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Engaging with Literature: A Video Library, Grades 3-5

Building Community

A combined class of fourth and fifth graders works in small groups to explore historical fiction. Latosha Rowley models an engaged role for the teacher as she circulates among the groups, asking questions to help take their discussions to another level. Texts include I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Margaret Davidson, Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story About Sojourner Truth by Jeri Ferris, Which Way Freedom by Joyce Hansen, A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon, and Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

“One thing I really liked… [was] the fact that all of the groups were working together, and that’s really an important thing when you get in literature discussion groups. [They have to] appreciate and accept other people’s opinions and ideas, and at this age that’s a challenge. It helps us get closer… It builds community in the classroom and that’s wonderful.”

Latosha Rowley, 4th- and 5th-Grade Teacher
Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry
Indianapolis, Indiana

In this video, you will watch Latosha Rowley working with her fourth and fifth graders in a multiage setting as they discuss their novels — all historical fiction — in small groups. You will then join them as they decide on a culminating activity which they then present to others. Rich literature discussions such as those portrayed on this video don’t happen automatically. Ms. Rowley notes that she has seen significant development since the beginning of the year in her students’ abilities to handle the choices that she offers, in the books they decide to read, in the ways they approach discussion, and in how they choose to present their understandings for evaluation.


About This Video

Often Ms. Rowley begins class with a whole-group discussion. She uses this time to model ways in which smaller groups might work as they ask questions, focus on meaningful passages, and tease out meanings from their books. Once students are in groups, she circulates, moving from group to group, monitoring conversations. In each group, she probes their understandings, asking questions that the students may not have thought of in an effort to help them take their discussion to another level.

The energy the students in this class bring to their reading and to their discussion groups is almost palpable. As you watch and listen, you may wish to observe how the students interact in their groups. You may notice how they work together to answer questions and resolve problems. You may be interested in what they have to say about the decisions they made as they worked together on a culminating project. Engagement with the project is unqualified; everybody in the group is involved in creating a satisfying final product. They are truly a community of learners working together in an envisionment-building classroom.

For resources that can help you use this clip for teacher professional development, preservice education, administrative and English/language arts content meetings, parent conferences, and back-to-school events, visit our Support Materials page. There you will find PDF files of our library guide, classroom lesson plan, student activity sheets, and other Teacher Tools.

Featured Texts

Ms. Rowley believes it is important for her students to have choices about what they read. As a result, typically her students work in literature circles, with each of five groups reading and discussing a separate text. Because the Center for Inquiry has a literature-based curriculum, Ms. Rowley often groups literature selections to complement work the students are doing in other subject areas. The texts highlighted in this video are all biography or historical fiction.

I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Margaret Davidson

The story of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., this popular biography written for young readers introduces students to his philosophies and achievements in the fight for civil rights while outlining key moments in his life.

Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story About Sojourner Truth by Jeri Ferris

Owned first by a Dutch-speaking farmer in New York State, Sojourner Truth was sold to John Neely when she was nine years old. In her new home she had to learn English along with many new ways of doing things. There she came to understand the importance of her religious faith to guide her actions. When she was sold again at age 13, her new master married her to Thomas, a slave much older than herself with whom she had five children. In spite of promises from her master, her only son and youngest child, Peter, was sold away when he was five. Determined to free him and herself, she enlisted the help of a Quaker family, the Van Wageners. Unable to persuade her daughters to join her (although they, too, were finally free), she traveled to New York City to be with Peter. When she left, she felt like a brand new person and adopted her new name-Sojourner Truth-saying, “The Lord is my master and his name is Truth.” In 1843 she left the city and became an itinerate orator at camp meetings where she sang and told her stories. Eventually she become an important and compelling voice for women’s suffrage, although she had never learned to read or write.

Which Way Freedom by Joyce Hansen

This novel is based on the facts of the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, 1864. Obi, a slave of John and Martha Jennings was taken from his mother as a child. When an opportunity presented itself, he escaped with the help of Burka, an old African who lived by the creek and who knew the way to the island where Obi’s mother last lived. Unable to locate her, Obi found himself caught up in the Civil War and becomes one of the 200,000 blacks who fought for their freedom.

