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

Seminar Discussion

Dorothy Franklin's diverse seventh–grade language arts classroom in the heart of Chicago focuses on Langston Hughes's short story, "Passing." Franklin encourages her students to take on the perspective of the characters in the text, with some surprising and satisfying results.

About This Video Clip

“Literary reactions in a whole-group setting are important because students get a chance to gauge the opinions of their peers. They get to see how their thinking rates with everyone else. It also puts them in a position where sometimes they have to defend what they’re thinking.”
Dorothy Franklin, Teacher
DeWitt Clinton Elementary School
Chicago, Illinois

Students in Dorothy Franklin’s urban Chicago classroom participate in a quarter-long study of Black History, spanning slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern events. In order to meet the needs of the diverse student population, including newly proficient ESOL students, special education students, and students reading at or above grade level, Ms. Franklin uses a variety of instructional approaches, including independent reading of books and small book group and whole-class seminar discussions.

In this lesson, students participate in the second part of a seminar discussion focusing on the short story “Passing” by Langston Hughes. In part one of the seminar, students discussed the short story “Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter. This lesson preceded the one you will see in this video clip. Both stories deal with Black oppression and lend themselves to a natural pairing. In preparation for discussion, students independently respond to questions in writing before the seminar, so that they can thoughtfully offer their opinions and provide supporting evidence. Ms. Franklin encourages students to express their unique perspectives, to respectfully disagree with her and classmates, and to explore possibilities that they may have not considered on their own. In response to the seminar experience, students are asked to compare and contrast the actions and motives of the protagonists in the two stories. Ms. Franklin hopes to provide students with an opportunity to examine how two different Black characters responded to their circumstances of oppression. The students in the seminar model many of the hallmarks of a classroom community focused on literature: their ideas are at the center of the classroom; questions are viewed as central to the literary experience; it is assumed by both the teacher and the students that they will build on the understandings they came to class with; it is assumed that multiple interpretations are both expected and helpful.

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

“Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter
“Passing” by Langston Hughes

“Passing” by Langston Hughes examines how one character deals with racism by blending into Euro-American culture. In contrast, the short story “Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter, presents a protagonist who fights back against his situation of oppression with anger and force. As background knowledge for this classroom lesson’s seminar discussion, students read “Guests in the Promised Land.” This text pairing affords students with an opportunity to see how two different individuals might have dealt with being African American during the early 1930s. Use the companion text, To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, to expand students’ background knowledge. To Be a Slave is a nonfiction account drawn from actual slave narratives.

You can access additional resources related to these texts in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: DeWitt Clinton Elementary School
Location: Chicago, