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

Building a Literary Community

In Joe Bernhart's diverse seventh–grade language arts classroom in Houston, Texas, students work in small groups with a variety of texts in contemporary young adult literature. Bernhart demonstrates how he encourages students to develop deeper understandings of the text.

About This Video Clip

“…My goals are to have them have meaningful interactions with texts, to have meaningful interactions with literature, to frame literature the same way they might frame talking about…something as common as…wrestling or a TV show.”
Joe Bernhart, Teacher
Fondren Middle School
Houston, Texas

Students in Joe Bernhart’s classroom explore literature in book groups, each one selecting a novel to read from a set of 10 choices. Students often receive their first or second choices.

In this lesson, students are at various stages in the book group process that Mr. Bernhart has structured for the class. This process begins with teacher-directed mini-lessons about literary concepts. In this case, Mr. Bernhart introduces foreshadowing as hints in a text that help readers predict what might happen next in the plot. Students are then asked to apply this concept to their individual books. Students read aloud their books during class time, working through the books together. This allows students to discuss the books as they experience the literature, constantly reshaping their initial interpretations of the works, as well as apply new concepts. Students set new daily and weekly reading goals and consult with the teacher about their progress, questions, and accomplishments. Each group appoints a leader and recorder for group discussion. The students’ OWL logs — or discussion guides that focus on their observations, wonderings, and links to real life — serve as a guide for rich dialogue about the literature. Students select from a wide range of creative book projects to demonstrate their understanding of their books’ plots, characters, themes, and literary concepts. Students are assessed through their OWL logs, as well as their book project presentations to the entire class.

The role of the teacher in all phases of these literary activities is that of facilitator, knowledgeable reader, monitor, and coach. The teacher also utilizes mini-lessons to provide brief segments of whole-class, direct instruction on a variety of literary concepts. Students are then expected to apply new learning to the novels they are reading in their groups and later in culminating projects and performance assessments.

Students in Joe Bernhart’s classroom are empowered to make their own reading choices, monitor their own reading progress, and take ownership over their own learning. Students are expected to challenge one another, ask questions, take risks, and think about what the literature means to them. Students are invited to open their minds to multiple perspectives, as they consider their peers’ interpretations and a variety of other vantage points.

Through all of these rich literature experiences, students hone their critical literacy skills, construct deep understandings, make connections to their own lives and the world around them, and participate in meaningful conversations about literature with their peers and the teacher.

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

Featured Texts

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Ten-year-old Kenny and his 13-year-old brother Byron have typical sibling rivalry. When Byron tries his parents’ patience for the last time, they decide to bring him to Birmingham, Alabama to spend the summer with his grandmother. This Flint, Michigan family encounters Birmingham at its most turbulent time, the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with four young girls inside.

Forged by Fire by Sharon Mills Draper
Teenager Gerald Nickelby faces many challenges in this companion novel to Tears of a Tiger. Here, Gerald stays with his aunt while his mother serves a prison sentence for child neglect. On his ninth birthday, his mother reclaims him and Gerald must risk a great deal to save his half-sister, Angel, from his abusive stepfather.

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Mills Draper
Andy Jackson drives under the influence and crashes his car, killing the star player of the basketball team and his best friend, Robert Washington. Andy must find a way to deal with his grief, guilt, and pain.

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake
Maleeka is a 13-year-old African American with low self-esteem. Being ridiculed for having a dark complexion makes matters worse until she meets Miss Saunders, a teacher at her school. Miss Saunders has her own challenges with her rare skin condition.

Julie of the Wolves by Julie Craighead George
Miyax is a 13-year-old Eskimo orphan who is unhappily married. She runs away from her home, hoping to reach her pen pal in San Francisco. During her journey through the Alaskan tundra, she battles survival and an inner struggle of self-identity. Is she Miyax of the Eskimo people or a modern teenager named Julie?

Gaucho by Gloria Gonzalez
Poor 11-year-old Gaucho works a variety of odd jobs to make money. When running an errand for a shady character named Blanco, he finds himself in the middle of a shootout.

Heaven by Angela Johnson
Fourteen-year-old Marley lives in a small Ohio town named Heaven. Here she grows up in a warm African American family, where she has good friends and strong community ties. Suddenly, she finds out she is adopted.

Necessary Roughness by Marie G. Lee
Korean Chan Kim and his twin sister Young grow up in a diverse Los Angeles neighborhood. The Kims move to a small Minnesota community to save a failing family store. Chan and Young face cultural conflicts at their new school.

Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons
Based on the true story of Harriet Ann Jacobs, Letters from a Slave Girl reveals, through fictional letters, the challenges African American women endured during slavery. Jacobs hid in her grandmother’s ceiling for seven years, and eventually escaped to the North, where she became active in the abolition movement.

Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Meyers
Fifteen-year-old Jimmy’s father Crab has been in prison for the past nine years for killing a man in an armed robbery. Crab escapes from prison in order to clear his name and shows up in Jimmy’s life again, claiming he made parole and has a job in Chicago.

