Skip to main content Skip to main content

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

Facilitating Discussion

Students in Tanya Schnabl's sixth–grade language arts class in rural Sherburne, New York, become involved with Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix's futuristic text. As Schnabl encourages discussion of the text on many levels, the students move beyond their first impressions of the book to internalize lessons and make them their own.

About This Video Clip

“I like kids to write their own questions because…they’re more involved. If I always come up with the questions…[we] wouldn’t get to what is important to them.”
Tanya Schnabl, Teacher
Sherburne-Earlville Middle School
Sherburne, New York

Questions are at the center of classroom discussion for Tanya Schnabl’s students. Because they are learning how to make connections and inferences independently, Ms. Schnabl supports and models the process for them. She asks students to prepare for discussion by writing questions on sticky notes while reading. She uses these questions to center the discussion and poses her own to help students connect personal experience with the practical and ethical dilemmas presented by the text.

Ms. Schnabl believes that integrating subject areas makes learning meaningful for students and tries to find ways to connect themes from science and history with their reading. She contextualized Among the Hidden within a class theme centered on the tensions between government limits and personal freedoms by helping the class understand and explore the implications of China’s “one child” policy. She used discussion to help students decide if they would be for or against a two-child policy in the United States. They each then created a poster defining and supporting their positions. Displayed around the room, these posters provided visual links between their positions and the situation in the book.

After students read and discussed the novel, Ms. Schnabl introduced them to Jeffrey McDaniel’s poem “The Quiet World.” This poem presents a world in which the government has limited the speech of each citizen to “exactly one hundred/and sixty-seven words per day.” In small groups, the class examined the ways in which the poem related to the novel, and then reported their observations to the class as a whole. As a culminating activity, the students wrote their own poems based on the 167-word rule and shared them with their classmates.

The role of the teacher is that of facilitator. In addition to organizing and supporting discussion directly, Ms. Schnabl’s presentation of outside materials that link to the novel at hand helps students expand their understandings of the issues involved and the impact of (often seemingly reasonable) government edicts on human lives.

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

Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix
This futuristic novel is set in the United States during a time when each family is allowed to have only two children. It tells the story of a family with a third child who has to be hidden in the house. As the child matures, he has more and more freedoms taken away to keep the family safe from detection.

“The Quiet World” by Jeffrey McDaniel
This brief poem presents a world in which the government has allotted each person only 167 words a day.

Ms. Schnabl looks for literature that will make students think about life issues. This unit focuses on the tensions between individual freedoms and government control as well as on issues of an individual being asked to give up personal needs and desires to ensure family safety and well being. You can access additional resources related to this video clip’s texts in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Sherburne-Earlville Middle School
Location: Sherburne, New York
No. of Students in School: 450
Teacher: Tanya E. Schnabl
No. of Years Teaching: 14
Grade: 6th
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 15

Sherburne-Earlville Middle School is located 15 minutes from Colgate University in rural New York state. The school building houses both the middle school (450 students in grades six to eight) and the high school, each with its own principal. Sherburne’s school district covers the largest area of any in the state. Historically, the region has relied on farming for its economic base and, although a few of the school’s families are employed at the university or nearby Proctor & Gamble, many others live on working farms or in trailers. Students often have to help with chores before school or to babysit siblings in the afternoon until a parent arrives home. Approximately 47 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. As is typical of the region, minorities make up only one or two percent of the student body. Despite the wide range of family incomes, people describe Sherburne as a close-knit, friendly town with a strong sense of community. The school actively encourages the involvement of families in their children’s education, and they have recently begun a family literacy program to improve the reading skills of parents and other relatives.

According to standardized tests administered at the end of eighth grade, Sherburne-Earlville is a typical rural school for that area. The school climate, however, is vibrant, and both the faculty and the administration are committed to their students. Over the past several years, Sherburne has hired additional language arts teachers to reduce class sizes to the current 10 to 16 students per section. The school now hopes to do the same with the other core subjects. Classes generally meet for 80-minute periods every other day, but in Fall 2001 sixth-graders began having 80 minutes of language arts every day. For the first time, the school instituted heterogeneous class groupings. Every classroom has four computers with Internet connections. In addition, Sherburne-Earlville has worked to provide teachers with the tools they need in the classroom – for instance, by assigning them to interdisciplinary teams that share a small subset of the larger student population. Teams meet two or three times a week to brainstorm possibilities for integration and cross-curricular collaboration, discuss the welfare of their students, and share their support for one another. The school also joins with representatives from the local elementary and high schools to map a cohesive curriculum across grade levels.

Within the framework established by the school, teachers are free to design their own curricula. For Tanya Schnabl in her sixth-grade language arts class, the only mandate is that students must have 10 polished pieces of writing in their portfolio by the end of the year. Schnabl is a proponent of using literature to enhance a study of history and cultures. In 2001, in collaboration with a social studies teacher, she helped her students orchestrate a Greek festival, an Egyptian funeral procession, and a feudal feast. The culmination of extended study, these celebrations were held after school to allow families to attend. The final cross-curricular activity of the year involved math, science, social studies, and language arts classes as students assessed the impact of a proposed dam and met at a mock town council meeting to lobby for or against its construction. Schnabl enlists parents in their children’s learning through frequent notes or phone calls. She also involves students in assessing their own academic performance, asking them to evaluate their work according to a rubric and to determine what they would have to do to “bump it up” a grade.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Facilitating Discussion

Teacher: Tanya Schnabl, Sherburne-Earlville Middle School, Sherburne, New York

Ms. Schnabl’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: Sixth

Topic: Governmental limits on individual freedom

Materials Needed:

Background Information:
The literature and extension activities in this lesson are connected thematically as students examine issues related to government limits and individual rights in a number of different ways. Class discussion will focus on questions such as:

  • How much control should the government have over the lives of its citizens?
  • What would life in the United States be like if certain restrictive laws were imposed?
  • Would it be possible for the United States to adopt a “two child” law as projected in Among the Hidden?
  • Is it ever right for a citizen to break a law knowingly?
  • What helps people make ethical decisions?

The two literary texts will be contextualized by study and discussion of China’s “One Child” policy. Students are expected to generate discussion questions which they write on sticky notes as they read. Discussion occurs in small groups or as an entire class. Regular entries in a writer’s notebook add further support to students’ developing literary envisionments. The range of activities students engage in (reading, writing, speaking, listening, artwork, role-playing) is designed to allow students to display competence and understanding in a number of ways.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • read and enjoy literature.
  • discuss literary texts in small groups and as an entire class.
  • develop deeper understandings of the literature through discussion and support activities.
  • prepare for discussions by generating questions and writing them on sticky notes.
  • link information about real-world situations (China’s “One Child” policy) to literary texts.
  • examine and analyze character motivations.
  • practice taking positions on ethical questions and presenting those positions to the class in various formats.
  • use and evaluate Internet search engines.
  • create original products that demonstrate understanding of the literature as well as of the ethical questions the literature poses.

Expected Products From Lesson:

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Student questioning
  • Collaborative discussions
  • Exploratory journal writing
  • Teacher facilitation, guidance, and feedback
  • Dramatic presentation of ideas
  • Artistic presentation of ideas
  • Research skills

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Students work individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as an entire class depending on the purposes and needs of a particular activity. Desk groupings are fluid; furniture is rearranged as needed.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:
Classroom activities vary daily and include the following:

  • Reading silently or aloud
  • Listening to oral reading
  • Writing journal entries and/or questions about the literature
  • Discussing the literature
  • Discussing ethical issues and relating them to the literature
  • Creating art projects related to the literature
  • Creating dramatic projects related to the literature
  • Writing poetry based on the literature

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:
Students will choose a mode of communication presented in this lesson — a poster, a dramatic skit, or a series of original poems — and create a project that focuses on a key issue, character, or event presented in Among the Hidden.

