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Conversations in Literature

Returning to the Classroom

In the concluding session, the readers in this community talk about the ways in which these processes can affect the language arts classroom, sharing their success stories. The audience is also given the opportunity to eavesdrop on classrooms throughout the country to see how teachers can encourage their students to become active and involved readers, creating rich and complex envisionments as they interact with literature.


Implementing the envisionment-building process in the classroom requires teachers to develop “new bones” or ways of planning for and interacting with students to draw out their understanding, ways to connect students to each other, and ways to guide students back to the text, or to question their own readings. By reshaping their approach to literature instruction, as well as rethinking how classroom meetings are utilized, teachers can create a true envisionment-building environment.

Here, students’ responses and questions are the focal points for learning, discussion, and exploration. By fostering the growth of a literary community, teachers serve as expert readers and facilitators, moving the process along with layers of questioning, while at the same time connecting students’ ideas, as well as challenging them. Equally important in the process is the ability for students to recognize that their input is invaluable and that their unique perspectives are not only welcome, but also critical in moving the class thinking and learning along.

Envisionment-building classrooms invite students to share their multiple perspectives, stressing that diversity is a strength. Students are engaged in discussions where multiple vantage points are explored for the sake of building a rich understanding for each student. This learning environment creates the expectation that students are to challenge one another, as well as challenge their own ideas.

While not all envisionment-building classrooms have to look and feel the same, they are guided by some basic principles (from Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature):

Principles of Practice:

  • Students are treated as life-long envisionment builders.
  • Questions are treated as part of the literary experience.
  • Class meetings are a time to develop understandings.
  • Multiple perspectives are used to enrich interpretation.

The teacher’s role in an envisionment-building classroom is to:

  • Serve as an expert reader, guide, resource and facilitator, bringing about complex discussion and questioning and lending the expertise of an experienced reader.
  • Provoke students to think, write, and talk about their ideas, their responses, questions, and their understandings of the text itself, and to listen to others’ ideas and leave room for exploring other possibilities.
  • Validate as well as challenge students’ responses and interpretations.
  • Pose complex questions to lead readers towards their own understanding of the text.
  • Introduce texts that are accessible for students and in a way that speaks to their interests and life experiences.
  • Assist students in making real-world connections between the literature and their own lives.
  • Create a classroom community where questions and responses from all students are valued as part of the learning process.
  • Encourage and facilitate participation from all community members.
  • Approach discussion without being married to previous understandings of the text.
  • Provide a variety of multi-text readings, which allows students to compare and contrast literature experiences in order to build complex understandings.

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

Key Points

  • Reading literature is about exploring universal human experiences, such as love, the power of life, relationships, death, success, and misfortune.
  • All readers, no matter what their reading ability, can engage in the envisionment-building process.
  • Literature instruction must involve discussion and questioning.
  • Conversation in an envisionment-building classroom provides opportunities for respectful challenges and conflict.
  • Classroom community members help one another to develop their own understanding through dialogue and questioning, pushing along one another’s envisionments.
  • “Received interpretations,” or ones that are widely known in the literary community, are still important in the envisionment-building process, as long as students are first allowed to develop their own interpretations.
  • There are “misreadings” where students create a faulty understanding. In these cases, students must be asked to back up their interpretations with logical reasoning and with textual examples. The community often reins in the misunderstanding through dialogue.
  • The questions teachers ask in an envisionment-building classroom are key to the process. These questions need to help students enter the text, move around in it, take lessons from it, and then objectify their responses from a critical perspective.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, participants will be able to:

  • Determine and understand the role of the student, the teacher, and the community in an envisionment-building classroom.
  • Select and implement instructional approaches that support the envisionment-building process.
  • Utilize the process of envisionment building in their own classroom, making informed instructional choices about how to approach texts, how to implement classroom activities, how to structure whole-class and small-group discussions, and how to create a productive literary community.

Show 8: Returning to the Classroom Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, you may want to read Chapter 6, “Strategies for Teaching,” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature.

For other resources, look under Additional Reading.

Homework Assignment

Journal: What are three ways you can begin to incorporate envisionment building in your own classroom and to foster a productive literary community?

Extension: Classroom Connection

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

Activity One

Ask your students to create three open-ended, thought-provoking questions related to the literature you are currently reading. A good time to do this is at the end of a segment of reading, where students are more likely to have thoughts, questions, and hunches about what they just read. Use these questions as the basis for classroom dialogue the following day. Consider organizing students into small literary discussion groups and then inviting whole class discussion afterwards. When organizing the literary discussion groups, you might implement ground rules, as well as specific roles for each student to take within the groups. Another variation of this activity is to place students’ questions into a basket for drawing. Students can take turns posing questions and leading parts of the discussion, calling on classmates, as well as adding their own responses.

Literature Circles Online Resources:

For an introduction to Literature Circles, teacher resources, student resources, examples, role templates, and basic information about how Literature Circles work.

Education World’s comprehensive article and resource links about Literature Circles.

For the Literature Circles Resource Center, which includes samples of classroom structuring, units, teacher resources, and more.

Activity Two

When thinking about your current unit of study, what instructional approaches can you immediately implement that would lead towards an envisionment-building classroom? Keep in mind the following student learning goals, based on Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature, as you consider immediate instructional strategies:

Students will be able to:

  • Share initial impressions after reading.
  • Ask relevant questions about the work being read.
  • Go beyond initial impressions in order to rethink, develop, and enrich understanding.
  • Make connections within and across texts.
  • Support interpretations with logical reasoning and with textual examples.
  • Consider multiple perspectives within the text and across groups of readers.
  • Reflect on alternative interpretations and critique or support them.
  • Use literature to gain understandings about self and life.
  • Engage in ways of reading that indicate sensitivity to other cultures and contexts.
  • Use writing as a way to reflect on and communicate literary understanding.
  • Talk and write about a piece in ways that are characteristic of discourse about literature.

Activity Three: Dramatic Variations

Use reader’s theater to invite student interpretation of the text you are currently reading. Students should be given time to prepare their lines, as well as props and facial and voice expression.

Visit Reader’s Theater Online Resources:

A tableau is a dramatic representation of a literary scene. As the actors move into position, they pose in a “freeze-frame.” The scene typically represents something meaningful, or at least an interpretation of the scene from the text.

  • Divide students into acting groups of 4-5.
  • From the literature the students are currently reading, ask each group to discuss a character’s dilemma, actions, or choices. Students should discuss why they think a character acted a certain way and what they would have done in that character’s situation.
  • Based on the discussions, each acting group will create a tableau that represents the character’s dilemma or actions. Then, one student from the group may step outside of the tableau and provide commentary on the scene, as well as what the group would have done in the character’s situation. This same activity can be adapted for use with poetry. Typically, this form of dramatics is impromptu, but if planning is allowed, students might consider using props.
  • A variation for organizing this activity is to ask student groups to draw scenes and characters out of a hat. Ask student groups to dramatically present their interpretation of the character or scene from the text they are reading. Invite the group and class to provide commentary.

Activity Four

Consider utilizing multiple texts in your classroom, based on student reading groups. Allow student groups to select their own text. Create response-based activities around broad themes or learning concepts, lending themselves to discussions about life and the human condition. Some possible themes you might consider include friendship, family relationships, death, romance, growing up, and a variety of adolescent conflicts. Create activities that provide opportunities to compare and contrast texts, considering how each one informs the other.

Activity Five

Visit the online Lesson Builder, which allows teachers to renew current instructional practices with envisionment building strategies.

Additional Reading

An article by Dr. Judith Langer, “A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature”. Here, Dr. Langer offers guidelines for instruction and a framework for teaching strategies that support an envisionment-building classroom.

Dr. Judith Langer’s article “Discussion as Exploration: Literature and the Horizon of Possibilities.” This article explores how the teacher can frame discussion and move along students’ critical thinking and exploration of a horizon of possibilities in envisionment building.

Doralyn R. Roberts and Judith Langer’s report “Supporting the Process of Literary Understanding: Analysis of a Classroom Discussion.” Roberts and Langer analyze a classroom literature discussion where students are immersed in their own text interpretations.

“Thinking and Doing Literature: An 8-Year Study,” by Judith Langer. This report is a concise summary of Langer’s research and classroom implications.

“How Did We Get Here: Seventh-Graders Sharing Literature,” an article by Elizabeth Close which describes how she and her seventh grade students arrived at new perspectives on literature and literature instruction as they began building envisionments.

For some insight into the way envisionment building has affected the teachers who participated in Dr. Langer’s research, you might want to review this article: “Envisioning Literature-In the Classroom and Out” by Elizabeth Close.

Visit this link for additional reports and articles on envisionment building.

The Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA)

The Center on English Learning & Achievement’s site is rich with reports on their current research on topics such as envisionment building and ways to support it in your classroom. Use their search feature to uncover the basics of Dr. Langer’s work. Some terms you can use for your searches include “envisionment” and “Langer.” You might also want to look at the links this site suggests to find other resources.

Many of CELA’s publications are also available at this site. For example, “Guidelines for Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well: Six Features of Effective Instruction,” is an especially pertinent article which was rated as one of Middle Web’s “Top Twenty Articles for Folks Interested in School Reform and the Middle Grades” in 2000.

The article “How English is Taught and Learned in Four Exemplary Middle and High School Classrooms,” by Steven Ostrowski. The researcher examined several classrooms, noting how instructional practices in the classroom assist students in higher levels of achievement.

“Shaping Conversations to Provide Coherence in High School Literature Curricula,” by Arthur Applebee. This article explains the nature of conversation in the literature classroom and how it impacts students’ classroom experiences.

More resources related to the “teacher as a reflective practitioner” for activities conducted in the Going Further portion of this workshop session (see print guide for details):

For information and a reflection cycle diagram, visit this site hosted by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. It targets pre-service teachers, as they begin to strive towards becoming master teachers. Even so, the information is relevant to any teacher, at any point in their career.

For information regarding the teacher as a professional from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.