defines the stance Stepping Out and Rethinking What One Knows.

For other resources, look under Additional Reading.


Homework Assignment

Journal: What are three concrete things you can do to encourage your students to see themselves in the literature you engage with in the classroom?

Reading: In preparation for Workshop 6, you may want to read the poems “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes and “Revolutionary Petunias” by Alice Walker. Both selections are available from the anthology Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing, 5th edition, Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, ©1998, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-010076-5. “Revolutionary Petunias” is also available from Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, 9th edition, James H. Pickering, University of Houston, Prentice Hall, ©2001 ISBN 0-13-014328-6.

Online versions of “Theme for English B” can be found at:

NOTE: Public and college libraries have access to a search engine called POEM FINDER, a library Internet service which provides indexing and detailed subject access to over 600,000 poems and the full text of over 50,000 poems. Check with your local public or college library to use this research tool to find these and other poems.

If you have not already done so, you may consider reading Envisioning Literature, Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments.” Additional information on this stance can be garnered from these online resources:

Within the workshop session, you will be reading one of the following poems: “Richard Cory” by Edward Arlington Robinson, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, or “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron. The poems listed can be found online:

“Richard Cory” by Edward Arlington Robinson

An online version of the poem is available from the University of Toronto.

“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

An online version of the poem is available from

“She Walks in Beauty ” by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Click here for an online version of the poem.

or within the following anthologies:

  • Adventures in Literature, Pegasus Edition. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
  • America Reads Series, Classic Edition. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1989.
  • The Elements of Literatures Program. Austin, Texas: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1989.
  • McDougal, Littell Literature. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal, Littell and Company, 1989.
  • The McGraw-Hill Literature Series, The New Treasury Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill School Division, 1989.
  • Prentice Hall Literature. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.
  • Scribner Literature Series, Signature Edition. New York: Scribner Laidlaw, 1989.


Extension: Classroom Connection

You may want to try these activities back in the classroom.

Activity One

Select a passage of literature that is rich in description, plot, and character development. It is best to choose a text that features adolescents and their related concerns, so that the students can easily make a personal connection.

Some novels that might work with your students include:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative, by Ignatia Broker
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

A list of books about growing up female is included in this University of Maryland Baltimore County discussion thread.

Some short stories include:
“Thank You, M’am” by Langston Hughes
“Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler
“Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera

Some poems include:
“The Lifeguard” by James Dickey
“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
“Nikki Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni
“New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez
“Dear John Wayne” by Louise Erdrich
“Street Kid” by Duane NiatumFamily Friend Poems contains an exhaustive list of poetry on the topic of growing up at their site.

Some dramas include:
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Dramatically read the passage aloud or use Reader’s Theater for a dramatic class reading experience in which readers take on the role of one of the characters in the text.

Reader’s Theater Online Resources:
Access tips and scripts for reader’s theater
Reader’s theater resources for students and teachers

Ask students to personally respond to the literature by drawing a picture of something the passage reminds them of in their own life. This could be a part of the text that is connected to memories, a problem or dilemma, or a person they may know. Ask students to write a short paragraph explaining what the picture represents and how their reading of the literature made them rethink the experience or memory. Students should have the opportunity to share their art and writing in small groups.

Talk about the ways in which the text they read helped them think about this event or person. Some questions you might like to ask include:

  • What part of the text — plot, theme, a character, a setting — made you remember something that happened to you?
  • How was what happened to you different from this part of the text?
  • How was it the same?
  • If this ever happened to you again, would you do things differently, based on what you read?

Activity Two

Read several fables and/or nursery rhymes, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” or “Jack and the Bean Stalk.” Ask students to explain what advice they can take from the fables and implement it in their own lives. Talk about extending the message into their own lives. For example, in the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the message clearly is that what seems obvious at the outset might not always come to pass. When have your students expected something to happen that didn’t? How did the outcome make them feel? What other ways might this message influence their lives? Ask students to write their own fable offering their advice for peer readers, using characters and settings that make sense to them today. Encourage students to call upon their personal experiences, conflicts, and challenges in designing and writing their fable.

Online Fairy Tales and Folklore Resources:

Activity Three

Brainstorm a list of adolescent conflicts and/or problems, such as peer pressure, teen pregnancy, not receiving the respect they think they deserve, getting into college, etc. Together, generate a list of texts that “speak” to these problems (See online sources for texts in Activity One if you need some reminders.). Ask the students to explain their choices. What lessons might a reader take away from these texts? This list can be posted near the classroom library or on a bulletin board to encourage reading. The teacher may also choose to post the list on the school web site, to share with the school community.

Activity Four

Ask students to select a young adult novel as an independent reading project or for use in literature circles or small book groups, depending upon your preference. Invite students to keep a dialectical journal or reading log that focuses on personal connections to the text. A dialectical journal is a two-column journal where students comment on short passages, phrases, or lines of text. One column features a direct quote from the text and the other column features the students’ reactions to the passage from the text. For the purpose of this activity, ask students to only select passages that spark a personal response or reaction based on their own life experiences. Ask them to think about “How is this similar or different from how I have acted in the past or how is this similar or different from my own life. What can I learn from this? How does this change my perspective, if at all?” You may want to model a few passages before asking the students to do this on their own.

It is also helpful to provide a list of open-ended questions for students to work from, such as those included in this Hints on Helping Students page. [click here for a PDF version] You could also use this information to make a bookmark or a class activity sheet. If they feel comfortable about doing so, students could share their dialectical journals with each other.

Hints on Helping Students Step Out of a Text and Rethink What They Know

When students look back to their lives as they read, they can offer many different kinds of comments, based on what they have thought, done, or said in the past. For example, Dr. Langer presented these examples from her research in the article “The Process of Understanding Literature.” The text the students were reading was Ray Bradbury’s short story “I See You Never.” The underlined text is from the story.

  • Mr. Ramirez saw the long table, laid with clean white linen, and set with a platter, cool shining glasses, a water pitcher with ice cubes floating inside it, and a bowl of fresh potato salad, and one of bananas and oranges, cubed and sugared.“I don’t think I’ve ever had bananas and oranges cubed. And I don’t think I would like sugar on them, but maybe I would. It would be interesting to try.”
  • She pulled the chair out and sat down. She picked up the shining knife and fork and started once more upon her steak.“It never happened to me. But I know I would feel like Mrs. O’Brian and not be able to eat my steak. She makes me see you don’t have to pretend when you’re feeling so sad.”

Because this stance is such a personal one, and depends so much on the text chosen, it is helpful to think of model questions to ask students in terms of a specific text. We have included the first part of Chapter One in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women here to help you see how you can scaffold readers as they adapt this stance.


Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,

“We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t.” And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

Have you ever been part of a family holiday celebration that you just knew wasn’t going to be the same as it used to be? How did you feel? How did you feel as you read about the same situation in this book?

Think about the family in the book. Do you think they like each other? Is this the same or different from the way you think about your family?

Has your family ever asked you to give up something you wanted to do because they couldn’t afford it? Did you feel like Meg did?


Additional Reading

Dr. Langer also presents real-life responses from students that demonstrate typical comments as they employ each of the four stances in their reading in this CELA article, “The Process of Understanding Literature.”