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

Discussion Strategies

Barry Hoonan and his fifth- and sixth-grade cluster explore ways in which individual readers can help themselves enter the story world of a text. The group explores two different methods — using sticky notes in several different ways and mapping — which lead its members directly into the text. The text they have chosen for their attention, Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman, features a 14-year-old protagonist who suffers from cerebral palsy.

“The genuine foundation is a love and passion for story and the knowing that story brings about a place for kids to find their way in, a way of expressing themselves… So I read good books and share them, and I listen to kids tell me about them. That’s the natural element for a good discussion.”

Barry Hoonan, 5th- and 6th-Grade Teacher
The Odyssey School
Bainbridge Island, Washington

How can teachers help students find their way into a piece of literature? The profession is familiar with stories of energetic and creative colleagues coming to class dressed as literary characters and acting out a particularly engaging scene or two. While such strategies certainly engage student attention, in all probability they cannot be replicated throughout the school year. Furthermore, the motivation they provide is external, dependent on outside forces for engagement.

One of the tasks of the envisionment-building teacher is to help students develop ways of approaching literary texts that they will be able to call upon independently throughout their lives. Experienced readers have innumerable such ways into texts that they are able to access almost intuitively. Their choices depend on a number of factors, including the genre of the piece, its complexity, and the personal inclination of the reader. As teachers identify the particular approaches they wish to teach students, they consider a number of factors as well; the age of the students, their previous experiences as readers, and the particular text at hand are a few.

When introducing students to such strategies, teachers use direct instruction, demonstrations, and guided practice to help students incorporate new approaches into their personal repertoires. However, as you will notice in this video, even with repeated assistance, students may not embrace new techniques immediately.

About This Video

In this video, you will see Mr. Hoonan use student-directed mini-lessons to provide explicit instruction in a strategy using Post-It® Notes that he introduced earlier. He hopes that the student modeling will encourage classmates to use the strategy when they begin reading and discussing a new text. He finds that although the students are willing enough to use it as readers, they are less likely to bring the strategy to their group discussion.

Understanding that the assimilation of new techniques takes time and repeated exposure, Mr. Hoonan turns to mapping-a strategy in which the group is experienced-to help them focus their discussion. He is confident that repeated exposure to the Post-It® Note technique will enable his students to incorporate it as one of a broad range of ways they approach literature.

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 Text

Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

Fourteen-year-year-old Shawn McDaniel suffers from such severe cerebral palsy that he cannot give the faintest sign that he is an alert, thoughtful, and intelligent human being with a powerful memory. Although he cannot even focus his eyes on his own, he is still happy to be alive. He loves the taste of smoked oysters and chocolate pudding, the scent of Comet in the sink, and his mother’s hugs.

Shawn begins to believe that his father is planning to kill him as a way of releasing his suffering and Shawn has no way of communicating to his father the enormous pleasure he has in living. The ending is ambiguous, with Shawn and his father alone in the house.

Much of the power of this novel comes from the author’s personal experiences; his teenaged son also suffers from cerebral palsy.

In choosing this text for his students, Mr. Hoonan considered a number of factors including accessibility, level of interest, and quality. Although Stuck in Neutral is Trueman’s first book, it has won several awards and is generating a great deal of positive energy among teen readers.

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


Classroom Snapshot

School: The Odyssey School
Location: Bainbridge Island, Washington
No. of Students in School: 125
Teacher: Barry Hoonan
Grade: 5th and 6th Grade Cluster
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 31

The Odyssey School is an alternative public school on Bainbridge Island, eight miles from Seattle by ferry. It is one of four elementary schools serving this community of 20,000. When it opened, it had 75 students in grades one through six, organized into multigrade groupings known as clusters. The school has grown to 125 students with the addition of a 7/8 cluster. Class size at Odyssey is on a par with that at other island elementaries. Students are looped, staying with the same instructor for two years. Although approximately 80 percent of parents commute to Seattle, the school represents a wide range of incomes and includes artisans and local farmers as well as stockbrokers and lawyers. Families must agree to volunteer between five and 10 hours a month at the school before they may enroll their child. With twice as many applications as available spots, the school has a lengthy waiting list and is currently evaluating whether it needs to undertake further expansion — and if so, how to achieve that growth while maintaining the current sense of community.

Odyssey is located in a spacious old elementary library building and is designed to have the nurturing feel of a one-room schoolhouse. Students call teachers by their first names. The elementary grades spend part of each morning together, and they share computers and other resources as needed. Each elementary cluster has one teacher who is responsible for all instruction. Within such a small environment, parents are vital resources, sharing their skills and expertise in the classroom. For instance, since Barry Hoonan’s expertise lies primarily in language arts, he recruits family members who are strong in math and science to help teach advanced concepts to his cluster. Teachers of grades 1-6 coordinate a three-year cycle of instruction together. Although the state mandates that children must know certain concepts by certain grade levels, it has been supportive of Odyssey’s alternative approach to education.

Like all public school students in Washington, children at Odyssey must take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) in grades four, seven, and 10. But for Mr. Hoonan, assessment is far more than a measure of what students have accomplished; it is also a tool to help them grow. Mr. Hoonan keeps a daily journal on the progress of individual students and targets five or six students a day for individual assistance. He has students maintain a portfolio of their work, and actively involves them in establishing the criteria on which they will be evaluated. In addition, he asks parents to conduct formal interviews with their children at various points in the year, using questions designed to show students the progression of their thinking over time.

In choosing this text for his students, Mr. Hoonan considered a number of factors including accessibility, level of interest, and quality. Although Stuck in Neutral is Trueman’s first book, it has won several awards and is generating a great deal of positive energy among teen readers.

Classroom Lesson Plan

Preparing for Group Discussions

Barry Hoonan’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets related to the lesson.

Teacher: Barry Hoonan, The Odyssey School, Bainbridge Island, Washington
Grade Level: Fifth
Topic: Using Post-It™ Notes To Prepare for Literature Discussion

Materials Needed:

  • Multiple text sets (6-8 books of a single title)
  • Post-It™ Notes for student use
  • Large white paper for mapping discussions

Background Information:

Literature discussions in this classroom are influenced by the definition of literacy that Barry Hoonan and his students have adopted from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst (“Classroom Talk About Literature or the Social Dimensions of a Solitary Act.” Voices From the Middle 5.2 (1998): 16-20). Literacy, they write, is “the ability to find what we share with the person behind a text, or the person created by a text, or the person with whom we discuss it, identifying the common pains and pleasures, hopes and fears, so that we may see that we are alike. And it is the ability on other occasions to declare ourselves other than, different from, the author and his characters and perhaps readers, rejecting bigotry, insensitivity, indifference, or illogic” (18).

Mr. Hoonan believes that helping students become literate in this sense means offering students multiple ways of understanding themselves in relationship to a literary text. He plans explicit instruction designed to foreground the ways in which skilled readers respond to literature, often using a pattern of mini-lesson followed by small-group discussion during which the teachings of the mini-lesson find application. In this particular lesson, he asks students to use Post-It™ Notes as they read to record their questions, predictions, insights, and interpretive strategies. Students are then asked to share these notations with their classmates as they discuss their shared reading texts.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Read and enjoy literature.
  • Use Post-It™ NotesNotes to record questions (unknown vocabulary, unfamiliar cultural or historical information, personal confusions, etc.), predictions (what they expect will happen), insights (understandings, connections to self and/or to earlier texts, recognition of point-of-view from which a character is operating or the author is presenting the story, etc.), and interpretive strategies (ways in which they made meaning from the text at specific points, ways in which they addressed complexities of meaning, etc.).
  • Share and discuss their observations with classmates, both in whole-group discussions or in smaller literature discussion groups.
  • Use language effectively to create knowledge, make meaning, challenge thinking, and expand their literary envisionments.
  • Use language to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • Expand the repertoire of reading and interpretive strategies available for easy use.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular use of Post-It™ Notes Notes as preparation for group discussion
  • Focused group discussions during which students address both their developing understandings of a text and the tactics they used for doing so

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Mini-lesson on use of Post-It™ Notes Notes
  • Student demonstrations to classmates on their use of Post-It Notes
  • Small group discussion of Stuck in Neutral

Collaborative Structure of Class:

Because small literature discussion groups are a central feature of Mr. Hoonan’s literature instruction, his classroom arrangement centers around tables and chairs to accommodate the groups. Mr. Hoonan sometimes joins a group at a table, recording a discussion, asking questions, or offering procedural suggestions. At other times, he sits outside the group, taking note of what students say and how they interact.

When the class needs to come together as a whole, they gather on a carpeted area near the class library. Equipped with a whiteboard and an overhead, this area provides space for explicit, whole-class instruction.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Reading independently
  • Writing Post-It™ Notes Notes to record questions, insights and interpretive strategies
  • Sharing Post-It™ Notes Note recordings with classmates
  • Discussing shared texts
  • Webbing issues to focus discussion

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

  • Discussion of readings and interpretive processes
  • Sharing of text with other classmates through writing, drama, or art


Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • Contributions to large- and small-group discussions.
  • Completion of Post-It™ NotesNote recordings.

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).

  • Final individual or group sharing of text with rest of class.

Professional Reflection

Preparing for Group Discussions


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 writing prompt in your own professional journal.


  • What are the elements of good discussion about a text?
  • What do students need to know, and need to know how to do, in order to participate effectively in group discussions about a shared text?
  • What support can you offer to help students participate in, enjoy, and benefit from group discussions?

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 scaled, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Mini-Lesson Planning Tips

  • A mini-lesson can be short or might take up 15 to 20 minutes of class time.
  • Typically, mini-lessons are singular topics of whole-class instruction, meant to give students a brief overview of a concept, explore the author’s craft, ponder a question, or hone a skill. Often the mini-lesson provides a segue into the application of new learning.
  • Mini-lessons can also be student-directed, in which students are given a guide, following the teacher’s predetermined path of learning. Here, students are asked to define concepts and synthesize the information. Then students apply the information in a meaningful way.
  • Students should be given many opportunities to apply the new learning beyond their initial introduction.
  • Consider asking students to construct and present a mini-lesson to their classmates in which they demonstrate an approach to literature that they have found successful.

For suggested mini-lesson topics, see Suggested Mini-Lessons for Literature Instruction.

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:

Speak by Halse Anderson
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt
Silent to the Bone by E. L. Konigsburg
Mine for Keeps by Jean Little
Lovey, a Very Special Child by Mary MacCracken
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
The Man Who Loved Clowns by June Rae Wood

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the text used in Barry Hoonan’s classroom:

Resources for information about cerebral palsy:

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 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 deGrummond 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.

The Librarians Index to the Internet

Excellent sections of children’s literature and young adult literature offer teachers a number of useful resources.

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 and 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