A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon

Based on the true history of the Orphan Trains that ran between 1854 and 1929 and transported 100,000 children to the west for resettlement and adoption, this book follows Frances May Kelly as she and her five brothers and sisters are sent west to new homes. Recently widowed, their Irish immigrant mother tried to support her children by working nights cleaning in an office building. When her older son Mike is arrested for stealing, the mother realizes she can no longer keep her children safe and decides to send them away. Frances cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to protect her younger siblings and enhance her chances of adoption. She anguishes as her brothers and sisters are sent to different homes but settles in under the care of Jake and Margaret Cummings. Accidentally she discovers two runaway slaves hiding in the barn and realizes that her new home is a link on the Underground Railroad. Eventually it is up to her to enable their escape to the next way station.

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Set in mid-19th century New Hampshire, this story is based on the history of Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, also known as “One-Eyed Charley,” “Cockeyed Charley,” and “Six Horse Charley.” Orphaned at two, Charlotte has lived at the orphanage for 10 years without being adopted. Made to do all the kitchen work because she is a girl, Charlotte’s only solace is the time she spends at the stables helping to care for the horses. Caught riding the stallion Freedom, Charlotte is banished from the stables forever. When her only friend Hayward is adopted, and Freedom dies unexpectedly of a fever, there is nothing to keep her at the orphanage any longer. She disguises herself as a boy, renames herself Charley, and escapes. After much traveling and nearly being recaptured, she finds a job as a stable boy for Ebenezer at the What Cheer Stables in Providence. When he decides to close the stables, Charley travels to California to fulfill her dream of owning her own stables. Only after her death was it discovered that “Charley” was really a woman. Her name is listed in the official poll list of the Santa Cruz Sentinel on October 17, 1868. Evidently she was the first woman to vote in the United States-52 years before any woman would be legally allowed to vote in a federal election.

You can access additional resources related to this video clip’s texts in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
No. of Students in School: 260
Teacher: Latosha Rowley
No. of Years Teaching: 2
Grade: 4th and 5th Grades
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 22

The Center for Inquiry is a magnet option school open to all families in the Indianapolis Public School district. As a result, many of its 260 students come from all areas of Indianapolis and many travel to class on public school buses. There are no entrance criteria or exams; students wishing to attend complete an application, entering CFI if their name is among those chosen by lottery. Siblings on the waiting list are given priority status for admission. The population is ethnically diverse, with 68% of the student body African American and Other (which includes a small percentage of Native American and Hispanic) and 32% Caucasian; 66.4% of the students qualify for free textbooks and free or reduced-price meals.

The Center for Inquiry is a K-8 multiage school with a literature-based curriculum. The class configuration is K-1, 2-3, 4-5, and 6-8. (Kindergarten is full-day to accommodate this grouping.) The small setting CFI offers is beneficial to students with special learning needs, and the CFI classrooms are full inclusion, housing students from all educational backgrounds, including Gifted and Talented as well as students who were in separate special education classrooms in other schools. Ten percent of the student body has Individual Educational Plans and are serviced by Special Education Resource teachers.

Teacher collaboration is central to the success of CFI. In order to better serve their students, teachers are provided with time and funding to write integrative, literature-based curricular units. The strong focus on reading and expressive writing helps students develop questioning techniques and find ways to pursue personal interests in a particular framework.

To read more about the decisions that Ms. Rowley and her peers make in fostering the spirit of the school, read an article she co-wrote with her fellow teachers. The article is reprinted here courtesy of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Classroom Lesson Plan

Literature Circles

Latosha Rowley’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets and Teacher Tools related to the lesson.

Teacher: Latosha Rowley, IPS Center for Inquiry, Indianapolis, Indiana
Grade Level: Fourth and Fifth
Topic: Let Freedom Ring

Materials Needed:

Background Information:

Ms. Rowley believes that having choices of what to read helps students really engage with the literature and enjoy what they are reading. Within the curricular focus of American history with the theme, “Let Freedom Ring,” she offers her students a range of titles designed to help them experience various historical events and expand their thinking on what freedom is and what it looks like while acquainting them with historical examples of struggles for individual and collective freedom.

During this lesson, students make comparisons between life in the 1800s, during the Civil Rights movement, and today in order to explore how things change and how they remain the same. Ms. Rowley encourages her students to make personal connections while they are developing their understandings of both geography and American history. In addition to the core texts that the students read with their literature circles, Ms. Rowley often reads topically relevant picture books such as Patricia Palacco’s Pink and Say, Marcia Vaughan’s The Secret to Freedom, or Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night to expand their background of the issues and events foregrounded by a particular area of study.

If you are interested in learning more about ways in which Latosha Rowley integrates history and literature study, you may wish to read her co-authored article “Plan for Making Meaning” that originally appeared in Primary Voices K-6.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Read, enjoy, and discuss the literature.
  • Understand the concept of freedom as it relates to American history and to their own lives.
  • Use language effectively to make meanings, challenge thinking, and expand their literary envisionments as they discuss concepts, issues, opinions, and ideas related to the literature.
  • Use language effectively to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • Increase their literary understandings and appreciation during collaborative discussions.
  • Use questions as a way to expand their understandings of the literature and of the issues it raises.
  • Use informal writing to respond to their reading as a way to prepare for literature discussions.
  • Complete each of the four literature discussion roles (Discussion Director, Word Wizard, Artful Artist, and Passage Master) and record the appropriate information for each.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Informal personal written responses.
  • Written records of facts and information.
  • Exploratory discussions about the literature.
  • Map connecting to the text.
  • Reflective evaluations of both individual understandings and group processes.
  • Culminating activity.

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Read-alouds and guided discussion of content.
  • Mini-lessons modeling discussion strategies.
  • Literature circle discussions of readings.
  • Reflective evaluations.
  • Culminating activity.

Collaborative Structure of Class:

Ms. Rowley’s class reflects the ethnic and academic mix of the school as a whole. The Resource Special Education teacher works with a few students outside the classroom for one to two hours a week and visits the classroom daily for an hour to help with classroom assignments.

Although the physical space of the classroom is limited, the learning environment is free; students can move about to read and write in places comfortable for them. Typically they sit at circular tables in groups of four and share a crate on each table to store class work. Students have a strong sense of community developed in part by regular Town Meetings where they share developing issues and concerns. Respect and consideration for others is the fundamental expectation for student behavior.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Students choose books using Reading Sign-Up Sheet.
  • The class day begins with DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) for 15 minutes to give everybody a chance to read.
  • Ms. Rowley presents a mini-lesson designed to highlight a particular kind of discussion about literature or discussion strategies. During one lesson, for example, students created the “What Does a Literature Discussion Group Look Like?” handout to remind them how to act.
  • Students meet in literature circles to discuss the novel they are reading. They refer to their texts and their written response to guide their discussion.

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

  • As a group, students complete a map showing locations of the story, journeys of the characters, etc.
  • When a group has completed reading and discussing their book, they plan a culminating activity and share it with the class. This might be visual presentations such as a poster, mural, illustrations for the story, a collage, cartoon, or a storyboard; it might be a piece of written work such as a newspaper or a new ending for the story; it might be a dramatic presentation such as a play or skit, a mock trial, a puppet show, or a newscast report; it might even be musical such as an original song or a dance routine presented to the class.


Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • Their written responses in their literature logs.
  • Completion of a Reading Assessment Sheet either in the middle of their reading or just before they prepare and present their culminating activity.
  • Participation in literature circle discussions.The following activities might receive holistic or scaled evaluation (see Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and scaled evaluation).
  • Group map of text.
  • Culminating activity and its presentation to the class.

Professional Reflection

Take a step back from your classroom and examine the video clip in relation to your own instructional practices. Use the questions below to spark discussion about instructional practices in department meetings, team meetings, or as a prompt in your own professional journal.


  • How might your students (and their parents) respond to literature circles as portrayed in this video?
  • What kinds of support would your students need to become successful participants in literature circles?
  • What are the benefits of developing literature-based curricular units for other areas of study such as history, science, and mathematics?


Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles

The terms assessment and evaluation are often used as synonyms. Distinguishing between them can be helpful as you plan instruction. Assessment means looking at what students can do in order to determine what they need to learn to do next. That is, assessment, whether of individual students or an entire group, is done in order to inform instruction. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded simply as “credit” or “no credit.”

Evaluation occurs after a concept or skill has been taught and practiced and is typically a scaled response, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Using Literature Discussion Guides

Many teachers using literature circle discussions find it helpful to offer students Discussion Guides as a way of helping them focus their talk about a literary text. Ms. Rowley has prepared guides for I Have a Dream, A Family Apart, Riding Freedom, Which Way Freedom, and Walking the Road to Freedom for this lesson. Each asks students to examine the historical background of the text, targets vocabulary, and suggests several key discussion questions to guide students’ explorations of their reading.

Text Pairings

As you plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings. Some teachers like to introduce students to a number of books by the same author. Others try to find books with similarities in theme or content. Books that have received awards and appear to be developing into contemporary classics are also favored choices. No list of suggestions can be complete or can address every criterion. However, the following list of texts may help you choose titles to complement the ones used in this lesson plan:

I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Margaret Davidson
An Album of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Jeanne A. Rowe
Martin Luther King, Jr. by Beth P. Wilson
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man To Remember by Patricia McKissack
Tear Down the Wall! A History of the American Civil Rights Movement by Dorothy Sterling
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coreen Rappaport

Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story About Sojourner Truth by Jeri Ferris
Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne F. Rockwell
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Stephen Alcorn

Which Way Freedom by Joyce Hansen
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Slavery Time When I Was Chillun by Belinda Hurmence
Rebels Against Slavery: American Slave Revolts by Pat McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack, and Patricia C. McKissack
Nightjohn by Gary Paulson
Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson

A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon
The Orphan Trains by Annette R. Fry
The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America by Marilyn Irvin Holt
Journey Home by Isabelle Holland
Caught in the Act by Joan Lowery Nixon
In the Face of Danger by Joan Lowery Nixon
A Place To Belong by Joan Lowery Nixon

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Bandit’s Moon by Sid Fleischman
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride: Based on a True Story by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the text used in Latosha Rowley’s classroom:

I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King by Margaret Davidson

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan

A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon

Which Way Freedom by Joyce Hansen
Fort Pillow Tennessee (search for CSS General Sumter)

Additional resources related to the tenets of this series:

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site
This site provides lists of children’s books and ideas of ways to use them in the classroom as well as activities and topics of professional interest.

Children’s Book Council
The Children’s Book Council is a non-profit trade organization dedicated to encouraging literacy and the use and enjoyment of children’s books.

Children’s Literature
This site provides a wealth of reviews designed to help teachers, librarians, childcare providers, and parents make appropriate literary choices for children.

Children’s Literature Web Guide
This Web site categorizes the growing number of Internet resources related to books for children and young adults. Much of the information found on this Web site is provided by schools, libraries, teachers, parents, and book professionals (such as authors, editors, and booksellers). It includes quick references to lists of award-winning and bestseller children’s books, teaching resources, links to parent resources, and journal and book reviews.

deGrummond’s Children’s Literature Collection
From the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries, the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection is one of North America’s leading research centers in the field of children’s literature. Although the Collection has many strengths, the main focus is on American and British children’s literature, historical and contemporary. Their What’s New section details upcoming exhibits, many of which are available online.

The Doucette Index
The Doucette Index provides access to books and Web sites that contain useful teaching suggestions related to books for children and young adults, and the creators of those books. The searchable database enables teachers to search by author and/or title of the book, leading to lesson plans and curriculum ideas.

The Institute for Learning
A liaison between its parent institution, the Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh, and working educators in school systems nationwide, The Institute for Learning brings to educators the best current knowledge and research about learning processes and principles of instruction. Its mission is to provide educators with the resources and training they need to enhance learning opportunities for all students. The Institute serves as a think tank, a design center for innovative professional development systems in the schools, and an educator of core groups of school professionals.

KidSpace @ The Internet Public Library
The Reading Zone at KidSpace provides a number of online texts for children, including works in French and Spanish. A number of the links provide activities connected to the literature as well.

Reading Online
This Web site is an online journal of K-12 practice and research published by the International Reading Association. It includes helpful links to book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, discussions about literacy, and ideas and information about applying technology in literacy instruction.

SCORE [the Schools of California Online Resources for Educators (SCORE) Project]
This Web site provides teachers with online resources connected to a number of literary titles commonly used in language arts classrooms as well as CyberGuides, supplementary lesson plans centered on core works of literature. Each CyberGuide contains a student and teacher edition, standards, a task and a process by which it may be completed, teacher-selected Web sites, and a rubric (based on California Language Arts Content Standards).

Articles related to effective literature instruction from the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement:

“Classroom Discussion: Teachers’ Perspectives on Obstacles and Strategies” by Samantha Caughlan

“Engaging Students in Meaningful Conversation Leads to Higher Achievement” by Arthur Applebee

“How Classroom Conversation Can Support Student Achievement”

“Supporting the Process of Literary Understanding: Analysis of a Classroom Discussion” by Doralyn R. Roberts and Judith A. Langer

“Taking Risks, Negotiating Relationships: One Teacher’s Transition Towards a Dialogic Classroom” by Julie Nelson Christoph and Martin Nystrand

“What Do We Know About Effective Fourth-Grade Teachers and Their Classrooms?” by Richard L. Allington and Peter H. Johnson

Professional Organizations:

American Educational Research Association
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
International Reading Association
National Council of Teachers of English
National Writing Project