Alternately, they might choose another book, either from the list of paired texts or one approved by the teacher and present it to the class in a Booktalk. In addition, they will each create a three-point assessment rubric based on their project choice and modeled on the one used for their poster project. In conference with the teacher, they will use that rubric to evaluate their projects.

Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • original questions
  • participation, and
  • writers’ notebook entries.

The following activities might receive holistic or scaled evaluation (see Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and scaled evaluation):

  • Internet research report
  • Persuasive poster
  • Original poem

The final project on Among the Hidden receives a scaled evaluation.

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 are the characteristics of a good discussion about literature?
  • What do teachers do to support good literary discussion?
  • What can get in the way of good discussions?
  • How can teachers avoid these pitfalls?

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.

Overhead Master: Response, Analysis, and Reflection
by Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

This overhead presents a way to help students become consciously aware of the recursive processes of literary envisionment: personal responses, analysis of their developing envisionments based on those responses, and reflection (with potential revisions) on both their responses and their analysis. Included here with author’s permission.

Supporting Student Questions
This page offers suggestions for ways to help students ask questions during literature discussions.

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

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

Some Facts — China’s “One Child” Policy
Should you choose to follow Ms. Schnabl’s lead and contextualize Among the Hidden with discussion of China’s “One Child” policy, this page offers a brief background on that policy as well as direction for further Internet research.

Internet Research Activity for China’s “One Child” Policy With Suggestions for Assessment
Should you choose to have your students collect their own information, this page provides suggestions for offering students an Internet research activity on this topic as well as a specific assignment that helps them explore different Internet search engines.

Possibilities and Assessment Suggestions for “The Quiet World” — Write Your Own Poem
As a further exploration of the theme of government limits on individual freedoms, Ms. Schnabl asks her students to write a poem modeled on “The Quiet World.” This Teacher Tool is connected to the student activity sheet, “The Quiet World” — Write Your Own Poem.

Role-Playing Directions for Among the Hidden and Assessment Suggestions
To help students understand the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the novel, Ms. Schnabl has them work in groups to develop and perform a skit based on events in Chapter 4 of Among the Hidden.

Developing Questions for Literature Discussion
by Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

This brief article offers suggestions for ways to frame discussion questions to stimulate the richest responses from students. Included here with author’s permission.

Parent Letter
Ms. Schnabl likes to keep parents informed about classroom topics and activities and involve them, when possible, in their children’s learning. In this letter, she encourages them to help her students understand the loneliness of Luke’s seclusion by isolating themselves in their rooms for several hours during a weekend.

Text Pairings
As you 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 lesson plan include:

  • Among the Imposters by Margaret Haddix (a sequel)
  • Running Out of Time by Margaret Haddix
  • Just Ella by Margaret Haddix
  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Holes by Louis Sachan Frieder
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Antigone by Sophocles (reasonably priced film versions are readily available)

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Ms. Schnabl’s classroom:

Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix

Articles related to classroom discussion and student collaboration from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement:

Middle School Instructional Resources:

  • MiddleWeb
    MiddleWeb is a Web site devoted to middle school education and includes resources for middle school teachers and parents. A comprehensive index allows teachers and parents to search for useful documents and resources by topic.
  • Reading Online
    This Web site is an online journal of K-12 practice and research published by the International Reading Association. It includes helpful links to book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, discussions about literacy, and ideas and information about applying technology in literacy instruction.
  • Children’s Literature Web Guide
    This Web site categorizes the growing number of Internet resources related to books for children and young adults. Much of the information found on this Web site is provided by schools, libraries, teachers, parents, and book professionals (such as authors, editors, and booksellers). It includes quick references to lists of award-winning and bestseller children’s books, teaching resources, links to parent resources, and journal and book reviews.
  • Young Adult Literature: Online booklists and resources
  • Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE
  • Internet Public Library: Youth Division
  • Young Adult Literature Library from the University of Iowa
  • University of Tennessee’s Center for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
  • Young Adult Library Services Association
  • The Literary Link for Researching Children’s/Young Adult Literature
  • Book Raps: Online book discussions
  • ALAN Review: Dedicated to teaching and discussing young adult literature