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Engaging With Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 3-5

Many Students: Many Voices and Abilities

Each student has an individual perspective to share with the world. In this session, you will learn about ways to celebrate their uniqueness, providing an atmosphere in the classroom in which each student plays a respected and respectful role in conversations surrounding literature. You will see how background, reading levels, language acquisition levels, and other personal characteristics allow for the formulation of multiple perspectives that add significantly to a group's interaction with literature.

“If I had a homogenous classroom with all the same kids, all at the same reading level, I’d be disenchanted. But every day is a new surprise with kids bringing to the table and discussions new material and new thoughts.”

-Jonathan Holden, 4th -Grade Teacher,
Nathan Hale Elementary School,
Roxbury, Massachusetts

Diversity in American classrooms comes with many faces. While it may be tempting to think of diversity only in terms of ethnicity and culture, the term embraces many other characteristics as well, including economic backgrounds, language, ability levels, physical or emotional challenges, interests, and life experiences. Even in classrooms where the population appears homogenous, a tighter lens reveals multiple diversities invisible to the casual onlooker.

As a nation it is crucial that we learn to live with—and appreciate—these differences. While the complexities a diverse population brings to our classrooms present challenges, responding to those challenges may well be our most important educational responsibility.

The workshop teachers in this series believe that every child, no matter what his or her background or ability level, deserves to be in classrooms where he or she can and will learn—and thrive. In this video, you will listen as they discuss ways in which they work to create such classrooms—often through literature instruction—for their students.

Key Points

  • Diverse student populations bring a richness of experience to the classroom that benefits teachers and students alike.
  • Creating a classroom in which each student knows that his or her voice is accepted and valued is central to envisionment-building instruction.
  • Helping students celebrate their own diversities helps them develop their individual voices, recognize their own perspectives, and understand those perspectives as positions from which they approach literary experiences.
  • It is important that students learn to confront and think about literary interpretations different from their own.
  • A teacher may select literary texts to help students understand their own perspectives or choose titles that expose students to perspectives alien to their own.
  • Teachers working with bilingual children may find themselves walking a fine line between honoring a child’s home language and making sure they can navigate the educational process in English.
  • Research suggests that, with comprehension support, students with limited English proficiency can explore ideas, interpretations, and perspectives in response to the content of literary texts.
  • The read-aloud is a central pedagogical strategy for teachers working to include all students in literary experiences.
  • Read-alouds allow students access to titles that might be too difficult for their individual reading levels, and they offer students experience with the sounds and rhythms of the English language.
  • In diverse classrooms, teachers offer students a wide range of literature to suit a wide range of reading levels.
  • Teachers in diverse classrooms find it useful to have students support one another’s reading and learning through social reading activities.
  • In a classroom that embraces all voices, students with learning disabilities or physical challenges are often the ones able to make thoughtful and important contributions to classroom discussions.
  • One strategy used by teachers in inclusion classrooms is to present the same materials to all children and then find ways to support each child’s approach to them.
  • Looking for what each student does well helps teachers support each individual as a valued contributor to the classroom community.

Learning Objectives & Background Reading

Learning Objectives

After participating in this session, you will be able to:

  • Appreciate the benefits a diverse student population brings to the envisionment-building classroom.
  • Incorporate a number of ways to accommodate the needs and include the voices of all students, as portrayed on this video.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 7, read “Literature for Students the System Has Failed” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement’s Web site.

Explore the “Envisionment-Building resources” to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.



Respond to the following in your journal:

How effective are your efforts to include all students in the activities of your classroom? What difficulties complicate your efforts? What might help you resolve those difficulties?

In preparation for Workshop 8, read “Strategies for Teaching” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

For additional resources, refer to the Additional Reading section of this workshop’s materials.


Classroom Connection

 Student Activities

Try these activities with your students.

  • Suggest to students that reading does not have to be a private, individual activity all the time. Introduce them to one or more of the social reading activities such as conversation partners, book buddies, or reading experiences portrayed in this video. Use the Teacher Tool Social Reading Strategies (PDF) in the support materials of this session for suggested approaches.
  • Offer students alternate ways of responding to their reading such as Sketch to Stretch (PDF) (used by BJ Namba).

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Who are you? What are your diversities? How do they influence you and the decisions you make as a teacher? How do they influence your interactions with your students?


Additional Reading

ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education
This site provides hundreds of links to information in many areas of education. The section on Equity and Cultural Diversity  is of particular interest for viewers of this particular video.

This non-profit site collects booklists, authors, reviews, and “must reads.” The children’s literature section of the site features a wide variety of links and author lists.

Newbery Medal Homepage
This site lists all the Newbery winners and authors as well as providing information about the selection process.

Professional Journals About Literature Instruction:

CELA Newsletter
The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, State University of New York, Albany, publishes a newsletter in the fall, winter, and spring. The newsletter addresses a wide range of issues concerning literacy.

The National Council of Teachers of English
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) publishes many subscription journals including Language Arts for the elementary school level. Many issues are available online to members.

Texts mentioned by teachers or students in this workshop program:

The Big Bike Race by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
The Pinballs by Betsy Byars
The Jacket by Andrew Clements
The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
“The Wall” by Langston Hughes
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle
A Family Apartby Joan Lowery Nixon
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams
Dragon’s Gate by Laurence Yep
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein