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

Using Art and Other Disciplines To Enrich Classroom Conversations

Learn how the arts and other disciplines can enhance individual literary experiences for each student. Through classroom footage and group discussion, see how drama, drawing, and music add depth and dimension to literature, and offer students alternative ways of expressing their understandings of the text. The group also talks about various ways to encourage students as writers.

“I think it’s important to offer many ways for children to express themselves and their understanding of the book. Some kids are not very verbal or they’re shy and [alternate modes of expression]
reveal a whole other dimension.”

-BJ Namba, 3rd-Grade Teacher,
Punahou School,
Honolulu, Hawaii

Language—written or oral—is a customary mode when asking students to respond to literature. However, it is certainly not the only one. Some teachers have turned to the visual and dramatic arts to provide students with alternative modes of response. Other teachers have found ways to use music or dance to help students think about texts from additional viewpoints. These alternative forms of response have the benefit of enriching the conversation by encouraging contributions from students who might otherwise be reluctant to participate. In addition, changing the medium of response pushes students to think about texts in fresh ways as they move from literal comprehension to more complex understandings of the text.

In this video, the teachers share how they have integrated these alternative response modes—both formally and informally—into their classrooms. In spite of potential difficulties with organization and order, these teachers feel strongly that the value alternate response modes bring students far outweighs possible disadvantages. Not only are their classrooms livelier, and their students more engaged, but they have also found the conversations more insightful and the levels of meaning enriched.

Key Points

  • Students can express themselves and their understandings about literature through writing, drawing, dramatic activities, and music.
  • Alternate ways of response to literature help students move from literal to more complex understandings.
  • Alternate response modes help readers enrich understandings of the text and of themselves.
  • The processes students engage in as they plan a dramatic performance—developing interpretations and choosing how to present those interpretations—may well have more value than the performance itself.
  • Drama helps both the performers and the actors develop rich understandings of character and motivation.
  • Not only do alternate response modes help students express current ideas, often they cause them to generate new ones.
  • When students share their work, their particular responses often influence and expand the responses of their classmates.
  • Writing is an effective response mode because it can be private and allows students to focus on ideas that they are in the process of working out.
  • Writing slows down thinking, allowing students time to get their complete idea on a page.
  • Often spending in-depth time on a particular text has more lasting value for students than trying to “cover” a number of texts quickly.

Learning Objectives & Background Reading

 Learning Objectives

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

  • Consider offering students a repertoire of response modes to literature, including drama, art, writing, and music.
  • Identify spontaneous moments when a shift from discussion to another response mode might be effective for students.
  • Recognize that including drama, art, writing, and music as meaning-making response modes is designed to enrich students’ understandings of the literature as well as to offer assessment opportunities.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 5, read “Literature Across the Curriculum” 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:

Choose one of the response modes discussed in this video—drama, the visual arts, writing, and music—and identify several ways you might invite students to try it with  specific texts. How might you introduce it to the class?   What safeguards against classroom chaos might you wish to put into place?

In preparation for Workshop 6, read “A Practical Pedagogy” 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.

  • Give your students copies of the “Thinkmark (PDF)” to record their “reader thoughts” as they prepare for discussion about their reading.
  • Pause during a read-aloud after an emotional moment and ask students to spend several moments writing from the point of view of one of the characters. Use their writing as the basis for discussion.
  • Alternately, choose a selection of dialogue from a group text, reproduce copies for everyone, and ask students in small groups to practice reading the dialogue dramatically. Have some students share with the class as a whole.
  • Experiment with some of the ideas for reader response from Alternate Response Modes: Some Suggestions (PDF).
  • Dr. Karen Smith has offered some tips for other ways of using drama in the classroom (PDF) that she has found to be very successful.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Which of the response modes discussed in this workshop are you personally most comfortable with? Why? Which one are you most unsure about? What help might you need to feel confident experimenting with a mode with which you are not personally comfortable?


Additional Reading

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:

Sounder by William Howard Armstrong
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
The Jacket by Andrew Clements
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Yolanda’s Genius by Carol Fenner
Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story About Sojourner Truth by Jeri Ferris
The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
Poetry Matters by Ralph Fletcher
“First Baseball Glove” in Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald H. Graves
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
Cages by Peg Kehret
Drawing Lessons by Tracy Mack
The Grand Escape by Phillis Reynolds Naylor
A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Hey You! C’Mere: A Poetry Slam by Elizabeth Swados