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Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

This video library for grade 6-8 language arts teachers shows teaching practices that support student interaction with literature.

A video library for middle school language arts teachers; 9 twenty-minute video programs, library guide, and website.

This video library opens a window into grades 6-8 language arts classrooms, allowing you to witness the teaching practices of eight exemplary teachers. In diverse classrooms, these teachers use a variety of pedagogical techniques to guide their students into unique and enriching relationships with literature. These relationships, which noted researcher Dr. Judith Langer calls “envisionments,” help students become more involved readers and develop lifelong enthusiasm for literature. The teachers in these video programs model techniques that help create literary communities — supportive atmospheres for developing readers who are able to speak and write effectively about the texts they encounter. The accompanying print guide and Web site show you how to draw upon these classroom models for professional development, curriculum planning, parent and community outreach, and a variety of other uses.

Helping Students As They Make Meaning in Literature

Visit the Workshop companion to Making Meaning in Literature.

Learn about other workshops and libraries in this series.

You know the kind of readers you want in your classroom. They’re the ones who are lost in the book. They’re making predictions and thinking about what they encounter, sorting it all out into a unified and evolving picture of the text. They’re asking questions about the text because they want to test out these growing thoughts and impressions with others. They’re talking about their books with passion and listening intently when others offer new paths to explore.
In this library series, you’ll explore the philosophy and techniques that can help you guide all of your students to grow in this way–becoming the readers, thinkers, talkers, and doers you always imagined they would be.


Every effective reader knows that engaging in literature brings many rewards. Literature’s words and images are great cultural storehouses, affording readers a glimpse into the things centuries of people have thought, experienced, and valued. Through its poems, plays, short stories, and novels, readers can escape their own lives — if only for a few moments — and become a part of things past, present, and future. As they live within the world of the text, readers can also consider a host of possibilities, stretching their minds to acquire an acute awareness of what they are and who they might be.

The key to this process is active involvement. Readers who interact with literature, experiencing the emotion of the plot with the characters and identifying elements both familiar and strange in the story are better able to enjoy the true fruits of a text. Effective readers both expect and seek out this textual encounter, creating meaning by comparing the literary world to their own thoughts and experiences.

A decade of research conducted by Dr. Judith Langer, Director of The National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement at the State University of New York – Albany, has clearly demonstrated that this kind of experience with literature is something capable readers do as a matter of course. Dr. Langer talks about this process as one of creating an envisionment of the text. Envisionments are constantly evolving, painting rich pictures of understanding that effective readers construct as they make sense of what they are reading.

In the workshop series Conversations in Literature, readers from all aspects of the educational community exemplify Dr. Langer’s findings through their thoughtful conversations in literature. You may want to consult this workshop series and its Web site at to learn more about envisionment building and its implications for the classroom.

In her research, Dr. Langer found that students in all stages of learning and at all ability levels can and do create envisionments — if they are scaffolded by teachers who create an atmosphere in the classroom where they are supported to do so. In such an atmosphere, teachers expect that, as they read, students will probably have more questions than answers. They anticipate that the time they spend together will be a time for talking through these questions, working together as a literary community to dissect, unravel, and move forward within the text. In such a community, each learner is expected to offer a particular perspective on the text, and is respected for doing so, not only by the teacher, but also by his or her peers.

In this approach to interacting with literature, the teacher is no longer the sole source of information about a text, or the arbiter of what is a correct or incorrect interpretation of its words. The text itself is not looked at as a source of information, where readers go about their work trying to find the names of characters, a plot event, or validations for a generally-accepted interpretation of the text that long-ago literary critics have offered. Rather, in an envisionment-building classroom, the task before readers is more open-ended. They read to explore the entire universe of the story world, seeking possible meanings and alternative interpretations. Simply put, they read literature as literature, not as a nonfiction article or a “how to” book, where the sole purpose is to converge on kernels of information.

In this library series, you will visit with language arts teachers and their middle grade students, all working together to construct the kind of literary communities where envisionment building flourishes. With the help of our advisors, we have chosen these eight classrooms to represent as many geographical, ethnic, social, and student achievement levels as possible. The eight teachers you will meet have found a variety of ways to respect and support their students as they work. These classroom visits were captured as they occurred, offering a glimpse into some innovative ways of establishing and nurturing a literary and highly literate community in which all members move forward as diverse and respected voices.

A Word about the Educational Focus of the Project

Throughout this library series, active and engaging literary education is promoted. In celebrating these practices, these teachers have made these basic assumptions about their work and their students’ work:

  • Good works of literature are an important part of every language arts curricula. They can help students as they learn to read, write, speak, and listen.
  • Readers can purposefully interact with a variety of literature, relying on what they know and what they have experienced, and employing not only their logic but also their intuition, to make sense of a text.
  • In this interaction, readers form unique and diverse understandings that grow richer as they are shared with their peers in a respectful classroom atmosphere. These understandings are firmly rooted in the text.
  • Through active engagement in a text, students develop strong mental muscles of logic and analysis on which they can rely throughout their academic career.

Different Audiences, Different Purposes

Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8 can be used by many members of the educational community to promote engaging, interactive involvement with literature in and out of the classroom.

Classroom teachers can use this library series:

  • As a professional development resource, exploring the envisionment-building process.In these videos, teachers will be able to observe the teacher attitudes and behaviors that foster a growing community of learners focused on interacting with literature, where students of all ability levels are succeeding. They can reflect on their current practices, and revisit the goals they have for their work and that of their students. Teachers can work with these videos individually or together with other teachers, using the suggestions in the guide that accompanies each video to direct a professional development workshop.
  • As resources for curriculum planning and text selections which highlight the importance of active interaction with works of literature.Teachers can also use the text and teacher techniques showcased in the video as a springboard when they plan similar or adapted experiences for their own students.

Preservice teachers can use this library series as a practical resource to observe actual classroom events. They can see how teachers present materials related to literature, and the ways they react as students deal with these materials. Because these experiences were recorded as they occurred, viewers will see a complete picture of what happens in an actual class, a stage where the plays aren’t scripted and the actors are exuberant improvisers. In this way, these video experiences give flesh to the bones of educational philosophy in a way texts never could.

Teacher educators can use these video clips to enhance their instruction, introducing preservice teachers to the realities of the classroom focused on teaching literature. Each clip could be used as a case study to examine and assess teacher planning and implementation, teacher and student attitudes, the ways in which each lesson succeeds, and the reasons behind its success.

Administrators, including supervisors, principals, and content or team leaders, can use this library series:

  • As a personal resource to explore new emphases in a tested and highly successful method of language arts instruction.
  • As the centerpiece for professional development seminars, to introduce groups of teachers to the ideas and pedagogy that support envisionment building in the classroom.

All educators can also use these materials for community outreach, sharing models of sound classroom practices with educationally-oriented organizations, such as the PTA. Through them, they can see how students excel when they are encouraged to develop and depend upon their own mental acuity to engage in works of great literary merit.

This library series can also be used to show families successful language arts classrooms throughout the country. Teachers can use the video clips as models for appropriate ways to support their children’s education at home, either as a partner with a school or in a home schooling situation. Activities or discussion questions from the guide can be reproduced as handouts to spur parent participation.

About the Contributors

Click on the links below to learn more about the teachers, advisors, and content experts who contributed to this library.