Mr. Bernhart selected contemporary young adult literature, featuring mostly ethnic teen protagonists facing real-life conflicts. It is Mr. Bernhart’s hope that students will recognize themselves and the world around them in the texts they read. You can access additional resources related to this video clip’s texts in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Fondren Middle School
Location: Houston, Texas
No. of Students in School: 1,000
Teacher: Joe Bernhart
No. of Years Teaching: 6
Grade: 7th
Subject: Language arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 32

Fondren Middle School in Houston, Texas, is an urban magnet school for math and science. Tracking divides students into a magnet (or honors) program, a pre-AP program, and a general program. While most students in the general track can walk to school, many magnet and pre-AP children are bused from outside the immediate area. The majority of children are either African American (60 to 65 percent) or Latino (20 to 30 percent), with a range of other ethnicities, including Asian, accounting for the rest of the student body. The school has only a small percentage of Anglo students. Although Fondren’s enrollment has decreased in the last few years, it stands at more than 1,000 students, packed into a building designed for 800. All the lockers have been bolted shut, and the school uses portable T buildings to house some classes.

Class size ranges from 30 to 35 students, creating a challenge for teachers like Joe Bernhart who employ collaborative learning strategies in their classrooms. Nevertheless, the set-up of Mr. Bernhart’s room emphasizes the importance of students working together. Depending on the activity, students sit either at pairs of desks facing each other or in groups of four to five desks pushed together. Because the school uses 90-minute periods on an A/B schedule, Mr. Bernhart has ample time for student-centered activities. He draws on a mix of informal and authentic assessments to gauge children’s progress. Students can demonstrate mastery through such alternatives as skits, talk shows, scrapbooks, acrostics, and movie recommendations to a character.

The district mandates certain skills that teachers must cover, but does not require the use of particular texts, leaving teachers free to select the books they will use in their classrooms. With his seventh-grade magnet and pre-AP students, Mr. Bernhart tries to introduce engaging young adult literature, often with a Latino or African American protagonist. Although students must pass the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), Mr. Bernhart does not teach directly to the test, believing that he addresses the necessary skills through his regular curriculum.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Small Literature Groups

Teacher: Joe Bernhart, Fondren Middle School, Houston, Texas

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

Grade Level: Seventh

Topic: Response to Literature in Small Book Groups

Materials Needed:

Background Information:
Students will participate in book groups of four to five students each. Each group will select its own book to read from a list of ten young adult novels. Students are expected to read books aloud, discuss them, write letters to a “Book Buddy” — a student in another class who is reading the same text — and produce a culminating project representing the mini-lesson concepts, characters, and themes of the literature. Students will use their writer’s notebooks to become focused for the day’s lesson and to express themselves creatively.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • discuss and write about literature through peer interaction.
  • develop deeper understanding of the works they read.
  • enjoy and care about the literature they read.
  • support one another in peer groups, as they seek their own meaning of literature.
  • create original projects that demonstrate mastery of literate skills.
  • engage in critical literacies within a meaningful social context.

Expected Products From Lesson:

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Peer support
  • Collaborative discussions
  • Student ownership of learning
  • Teacher facilitation, guidance, and feedback
  • Mini-lesson

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Student desks are arranged in small groups of four to five students each. Each heterogeneous group is student-centered, in which students are asked to monitor their own progress and learning throughout each process required in the book groups.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:
A variety of activities will take place over time, depending on where students and books groups are in the process. Some of the activities will include:

  • reading books aloud.
  • discussing literature.
  • writing about literature.
  • applying literary concepts learned in mini-lessons.
  • creating book projects.
  • presenting projects.

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:
Each group will create a book project representing their understanding of the literature. Upon completion, students will present their projects to the class.

On a daily basis, students may be evaluated through:

  • OWL logs.
  • participation.
  • Book Buddy letters.
  • projects.
  • application of mini-lesson literature concepts.

Professional Reflection

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


  • What observations have you made about the nature of literary dialogue in this classroom?
  • How do you get students to this point?
  • How do you take students beyond this point, diving even deeper into texts?
  • What can teachers do to bring about meaningful student conversations about literature?

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.

Mini-Lesson: OWL Logs
Use this mini-lesson to prepare students to work with their OWL logs.

Mini-Lesson Teacher Planning Tips

  • A mini-lesson should take up no more than 10 to 15 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 providing a mini-lesson in which students construct their own understanding of a concept, instead of directly defining terms for students. For instance, when teaching the concept mood, provide several sample passages with distinct moods. Ask students to describe the difference in the passages and how the authors crafted their meaning. They may arrive at the term mood on their own or you may suggest the term to them after they have identified the concept in their own terms.

Suggestions for Assessing OWL Logs
Mr. Bernhart assesses the OWL logs holistically. The logs provide a sampling of how the groups are processing the book and what kinds of connections they are making with the text. He suggests that teachers:

  • require one OWL log per group.
  • comment in the margins of the students’ OWL logs, challenging them to go deeper into issues.
  • select key grammar errors for correction.
  • consider the OWL logs as an assessment tool in addition to observing group discussions.
  • communicate their expectations to the students:
    • complete all sections of the log.
    • explain and elaborate all viewpoints.
    • include significant points from the group discussion.

Building a Literary Community
These materials from the Conversations in Literature Web site can help you build a literary community within your classroom:

  • Sample discussion questions
  • Literary Hunt

Tip Sheet: Supporting Your Child’s Learning at Home
Use this tip sheet as a resource when encouraging parents to support learning in the classroom.

Text Pairings
As you begin to plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings, so that students have a rich palette of text background and reading experiences to draw upon in their literary conversations. Some texts that may complement the ones used in this classroom lesson plan include:

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Sula by Toni Morrison
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Mr. Bernhart’s classroom:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Forged by Fire by Sharon Mills Draper
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Mills Draper

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

Julie of the Wolves by Julie Craighead George

Heaven by Angela Johnson

Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons

Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Meyers

Additional resources related to the tenets of this lesson: