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

Beginning the Year

The kind of classroom that supports active and engaged readers begins with seeds sown in the first few days of the school year. The teachers share their thoughts on specific ways to set the tone for the year, setting goals as they begin, communicating these goals with their students, and tailoring literary experiences to meet students' needs. Classroom visits on the first few days of school show some of their suggestions in action.

“I like the idea of blank space in the classroom…not necessarily filling it up for yourself, because I want students to get the idea that whatever they do in this room is important.”

-Rich Thompson, 4th Grade Teacher,
Canyon Elementary School, Hungry Horse, Montana

Establishing routines and expectations, creating a learning community, setting a comfortable and positive tone—these are among the tasks experienced teachers set for themselves as they prepare for the beginning of a new school year. They know that thoughtful planning during the first days of school goes a long way toward ensuring a successful year for their students. In this workshop program you will listen to eight skilled practitioners identify their central concerns for those early days and discuss ways they position students for the rich learning experiences to follow.

Key Points

  • During the beginning days and weeks of school, foundations are laid for the rich literary experiences to follow.
  • Creating a classroom community that values the voice of every student and supports the open exchange of ideas is key to developing an effective envisionment-building classroom.
  • From their very first encounter with students—sometimes even before the first day—the teachers in this workshop set expectations for student participation by emphasizing the reading and talking about books that are at the core of their curricula and modeling expected behaviors.
  • For effective literary conversations to occur, students have to trust that their voices are valued and that they can safely express dissenting ideas.
  • The physical environment of a classroom conveys strong messages to students about what is important and what their roles in the classroom will be.
  • Some of the teachers portrayed in this workshop session make sure that students have a role in the arrangement and decoration of their classroom as well as in establishing classroom rules and resolving problems together.
  • Careful consideration of classroom arrangements includes issues such as class size, room size and shape, the kinds of activities that will take place (silent reading, small group discussions, whole class discussions) and how the spaces can be arranged to accommodate those activities.
  • Linking the classroom to the home lives of the students by asking them to talk about those lives, bring in favorite books from home, or by inviting parents into the classroom strengthens the developing classroom community.
  • Teachers often have to help students learn ways to participate as effective conversationalists. They may need to learn principles of turn-taking, how to disagree and voice alternate opinions gracefully, or how to connect their ideas with what has been said before.

Learning Objectives & Background Reading

Learning Objectives

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

  • Describe several characteristics of envisionment-building classrooms as portrayed in this workshop program.
  • Identify classroom management strategies that you might use during the first weeks of school in order to build a positive and effective learning world for your students.

Background Reading

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

What are the three or four core characteristics you would like to establish in your classroom? What are some ways you can introduce and promote those characteristics at the beginning of the school year? (You might think about how you would like others to describe your classroom and the steps you could take to establish those characteristics at the beginning of the year.)

Identify several specific activities you already include in your introductions to a new school year. Are there new ones you might try after viewing this video?

In preparation for Workshop session 7, read “Literature for Students the System Has Failed” 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.

  • Use a camera to record moments when your students are engaged in the literate behaviors you hope to promote. Use those photos to support those behaviors with a display that says, “This is what silent reading looks like,” or “This is what book discussions look like.”
  • At the beginning of the year, help students create places where they can habitually collect their work like Rich Thompson’s “Celebration Folders” or Jonathan Holden’s “Book Lover Books” for recording observations and questions.
  • Post a list of books the class has read together during read-alouds during the year. Katherine Bomer has student illustrations of each title prominently displayed above the chalk board.
  • Ask students to bring in their favorite books from home to share. Sharing Favorite Reads (PDF) in the support materials of this workshop program offers some organizational ideas for this activity.
  • Organize a scavenger hunt to help students explore the classroom during the first days of school and learn what books and materials are available for their use. Use the Sample Scavenger Hunt (PDF) found in the support materials of this workshop program to help you develop a scavenger hunt for your students. (You may wish to create lists of different items for different groups.)

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Pretend you are one of your students at the beginning of the year. Write the story of the first day in your classroom. (You may wish to write this to reflect existing realities or idealize the story to match future intentions.) Put your writing aside for a day or so, and then return to it with a critical eye. Does the experience you portrayed match your intentions? If not, what might you change to bring intention and reality closer together?


Additional Reading

A to Z Teacher Stuff
The “Back to School” theme offers a number of resources for teachers beginning a school year. Additionally, search for “Back to School” to locate other materials.

Education World
Among its huge number of resources for teachers are many getting started activities. Search for “Back to School.”

ABC Teach
Search for “Back to School” to find activities and suggestions for the beginning of the year.

Teaching is a Work of Heart
A number of resources including suggestions for back to school days at

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, grouped by age.

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 & 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:

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson by Barry Denenberg
The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
The Ordinary Princess by M. Kaye
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret and Denise Shanahan
You Are Special by Max Lucado
Elf Quest by Wendy Pini
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Authors mentioned in this program include:
Sharon Creech
Walter D. Myers
Gary Paulson