Featured Teachers

Joe BernhartJoe Bernhart
Fondren Middle School
Houston, Texas

Joe Bernhart received his degree in secondary English (K-12) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1994. Following a year of substitute teaching in Milwaukee public schools, he took a full-time language arts position at Fondren Middle School in Houston, Texas, where he has worked for the past six years. He currently teaches seventh grade magnet and pre-AP students.

Mr. Bernhart is a lead teacher in the Houston Independent School District. He is also active in the Greater Houston Area Writing Project. During 2000, he assisted as a convention planner for the annual middle school convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and participated in the National Writing Project, a month-long professional development workshop.

Believing that literature helps people understand themselves and the world in which they live, Bernhart uses contemporary young adult literature to engage students in discussions on such critical topics as race, equality, and justice. He is committed to teaching in an urban district.

Dr. Janis Currence, Ed.D.Dr. Janis Currence, Ed.D.
Stephen Decatur Middle School
Berlin, Maryland

Dr. Janis Currence holds an undergraduate certification in special education and elementary education from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a master’s degree in education from Salisbury State with a concentration in supervision and administration, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Maryland’s School of Education at College Park.

Dr. Currence has over 30 years of teaching experience in a variety of settings, including primary and secondary special education, a program for socially and emotionally challenged secondary students, and regular English classes at the fourth, sixth, and eighth grade levels. She also has extensive experience working with teaching professionals. She has been a writing resource teacher for teachers of eighth and ninth grade English in Worcester County, Maryland, and has provided in-service programs for teachers in Worcester, Wicomico, and Dorchester Counties. In 1998, as an adjunct professor at Salisbury State University, she taught a course entitled “Reading and Writing in the Content Areas for Secondary Teachers.” She has served as both professional education consultant and teacher/consultant for the Eastern Shore Writing Project, and co-directed two writing project Summer Institutes at Salisbury State University.

Dr. Currence presently teaches seventh grade Integrated language arts at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin, Maryland. Teaching on the classroom level — or as she says, “in the trenches” — is her true professional calling.

Dorothy FranklinDorothy Franklin
DeWitt Clinton Elementary School
Chicago, Illinois

Dorothy Franklin began her teaching career 16 years ago as a coordinating teacher for four-year-olds at a suburban Chicago daycare center. After two years, she accepted a position as a teacher’s aide in the reading center of the Evanston Township High School. During her ten years there, she received her elementary teaching certificate with an endorsement in language arts and embarked on a master’s degree in reading. She also developed and implemented a pull-out program for students living below the poverty line who scored below the 35th percentile on standardized tests in reading and math.

For the past six years, she has taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grade English language arts at DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. Her hope is to inspire students who did not receive adequate literacy experience in the critical primary years. In the past, she sponsored a student newspaper that received critical acclaim from Mayor Richard Daly, and she now runs a drama club where she helps students write and produce several shows each school year. Franklin has also taken a leadership role in establishing a school-wide reading team at Clinton, coordinating quarterly meetings, sharing standards with school staff, and providing one-to-one support for new teachers.

In 1999, Ms. Franklin won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Golden Apple Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. She then joined the foundation’s newly formed Reading Interest Group to draft a Reading Bill of Rights, which has since been ratified by the foundation and accepted by Mayor Daly. The committee, in concert with Chicago Public School administrators, is spearheading a campaign to assist all schools in identifying or hiring reading specialists.

In 2000, Ms. Franklin participated in the Chicago Area Writing Project Summer Institute and now acts as teacher/consultant, offering demonstrations for other educators. She has delivered presentations at Clinton and Northeastern Illinois University on literature-based instruction. She has published an article, “Thinking about Thinking: A New Look at Comprehension,” in the Illinois Reading Council Journal, and most recently co-wrote a proposal to open a new charter school in Chicago.

Ana HernandezAna Hernandez
Howard Doolin Middle School
Miami, Florida

Ana Hernandez earned her bachelor’s degree in English education from Florida International University in April 1997. While at the university, she substitute taught in the Dade County Public Schools and was a lead teacher for SummerLink ’95 and ’96, a six-week program for inner-city minority children. She has served as both vice president and president of the university’s Future Educators of America and was selected to the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society. She was also founder and student editor of EduTrends, a monthly newsletter for the Future Educators of America Organization.

In 1998, Ms. Hernandez was honored as the Sallie Mae Outstanding First-Year Teacher for her work in the Campbell Drive Middle School in Homestead, Florida. A member of the Phi Delta Kappa National Education Honor Society, she has also served as vice president and president of this organization.

Ms. Hernandez is currently working toward a Master of Science degree in education at the University of Miami, focusing on reading and learning disabilities. She teaches sixth and seventh grade language arts to gifted students at the Howard A. Doolin Middle School in Miami.

Barry HoonanBarry Hoonan
The Odyssey School
Bainbridge Island, Washington

Barry Hoonan, a two-time participant in the Fullbright Teacher Exchange to Great Britain, has 19 years of experience in public school classrooms. He currently teaches the 5/6 cluster at Odyssey, an alternative school for grades 1-8 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, which features multi-age classes and a high level of parent involvement. Although Hoonan teaches all subjects in his cluster, his true passions are literature and writing.

Mr. Hoonan has a master’s degree in teaching from Lesley College in Massachusetts. Winner of the 1990 Christa MacAuliffe Award for teaching excellence in Washington State, he has recently seen his work published in Beyond Reading and Writingby the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and Literature Circles and Response (Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1995). He is also a member of NCTE’s Reading Commission, and he serves as a consultant for school districts conducting workshops on integrating reading, writing, poetry, and the arts into instruction. Mr. Hoonan’s teaching style has been influenced by such notables as Judith Langer, Linda Rief, Nancie Atwell, Donald Graves, and Jerome Harste.

Linda RiefLinda Rief
Oyster River Middle School
Durham, New Hampshire

Linda Rief is a full-time eighth grade language arts teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, New Hampshire. She is also an instructor in the University of New Hampshire’s Summer Reading and Writing Program and has taught graduate courses for Northeastern University and Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents (1992) and Vision and Voice: Extending the Literacy Spectrum (1999) — a book and companion CD — both published by Heinemann. Several book chapters and articles have appeared in Portfolio Portraits (ed. Donald Graves and Bonnie Sunstein), The Portfolio Standard, Language Arts, Learning, Educational Leadership, Instructor K-8, and other professional journals. She is co-editor with Maureen Barbieri of All That Matters: What Is It We Value in School and Beyond?(Heinemann, 1995) and Workshop 6: The Teacher as Writer(Heinemann, 1994). With Barbieri, she co-founded and co-edited, for five years, Voices from the Middle, a journal for middle school teachers, published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). She has also designed and hosted two television series for the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 2000, Ms. Rief was the recipient of NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for excellence in English Language Arts teaching, a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, and the recipient of the New Hampshire English/Language Arts Teacher of the Year. In 1999, she received the Richard W. Halle Award presented by the middle school assembly of NCTE, and in 1988, she was the recipient of one of two Kennedy Center Fellowships for Teachers of the Arts.

Although Ms. Rief continues to conduct numerous workshops throughout the U.S., sharing what her students know and are able to do as readers, writers, and learners, her full-time commitment remains with her students.

Tanya SchnablTanya Schnabl
Sherburne-Earlville Middle School
Sherburne, New York

Tanya Schnabl, a sixth grade language arts teacher at Sherburne-Earlville Middle School in Sherburne, New York, has made a career of helping students connect literature to their own lives. She began teaching 14 years ago at a high school in Guilderland, New York. Within a year, she moved to Farnsworth Middle School, also in Guilderland, and found her calling. Hired as a language arts and social studies teacher, she came to realize that integrated, thematic units helped students make connections across the curriculum. Schnabl worked closely with other teachers to plan these kinds of experiences.

In 1993, Ms. Schnabl wrote a chapter in the book Children Exploring Their World: Theme Teaching in Elementary Schools. Soon after, her classroom was highlighted in Instructor magazine for a theme on architecture. In 1995, she was chosen to be an assessor for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. While in Guilderland, she also created a summer “Boost” program for struggling readers.

Ms. Schnabl works with teachers throughout the area, with an emphasis on implementing alternative teaching methods to help students be more successful learners. She encourages teachers to communicate with each other and find ways to integrate subject areas in order to make learning more meaningful to students.

Flora TylerFlora Tyler
Picacho Middle School
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Flora Tyler graduated from New Mexico State University in 1980 with a degree in elementary education and an endorsement in K-12 special education. For 12 years, she worked as a special education classroom teacher of students in kindergarten through ninth grade, incorporating Nancie Atwell’s vision of readers and writers workshops into her own special education setting. More recently, she has shifted to a regular classroom in the hope of reaching a larger population of students. She currently teaches sixth grade language arts at Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Beginning in the 2001-2002 school year, she will teach seventh grade language arts at Sierra Middle School.

In addition to challenging her students to take risks and stretch their expectations, Ms. Tyler has also worked as mentor to teachers who want to expand their own repertoire of classroom skills and strategies. In this capacity, she has reached beyond the walls of her own school to present at various conferences at the district level.

Ms. Tyler credits the work of Yetta Goodman, Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Regie Routman, Linda Rief, David Lazear, Thomas Armstrong, and Howard Gardner as influential to her understanding of how people learn, as well as the approach she takes to assessment in the classroom.

Advisors and Content Experts

Judith A. Langer, Ph.D.Judith A. Langer, Ph.D.

Judith A. Langer is Professor of Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She specializes in studies of language, literacy, and learning. Her research focuses on how people become highly literate, on how they use reading and writing to learn, and on what this means for instruction.

Her major works examine the nature of literate thought-the knowledge students use when they “make sense” and the ways in which their learning is affected by activities and interactions in the classroom. She has studied reading and writing development, the ways in which understandings (envisionments) grow over time, how particular literacy contexts affect language and thought, and the contribution of literature to literate thought.

She is presently studying the professional and classroom features that accompany English programs where students are “beating the odds” in literacy. Her work on envisionment building has had a major impact on literature instruction and assessment. She serves on many advisory boards and national reform groups involved in reconceptualizing literacy education.

Dr. Langer has published in a wide variety of journals and collections. Her books include Reader Meets Author/Bridging the Gap; Understanding Reading and Writing Research; Children Reading and Writing: Structures and Strategies; Language, Literacy, and Culture: Issues of Society and Schooling; How Writing Shapes Thinking: Studies of Teaching and Learning; Literature Instruction: A Focus on Student Response; Literature Instruction: Practice and Policy; and Envisioning Literature: Literary Understanding and Literature Instruction. Effective English Instruction will soon be published.

Dr. Langer is Director of the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA) funded by the United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. She is also chair of the Department of Educational Theory and Practice.

Dr. Langer serves as the chief content advisor for all the projects in the Envisioning Literature workshops and libraries, including Conversations in Literature and Making Meaning: A Video Library, Grades 6-8.

Dale AllenderDale Allender

Dale Allender currently serves as the Associate Executive Director of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). A former teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, Mr. Allender has also lectured at Grinnell and Coe Colleges. He has also served the language arts community as an Editorial Board Member of The New Advocate, as representative-at-large for the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, and in his current position as the NCTE Liaison to the Iowa Council Teachers of English and Language Arts Executive Board.

A recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for Native American Literature fellowship and numerous other awards, Mr. Allender has also served as a consultant and curriculum developer for a number of media projects, including Songmasters: The American Road, a music recording of traditional socially conscious songs performed by contemporary popular music artists; Tutu and Franklin: A Journey Towards Peace, a dialogue between Desmond Tutu and John Hope Franklin and 21 international, multicultural high school students; and Regret to Inform, an award-winning documentary on widows from the Vietnam War, featured on PBS.

Some of Mr. Allender’s recent publications include “Deep Reading: Building a Schematic Bridge Across World Mythology and Multicultural Literature” which appeared in Multicultural Review, “The Myth Ritual Theory and the Teaching of Multicultural Literature,” “Standing on the Border: Issues of Identity and Border Crossing in Young Adult Literature,” and “African and African American Voices and Experiences” which is included in Adventuring with Books.

Arthur N. Applebee, Ph.D.Arthur N. Applebee, Ph.D.

Arthur N. Applebee is Professor in the School of Education, University at Albany, State University of New York, and (with Judith Langer) is Director of the federally sponsored National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement. The Center has an active research and development agenda in elementary and secondary instruction, in effective uses of technology, and in teacher education.

During his varied career, Dr. Applebee has worked in institutional settings with children with severe learning problems, in public schools, as a staff member of the National Council of Teachers of English, and in research and professional education. He joined the faculty at the University at Albany from Stanford University in 1987, as part of a SUNY-wide Graduate Research Initiative designed to place the University at Albany at the forefront of literacy research in the United States.

With degrees from Yale, Harvard, and the University of London, Dr. Applebee’s work focuses on how children and adults learn the many specialized forms of language required for success in school subjects, life, and work. His numerous books and articles focus in particular on issues in curriculum and instruction in reading, writing, and the English Language Arts. Since the early 1970s, he has also worked with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, helping to design, implement, interpret, and report a continuing series of evaluations of the educational attainment of U.S. students.

An internationally recognized expert, Applebee consults at the national, state, and district level on effective approaches to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Dr. Applebee is a former editor of Research in the Teaching of English, a past president of the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy, and a recipient of the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Ana Hernandez

See above

Frank Horstman, Ph.D.Frank Horstman, Ph.D.

As the K-12 Specialist in English Language Arts for the Maryland State Department of Education, Frank Horstman works with a variety of issues related to language development: curricular design, instructional implementation, assessment, and school improvement. Specific projects have ranged from kindergarten — MMSR training, to primary — managing the Reading Excellence Act Grant, to middle — range finding for MWT and MSPAP, through high school — collaborating on the development of the English High School Assessment. While he received his formal training in applying theories in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and classical rhetoric to improving writing instruction, Dr. Horstman credits the training he received from his English, journalism, and foreign language students with helping him develop a very practical perspective on English Language Arts. He also believes that serving as both a staff development facilitator and an administrator has helped him to see the learning process from still other perspectives. Dr. Horstman welcomes the opportunity to support educators across Maryland in their goal to improve student achievement in English language arts.

Mara Johnson

Mara Johnson, a native of the District of Columbia, holds a bachelor of science in elementary education from D.C. Teachers College with a minor in speech, a master’s degree in reading from University of the District of Columbia, and certification in middle school foundations from National-Louis University.

Ms. Johnson has devoted her career to teaching in Washington’s inner city schools, beginning at Meyer Elementary School where she taught grades three through six for 18 years. For the past 11 years, she has been a reading instructor at Garnett-Patterson Middle School (grades six through eight). At various points, she has served as building resource teacher, standards specialist, mentor teacher, the multicultural chairperson, member of the personnel selection and textbook selection committees, spelling bee coordinator, and sponsor of the ski club. She has also won two Teacher-to-Teacher Awards for her work on instructional materials designed to help children develop vocabulary, reading, writing, and speaking skills. During the summer of 2000, she worked as the assistant program manager for the Summer Arts and Smarts Program offered by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

Elizabeth Penfield

Elizabeth Penfield is Professor Emerita of English at the University of New Orleans. She is the author of four books and numerous articles published in state, regional, and national journals, including Arizona English Bulletin, English Language Arts Bulletin, and the ADE Bulletin. Her book Short Takes, published by Harper Collins, is currently in its seventh printing. She is a contributor to the Longman Bibliography of Composition and Rhetoric, and her article “Freshman English/Advanced Writing: How Do We Distinguish the Two?” was published in On Teaching Advanced Writing. Together with Charles Moran of the University of Massachusetts, she edited the NCTE publication Conversations: Contemporary Theory and the Teaching of Literature. Penfield has also presented papers to many state, regional, and national groups, including the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Ms. Penfield’s principle areas of interest are composition and rhetoric, and contemporary literature. She has consulted on writing with schools throughout Louisiana and for the Wyoming Conference on Freshman and Sophomore English. She has also chaired the New Orleans Writing Project. At the University of New Orleans, she has directed the freshman program, chaired the English Department, and served as Associate Dean of Liberal Arts.

Linda Rief

See above


Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

Executive Producer
Carol Jackson

Content Development
Ann Chatterton Klimas

Senior Producer
Marilyn M. Phillips

Chris Nusbaum
Marilyn Phillips interviewing Barry HoonanSee Spots Run

Lee Cohen Hare
Diane Harrison
Ann Chatterton Klimas

Velocity Pictures
Michael Fevang

Project Coordinator
Sarah Blattner

Associate Producers
William Beustring
Tiffany Judkins

Additional Editing
Daryl Martin
Kathy Pugh

Program Participants
Joe Bernhart
Fondren Middle School
Houston, Texas
Grade 7

Dr. Jan Currence
Stephen Decatur Middle School
Berlin, Maryland
Grade 7

Dorothy Franklin
Dewitt Clinton Elementary School
Chicago, Illinois

video crew working in SeattleAna Hernandez
Howard Doolin Middle School
Miami, Florida
Grade 7

Barry Hoonan
Odyssey Multiage Alternative
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Grade 5/6

Linda Rief
Oyster River Middle School
Durham, New Hampshire
Grade 8

Tanya Schnabl
Sherburne-Earlville Middle School
Sherburne, New York
Grade 6

Flora Tyler
Picacho Middle School
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Grade 6

Original Music
Produced at
Eric Goldberg

Opening Titles
Vizual Solutions

Creative Director
Fred Salkind
Executive Producer
Stephanie Masarsky

videotaping a student performance in New MexicoVideographers
For Maryland Public Television
Frank Leung
Tim Pugh
Marlene Rodman

Freelance Production Crews
Julye Newlin Productions, Inc.
Julye Newlin, Videographer
Jaroslav Vodehnal, Videographer
Linden Hudson, Audio
Linda Brown, Grip
Seattle Video Bureau
David Oglevie, Videographer
Zack Ragsdale, Videographer
Debbie Brown, Videographer
Mark Hollensteiner, Audio
Eric Reeves, Audio/Grip

Nebula Television Productions
Steve Giordani
Phil Vaughn

Open Studios
Peter Bombar

Orbis Broadcast Group
Michael Swanson
Erin Salomone

Paradigm Sound
Jonathan Cohen

Word of Mouth Productions
Orazio Stagnardi
Paris Rich

Post Production Sound
John Davidson
David Wainwright

Closed Captioning
Judi Mann
Robin Gautney

a camerawoman in DallasNational Advisory Panel
Judith A. Langer, Ph.D
Dale Allender
Arthur N. Applebee, Ph.D
Ana Hernandez
Frank Horstman, Ph.D
Mara Johnson
Elizabeth Penfield
Linda Rief

For Maryland Public Television
Vice President of Education
Christie Timms

Director of Business Affairs
Joan Foley

For Annenberg Media
Project Officer
Deborah Batiste
Gordon Lewis

Chief Content Advisor
Judith A. Langer, Ph.D

Executive in Charge of Production
Gail Porter Long

©Annenberg Media 2002

Online/Print Supporting Materials
Online Design
Bean Creative

Technical Support
David J. Tauriello, Online Producer, MPT
Chris Klimas, Associate Online Producer, MPT

Content Development
Sarah Blattner

Kathleen Dudden Rowlands
Sarah Blattner
Ann Chatterton Klimas

Content Reviewer
Ben Graff

A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature by Judith
Langer, from Language Arts, copyright 1994 by the National
Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.

Improving Literary Understanding Through Classroom
Conversation and Effective Literature Instruction Develops
Thinking Skill, by Judith A. Langer and Elizabeth Close,
are supplied here as PDFs with the permission of The
National Center on English Learning and Achievement,
University at Albany, State University of New York.

15 Minutes of Fame” appeared in THE VOICE, November-
December 2001, a newsletter of the National Writing
Project. The article is made available at this site with
their permission. For more information about the
National Writing Project, please visit their Web site at

“Negotiating Story Structures” (Chapter Three)
by Carol Jago, Copyright © 2000 by Carol Jago
Reprinted by permission of the Publisher, Heinemann,
A division of Reed Elsevier Inc., Portsmouth, NH.

“The Quiet World,” © Jeffrey McDaniel. Reprinted from
The Forgiveness Parade. San Francisco: Manic D Press,
1998 by permission of the publisher.

Langer and Applebee: Elena Siebert

Individual Clip Descriptions

Video Clip 1. Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom
Running time: 18:55

In this clip, noted researcher Dr. Judith Langer lists and explains the hallmarks of an envisionment-building classroom — places where students work at their highest abilities to interact with literature. Her comments are illustrated by classroom examples. Dr. Langer serves as chief content expert for this and other libraries and workshops in the Envisioning Literature series.

Video Clip 2. Building a Literary Community
Running time: 18:55

This video clip brings its audience to Houston, Texas and Joe Bernhart’s diverse seventh grade language arts classroom, where students work in small groups with a variety of contemporary young adult literature. Through example, Mr. Bernhart demonstrates how he works with the groups, encouraging them to go further in their understanding of the text.

Video Clip 3. Asking Questions
Running time: 18:55

Ana Hernandez’ seventh grade gifted and talented language arts class in Miami, Florida is the focus of this clip. There, Ms. Hernandez directs students to pose their own questions as they read Sharon Draper’s Tears of a Tiger, discussing major issues of the text and living in it as they consider the actions of the characters involved.

Video Clip 4. Facilitating Discussion
Running time: 18:55

In this clip, the audience visits Tanya Schnabl’s sixth grade language arts class in rural Sherburne, New York as they interact with Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix’s futuristic text. Ms. Schnabl encourages students to discuss the text on many levels, demonstrating one way a teacher can help students move forward from first impressions of a text to digest its lessons and make them their own.

Video Clip 5. Seminar Discussion
Running time: 18:55

Dorothy Franklin’s seventh grade language arts classroom in the heart of urban Chicago, Illinois is featured in this clip. A seminar discussion in this diverse classroom focuses on Langston Hughes’ short story, “Passing.” Ms. Franklin encourages her students to take on the perspective of the characters they meet in the text, with some surprising and satisfying results.

Video Clip 6. Dramatic Tableaux
Running time: 18:55

This clip features the seventh grade Berlin, Maryland classroom of Dr. Jan Currence, where she and her students interact with Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963: A Novel. Dr. Currence first models and then engages students in tableaux activities, in which students draw on their experience with the text to bring it to life for others.

Video Clip 7. Readers as Individuals
Running time: 18:55

A visit to Flora Tyler’s sixth grade language arts class in Las Cruces, New Mexico shows how one teacher works to monitor and work with students who are each reading a different literary text, using models offered by writing and reading workshop techniques.

Video Clip 8. The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community
Running time: 18:55

Barry Hoonan’s multi-grade language arts class on Bainbridge Island in Washington is featured in this video clip. His fifth and sixth grade students look at a variety of contemporary young adult fiction grouped under the theme, “Life isn’t Fair.” Texts include Drawing Lessons by Tracey Mack, Freak the Mighty by R. W. Philbrick, and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Students meet in small groups to focus on each text, while Mr. Hoonan demonstrates one way teachers can tactfully and effectively integrate themselves into these discussions to help students go further in their understanding of the text.

Video Clip 9. Whole-Group Discussion
Running time: 18:55

A visit to Linda Rief’s eighth grade language arts class in Durham, New Hampshire gives audience members a chance to participate along with the literary community Ms. Rief has established there as they work with Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Here, the class works as a group to look closely into the text and see the ways in which its themes relate to their current lives.

Helping Students As They Make Meaning in Literature

You know the kind of readers you want in your classroom. They’re the ones who are lost in the book. They’re making predictions and thinking about what they encounter, sorting it all out into a unified and evolving picture of the text. They’re asking questions about the text because they want to test out these growing thoughts and impressions with others. They’re talking about their books with passion and listening intently when others offer new paths to explore.

In this library series, you’ll explore the philosophy and techniques that can help you guide all of your students to grow in this way–becoming the readers, thinkers, talkers, and doers you always imagined they would be.

Envisionment Building

The Center for English Learning and Achievement (CELA) has made these two great resources available for teachers. Authored by Dr. Judith Langer and Elizabeth Close, both documents contain concise explanations of envisionment and concrete suggestions for creating a classroom where students have rich interactions with literature.

You will need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read these articles. You can download it for free from Adobe.

A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature

Judith A. LangerJudith A. Langer

National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning
University at Albany
State University of New York
1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12222

Report Series 6.7

Language Arts, v71 n3, March 1994. Copyright 1994 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.

Also published in Language Arts, Vol. 71, March 1994.

National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement
University at Albany, School of Education, B-9
1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12222

The Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA) is a national research and development center located at the University at Albany, State University of New York, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Center, established in 1987, initially focused on the teaching and learning of literature. In March 1996, the Center expanded its focus to include the teaching and learning of English, both as a subject in its own right and as it is learned in other content areas. CELA’s work is sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education, as part of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment.

A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature is based on research conducted at the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning, supported under the Research and Development Centers Program (Grant number R117G10015). Distribution is supported in part under award number R305A960005 as administered by OERI. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Department of Education, OERI, or the Institute on Student Achievement. All Center reports are peer reviewed before publication.

Published 1997

In this Research Report, I will discuss my work on response-based instruction, the strategies teachers call upon to orchestrate such classroom experiences, and ways in which it supports the development of students’ thinking. This work is part of a larger program of research into the teaching and learning of literature I began some years ago. During the past few years, an increasing number of researchers and theorists have been focusing on related issues relevant to language arts readers about the processes involved in understanding literature from a reader-based perspective (e.g., Benton,1992, Corcoran, 1992, Eeds & Wells, 1989, Encisco, 1992, Rosenblatt, 1993), as well as ways to support students’ learning in the elementary and middle grades (e.g., Andrasik 1990, Cianciolo & Quirk 1992; Close 1990, 1992; Goodman & Wilde 1992; Many & Wiseman 1992; McMahon 1992; Nystrand, Gamoran, & Heck 1993; Zancanella 1992, Zarillo & Cox 1992). Still others have been focusing on literature-based and whole language instruction at the primary level (e.g., Jipson & Paley 1992; Mills, O’Keefe, & Stephens 1992; Morrow 1992; Roser in press; Uhry & Shephard 1993; Villaume & Worden 1993; Walmsley & Adams 1993; Yatvin 1992).

On the heels of the reform we have all witnessed in writing education has followed a widespread rethinking of literature in the English language arts, initiated as often as not by teachers who have wanted to bring their literature instructional practices in line with their student-focused approaches to writing. During this time, I have become increasingly aware that as teachers experiment with the many related types of response-centered approaches (including whole language and literature-based instruction), many are uncertain about the place of instruction in these paradigms and their role in it. On the one hand they are attracted to the notions underlying a pedagogy of student thoughtfulness because they think it provides students with ownership for their own learning, motivates and engages them in making sense, and provides a context for them to try out, negotiate, and refine their ideas in interaction with others. On the other hand, they are uncertain how to carry through such lessons.

Often I am asked, “Does anything go, and if not, how do I know what to do? Once I get an initial response, what do I do with it?” I consider these concerns valid, even predictable. The old teaching routines almost all of us learned in graduate coursework and saw modeled in curriculum guides, instructional materials, and assessment instruments don’t apply when response-based instruction is the goal. Yet the field has not yet provided adequate guidelines or strategies to allow teachers to build “new bones,” internalized routines and options to take the place of plot summaries and leading questions guiding students toward predetermined interpretations — new bones that can guide their moment-to-moment decision-making as they plan for and interact with their students.

For the past few years, through my work at the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning (funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement), I have been working toward a reader-based theory for the teaching of literature — one that can help us understand what it means to make sense of literature from a reader’s point of view, and what that means for refocusing our instructional goals and practices (see Langer, 1990a,b; 1991, 1992a,b; 1993; Roberts & Langer 1991). One part of this work helps explain the process of literary understanding while the other addresses ways in which such understanding can be most effectively taught. I will discuss each in turn.

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The Process of Literary Understanding

My work suggests that for pedagogical purposes it is unproductive to conceptualize the teaching and learning of reasoning in general terms. In fact, there are basic distinctions in the ways readers (and writers) orient themselves toward making sense when engaging in the activity for literary or discursive purposes. In both cases readers have a sense of the local meaning they are considering at the moment, and also an overall sense of the whole meaning they are reading, writing, or thinking about; but they orient themselves differently to the ideas they are creating because their expectations about the kinds of meaning they will gain or create are different.

Horizon of Possibilities

A literary orientation involves “living through the experience.” It can be characterized as exploring a horizon of possibilities. It explores emotions, relationships, motives and reactions, calling on all we know about what it is to be human. For example, once we read and think we understand that Romeo and Juliet really love each other, we may begin to question how their parents would really feel about their relationship if they took the time to understand its depth, and this begins to reshape our understanding of the entire play. And then as we read on, we might begin to question whether Romeo and Juliet are bigger-than-life tragic figures, with their destiny somehow controlled by forces beyond even their parents’ control – more so when we try to make sense of Juliet’s decision to die. How, we ponder, could someone have prevented this from occurring?

Even when we finish reading we rethink our interpretations — perhaps at one time taking a psychological and at other times a political and at still other times a mythic stance toward the characters’ feelings and actions. Thus, throughout the reading (and even after we have closed the book) our ideas constantly shift and swell. Possibilities arise and multiple interpretations come to mind, expanding the complexity of our understandings.

In a literary experience, reading proceeds at two levels; on the one hand people consider new ideas in terms of their sense of the whole, but they also use their new ideas to reconsider the whole as well. There is an ever-emerging “horizon of possibilities” that enriches the reader’s understanding. Readers clarify ideas as they read and relate them to the growing whole; the whole informs the parts as well as the parts building toward the whole. In a literary experience, readers also continually try to go beyond the information. From the moment they begin reading, they orient themselves toward exploring possibilities — about the characters, situations, settings, and actions — and the ways in which they interrelate. Readers also think beyond the particular situation, using their text understandings to reflect on their own lives, on the lives of others, or on human situations and conditions in general. In doing this, they expand their breadth of understanding, leaving room for alternative interpretations, changing points of view, complex characterizations, and unresolved questions — questions that underlie the ambiguity inherent in the interpretation of literature.

Thus a literary orientation is one of exploring horizons — where uncertainty is a normal part of response and new-found understandings provoke still other possibilities. It involves a great deal of critical thought, but it is different from the kinds of thinking students engage in for their other academic coursework, where the focus is primarily on the acquisition of particular information (whether that information is cast as memorization of low-level “facts” or the understanding of complex theories and arguments).

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Point of Reference

When the purpose of reading is primarily for discursive purposes — to share or gain information (as when students read science and social studies texts), the reader’s orientation can be characterized as “maintaining a point of reference.” In this orientation toward meaning, from early on, readers (and writers) attempt to establish a sense of the topic or point being made (or to be made in their own writing). Once established, this sense of the whole becomes a relatively steady reference point. Unlike the frequent reconsiderations of the possibilities done during a literary reading, in this case, students attempt to build upon, clarify, or modify their momentary understandings — but rarely change their overall sense of the topic. Their sense of the whole changes only when a substantial amount of countervailing evidence leads them to rethink how what they are reading or writing “holds together.”

There is thus an essential difference between the two orientations toward meaning, a difference that can have a substantive effect on our understanding of critical thinking in education. While questions are raised in both literary and discursive approaches to understanding, it is the ways in which the questions are asked — where they emanate from and how they are treated – that mark the essential distinctions.

The exploration of horizons of possibilities lies at the heart of a literary experience. Here, use of the word “horizon” is critical, referring to the fact that horizons never lead to endings but continually advance; whenever a person (reader) takes a step towards the horizon (moving toward closure), the horizon itself shifts (and other possibilities are revealed for the reader to explore). Continually raising questions about the implications and undersides of what one understands (and using those musings to reconstrue where the piece might go) precludes closure and invites ambiguity. It can be argued that questions are at the heart of discursive thinking as well, and this is certainly the case. However, the reasons why those questions are asked differ, thus affecting the individual’s cognitive orientation. For example, scientific researchers usually consider their studies to be best if their initial questions lead to other questions – research is as much to generate questions as to uncover answers. However, the underlying purpose of the researcher’s questions is to narrow the gap between what is known and what is not about a field of inquiry, to move toward some form of closure, although true closure rarely occurs; it generally is yet another question that will help move thinking along. Thus, although “full” knowledge may never be reached, and successive questions may sometimes seem to muddy rather than elucidate what is known by pointing toward more complexities, the far off goal is the explication of knowledge. Here is the essential difference from a literary orientation where the musing itself is the goal.

Although I have been discussing the two orientations toward meaning in extreme terms, as if they were dichotomous, in actuality neither orientation operates alone, completely independent of the other. Instead, as suggested earlier, together they provide alternative ways of sense-making that can be called upon when needed. Although both purposes, literary and discursive, generally interplay in a variety of ways during any one experience, each situation seems to have a primary purpose, with the others being secondary. For example, when writing a paper providing important historical details on the Gulf war (involving a discursive orientation), a student might momentarily slip into a literary orientation – get caught up in describing the day-to-day life experiences of a member of an oil clean-up crew or of a woman soldier who had to leave her newborn when called up from the reserves — although most of the paper presents details and commentary on the war itself. Conversely, when writing from a literary orientation about a soldier or clean-up crew member (by portraying the personal lived-through experiences of the people, their relationships – their joys and tragedies) the student may at times “step out” of the living text she or he is creating and momentarily assume a discursive orientation in order to provide specific and accurate information about the details of the bombings, or the world’s reaction to Saddam’s dumping oil into the Gulf. In each case, it is the primary purpose that shapes the student’s overall orientation to the shape of the piece, but it is the interplay of the two that can add richness to the understanding that results.

However, research indicates that literature is usually taught and tested in a nonliterary manner, as if there is one right answer arrived at through point-of-reference reading or writing. Arthur Applebee’s Literature Center study of English classes across the United States (1993) indicates that literature is often taught as if there is a point or predetermined interpretation the reader must build toward, or as a literal reworking of the plot line from start to finish — with no room for the students’ explorations to be sanctioned or to take form.

Similarly, in history classes, even where the goal is to introduce literature into the curriculum, literary narratives are often used exclusively to mine information. For example, students are rarely given the opportunity to “live through” the polar expeditions of the arctic explorer or to “feel” the living conditions described by Isabel Allende, William Faulkner, Athol Fugard, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Nadine Gordimer, Betty Bao Lord, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Alice Walker, and therefore to explore the possibilities involved in the worlds they create.

The same too often also holds true in “literature-based” primary grade classes (Walmsley & Walp 1989) where trade book stories are basalized, with detail questions retracing the story line instead of using students’ shared questions and developing interpretations as the primary focus of the lesson.

Alan Purves’ studies at the Literature Center (e.g., Brody, DeMilo, & Purves, 1989) indicate that literature tests (in anthologies, statewide assessments, SAT’s, and achievement tests of all sorts) treat literature as content, with a factual right answer rather than with possibilities to ponder and interpretations to develop and question and defend. His favorite multiple choice literature question, typical of those in many large-scale assessment tests, is: “Huck Finn is a good boy. True or False.” Such items call for superficial readings rather than thoughtful interpretations, or the weighing of alternative views.

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What does this mean for literature instruction?

For the past six years I have also been studying the new kinds of knowledge and strategies teachers rely on as their focus shifts from a primary concern with text-content and received interpretations to ways in which their students contemplate, extend, reflect on, and defend and hone their own growing understandings. However, even teachers who wish to support such thinking in their classrooms are often guided by their more long-lived notions of teaching and learning as they work with their students on a day-to-day basis.

For example, at an earlier phase in the project work, we reported that the teachers had made it quite clear that learning to listen to their students’ attempts at sense-making and to base instruction on their students’ responses is a difficult shift for them to make — even though they wish to do so. All of the project teachers were highly experienced, each with more than 10 years of teaching behind them. Yet the reliance on lesson plans that had been a mainstay of their training (and remains one way in which performance is reviewed by their supervisors) often worked counter to their student-based goals. They felt lesson plans required them to become text-based, determining the scope and sequence of activities and ideas within a particular lesson or unit in advance. Thus, when their students responded in ways they didn’t expect, the teachers felt torn — as if departing from the plan involved digressing rather than engaging in good instruction. It was for this reason, as well as the teachers’ more general requests for a bank of teaching “options,” that we studied the kinds of instructional strategies used during thoughtful lessons — to provide frames of reference (and eventually models) for teachers who wish to internalize a more comprehensive conception of ways to help their students develop as literary thinkers.

Over time, ten Research Assistants from the Center (who are all experienced teachers), more than forty teachers from a diverse group of suburban and city schools, and I have been working collaboratively to find ways to help students engage in the kinds of reasoning that literature can provoke – to arrive at their own responses, explore possibilities, and move beyond initial understandings toward more thoughtful interpretations. We have also been studying the classrooms carefully, analyzing the lessons that work, noting how the classrooms change over time, and coming to understand what underlies the contexts where rich thinking occurs (see Close, 1990, 1992; Langer, 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Roberts & Langer, 1991).

In addition, we have been studying the instructional strategies teachers implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) use to plan, develop, and carry through their lessons, and to move from one lesson to another. The findings were developed through macro- and micro-analyses of the following data sets: audiotapes and fieldnotes of discussions held during weekly full-project team meetings, including the teachers’ discussions of their lessons; fieldnotes of collaborative planning and post-lesson reflection sessions between teacher and research assistant; fieldnotes and audiotapes of class lessons; fieldnotes and interviews with collaborating students; and relevant artifacts from the lessons. From these, we derived a set of patterns that underlay the teachers’ decision-making. After these patterns had been searched and researched, they were presented to the teachers to reflect on, critique, and use. Then they were reworked and refined through a recursive pattern of teaching, observation and analyses of the lessons, and reflections on how they worked in practice, from the teachers’ and students’ as well as observers’ perspectives. Each time the patterns were revised, the teachers provided additional feedback, leading to the development of a two-part outline the teachers felt could be shared with others to provide visions for change as well as options for planning and teaching.

During last year, the project team continued to refine descriptions of the strategies by “testing” them against past lessons and teacher feedback. Each teacher (grades 1-12) developed a complete “demonstration” unit that was carefully studied. Audiotapes and fieldnotes (as well as instructional artifacts including all student writing and other work) were collected for every aspect of the entire unit. Then, the teachers’ understandings of the strategies were used to underlay informal interactions and more formal presentations to their colleagues and student-teachers about the ways in which they supported students’ thoughtfulness. Reflective interviews with research assistants and full-project discussions focused on the communicability of the strategies and the role they played in helping the teachers convey the ways in which they supported students’ involvement and thought, leading to the outlines that follow.

The first section briefly describes the overall goal of response-based instruction from this project’s perspective as well as some general guidelines that underlie the ongoing ethos and interaction of the classrooms. As presented in this first section, the earlier principles (see Langer, 1991) have been incorporated into a framework of strategies that captures the teachers’ instructional focus. These are the strategies they relied on to plan their lessons, make decisions about instructional support, and mark student progress. The strategies are presented in a way teachers felt could be shared with others as the basis for professional discussions about planning and decision-making during the course of ongoing lessons.

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Supporting the Literary Experience: The Focus of Instruction

The thought-provoking literature class is an environment where students are encouraged to negotiate their own meanings by exploring possibilities, consider understandings from multiple perspectives, sharpen their own interpretations, and learn about features of literary style and analysis through the insights of their own responses. Responses are based as much on readers’ own personal and cultural experiences as on the particular text and its author.

Some General Guidelines for Instruction

1. Use class meetings as a time for students to explore possibilities and develop understandings as opposed to recounting already acquired meanings (what they remember) and teaching what they’ve left out.

2. Keep students’ understandings at the center of focus – in writing as well as discussion. Always begin with their initial impressions. This will validate their own attempts to understand, and is the most productive place for them to begin to build and refine meaning.

3. Instruction, the help that moves beyond students’ initial impressions, involves scaffolding their ideas, guiding them in ways to hear each other — to discuss and think. Teachers need to be listeners, responders, and helpers rather than information-givers.

4. Encourage wonderings and hunches even more so than absolutes. They are part of the process of understanding literature. Whenever possible, ask questions that tap students’ knowledge. Pick up on what they say rather than following your own agenda or the sequence of the piece you are reading.

5. Encourage students to develop their own well-formed interpretations and gain vision from others’. There is more than one way to interpret any piece of literature.

6. Remember that questioning, probing, and leaving room for future possible interpretations is at the heart of critical thinking in literature. Teachers as well as students need to be open to possible meanings; in literary experiences there are no preconceived ends or final inviolable interpretations.

7. Help students learn by providing scaffolds that guide in ways to listen and speak to one another and in ways to think about their own developing understandings.

  • Help students engage in more mature literary discussions by eliciting their own responses; asking for clarification; inviting participation; and guiding them in sustaining the discussion.
  • Help students think in more mature ways by guiding them to focus their concerns; shape the points they wish to make; link their ideas with what they have already discussed, read, or experienced; and to think about their issues in more complex ways.

In addition, the project team developed an outline of options the teachers had internalized to replace their older options of plot summary, review of particular interpretations, and questions at different “levels” of comprehension. These new options guided them in ways to move the lesson along in support of students’ developing ideas. It must be pointed out that this is a framework of optional strategies teachers used; it is neither meant to indicate a linear process nor an inclusive one; each strategy was not taught during every lesson. The teachers had a grand view of the literature lesson, treating interactions before and after the actual reading and discussion as essential parts of the lesson. Thus, the shape of the literature lesson these teachers internalized had two main parts: beginning the literary experience (meaning all interactions that occur before the students read the text, see the movie, watch the play), and continuing (meaning all interactions that involve interaction with the literary text or event, as well as all the personal and public interactions and activities and meaning negotiations, including those that occur long after the “lesson” has ended, but thinking continues). The following framework is intended to stimulate discussion about options, with full awareness that these are the major ones this group of teachers relied on more extensively than others. Thus they serve as an open set of options, to be added to from this perspective.

Overall, teachers conceived of the lesson (extending across one or many days) as including three major sections (or options): inviting initial understandings, developing interpretations, and taking a critical stance. These replaced traditional lesson segments such as vocabulary review or plot summary, providing overall structural options to include or overlook (knowingly) in any given lesson. Some options for moment-to-moment interactions are briefly suggested beneath each section.

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Create a context for the literary experience:

  • evoke broad personal, historical, cultural, or conceptual connections
  • invite the literary experience (stepping into the text and exploring possibilities) as opposed to seeking information

Provide students with opportunities to engage in varied activities with thought-provoking literature:

  • experiences might involve creating, performing, or observing books, movies, plays, poems, or dramatic interludes accomplished jointly or alone, for themselves or for other.


Keep students’ thoughts at the center of concern:

  • tap students’ present envisionments – what is presently on their minds about the piece
  • encourage wondering and hunches as well as more fully formed understandings
  • do not use this time for evaluation, but for sharing initial understandings and beginning to explore beyond

Help students examine and extend their envisionments by questioning and building upon their current understandings. Focus on students’ comments to help them:

  • explore and extend envisionments and seek possible explanations
  • reflect on changes across time
  • consider multiple perspectives from within the text and their own experiences
  • use conflicting views within the discussion as an opportunity to explore rather than curtail thinking

Help students refine and sharpen their interpretations by objectifying and analyzing their understandings, the text, and their experiences:

  • examine related issues from text, literature, and life
  • build texture by examining alternative perspectives
  • use others’ perspectives and related possibilities to challenge and enrich own responses
  • analyze, explain, and defend own interpretations in light of text, other readings and experience
  • consider received interpretations in light of own and others’ responses
  • generalize to life by theorizing about the human condition; consider moral, message, and/or theme
  • explore textual features and literary concepts from perspective of their own responses.

Mark end of meeting without shutting off thinking:

  • close session by summarizing key issues, noting changes in ideas, and pointing to concerns not adequately addressed as yet
  • leave room for further exploration of possibilities
  • invite continuing envisionment-building

We have found that these strategies support the principles of instruction and scaffolding described in previous work (e.g., Langer 1992, Roberts & Langer 1991). The teachers use them as lessons evolve, providing options to help them decide what to do next in response to students’ immediate needs as well as what to do as students’ understandings develop.

Also, we have come to see differences between these strategies and the more traditional approaches the teachers had formerly used. While more traditional instruction encourages teachers to base educational decision-making on learning experiences and tests that focus on “fixed” understandings that students acquired in their past (what the students “understood” or didn’t when they read the work, completed the assignments, or took the test), here, the teachers focus on the students’ developing understandings. The more thought-provoking lessons motivated by this framework of instructional strategies take place when teachers look for, listen to, and take their teaching cues from students’ “meanings-in-motion” – as students’ understandings are in the process of being formulated. This, we feel, needs to become an essential element in the new pedagogy.

This framework of instructional strategies is part of the development of a practical, response-based pedagogy to replace the more traditional positivist theories that presently underlie literature education. I hope that these ideas, combined with the other studies in this project and the related work of other researchers, will help provide the kind of specificity teachers need to internalize their own approaches to response-based instruction.

In general, then, when these options underlie teachers’ decision-making in the instructional environment, students are supported to explore, rethink, explain, and defend their own understandings. They begin with their own initial impressions, and use writing and discussion as well as further reading to ponder and refine their developing interpretations. The social structure of the class calls for (and expects) the thoughtful participation of all students. The teacher assumes that there will be multiple interpretations to be discussed and argued, and the students learn that pondering and defending horizons of possibilities that “counts” as evidence for literary thinking and knowing.

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Toward Meaningful Reform

In the collaborating classrooms from which these guidelines and strategies were derived, students are given room to work through their ideas in a variety of contexts (whole-class discussion, alone, small groups) and in a variety of activities (reading, writing, and speaking). Developing envisionments, exploring them, talking about them, and refining understandings underlay the very fabric of how the class works.

Although codified interpretations and particular points of view are discussed and considered, they are usually introduced and analyzed only after the students have had an opportunity to explore their own interpretations. Such analysis involves confronting, reexploring and possibly interveaving, refining, or changing their own interpretations. Thus, students are able to react to others’ ideas (including established interpretations) through the lens of their own considered understandings as well as the understandings of others — reaching interpretations which continue to be treated conditionally, always subject to further development.

In instructional contexts of this sort, that treat all students as thinkers and provide them with the environment as well as the help to do this, even the most “at-risk” students can engage in thoughtful discussions about literature, develop rich and deep understandings, and enjoy it too.

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Acknowledgments I would like to thank Carla Confer, Sr. Judith Dever, Ester Helmar-Salasoo, Elba Herrero, Irene Pompetti-Szul, Barbara Risalvato, Doralyn Roberts, Eija Rougle, Mary Sawyer and Francine Stayter as well as all the teachers and students who composed our research community and participated as fellow learners in this seven-year project.

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Helpful Hints

Helpful Hints for Using Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

We would suggest that you first read the Library Guide to select videos for viewing according to your purposes. You can watch each clip in the library individually, using its guide to delve into the individual teaching techniques and educational issues it illustrates. The nine programs in this series can also be used in an integrated fashion to demonstrate a wide array of instructive concepts and practices. In either case, you will probably want to pay particular attention to the “Before Watching” suggestions for each clip to focus your viewing.

After viewing the video, you may want to return to the Guide Book to complete some of the Suggested Activities and Discussion ideas. You may also want to look at Additional Resources available for each lesson, which provide a list of relevant Internet sites.

There are many ways in which this series can help classroom and preservice teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and educators reaching out to the community. The Guide Book contains discussion questions and activities specifically tailored for each group.

The Guide Book can also be used as a centerpiece in local professional development seminars. See Tips for Facilitators below for some practical suggestions about organizing and moderating these seminars.

Tips For Facilitators

Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8project components can be used to help plan professional development workshops for many different groups, including classroom and preservice teachers, team leaders or lead teachers, and supervisors.

You can use the checklist below to help you make these seminars as useful as possible for their participants.

Planning for a Professional Development Opportunity

  • Contact the people you would like to attend the workshop, offering several alternate dates for your meeting. Try not to pick dates that coincide with other activities or vacation days.
  • Think about what you hope to accomplish with the group. For example, are you interested in having them see another classroom to look for new ways to approach literature, or for classroom management techniques, or text selection? Try to make a mission statement to share with the group during your first meeting.
  • Review the materials related to each clip and select the ones your group will view. Plan a logical order for presenting the clips you have selected. Try to keep in mind the group’s main interests in doing so.
  • Find and secure a place for your meeting. The location should be easily accessible to the group, with adequate seating, and appropriate outlets for a VCR and monitor.
  • Notify group members of the meeting time and place. Establish a system for notifying members in case of an emergency postponement.

Before Each Meeting

  • Review the clip you intend to view in conjunction with the print materials for the clip in the Guide Book.
  • Decide on a time frame for the workshop. We suggest that you consider 20 minutes of previewing discussion or other activities, 20 minutes to view the clip, and 20 minutes for a follow-up discussion or activity. The Guide Book lists suggested activities and discussions for pre- and post-viewing. You can select one of them, adapt them for your group’s purposes, or create ones of your own.
  • Gather any other materials you will need for the discussions or activities you have planned. You may want to assemble notebooks or folders with blank pages for participants to use in taking notes or reacting to the discussions or activities in which they engage.
  • Familiarize yourself with the equipment in the room where you will be meeting.

During Each Meeting

  • Greet the group and explain why they have been assembled and give a brief overview of what they will do that session.
  • Set their purpose for viewing the video. This can be a selected question for discussion listed in the Guide Book, or one of your own choosing.
  • Encourage participants to note any comments they may have as they watch.
  • Show the video clip. Ask participants if they would like to review any parts of the clip.
  • Follow up the clip with a discussion point or activity in the Guide Book. You can adapt these or create your own, depending on the needs of the group. Try to present a mix of talking, watching, and doing during each session.
  • If you are having a problem starting discussions, ask the group to talk about the things they didn’t understand in the video clip.
  • Watch the time carefully and adjourn on time. Talk about your next meeting, reminding the group about time, date, and place.

Materials needed

You will need to assemble the following materials to help you in using these video clips in a professional development workshop:

  • A VCR and viewer (television set or monitor) to show the video clips

    • Be sure to position the monitor at a place where all participants can view it easily.
    • Adjust the lighting to avoid reflections or glare.
    • Check the connections between the VCR and TV or monitor, and make sure they are both plugged into a working outlet.
  • Notebooks or paper, pencils or pens
  • Other materials may be needed for activities suggested for individual clips. Consult the Guide Book materials related to each video clip to find out the scope of these activities and plan your session accordingly.

    • Read the sections of the guide devoted to activities and discussion questions related to each clip several days before the workshop.
    • Note materials that are needed and gather them before your session begins.
    • A dry-erase board, flip chart, or large pieces of art paper will help in recording major points raised in session discussions.

Support Materials

The complete guide to the library series activities is available here for download in PDF. You will need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read these files. You can download it for free from Adobe.


Video Clip 1. Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom

Video Clip 2. Building a Literary Community

Video Clip 3. Asking Questions

Video Clip 4: Facilitating Discussion

Video Clip 5. Seminar Discussion

Video Clip 6. Dramatic Tableaux

Video Clip 7: Readers as Individuals

Video Clip 8: The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community

Video Clip 9: Whole Group Discussions


Produced by Maryland Public Television. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-528-X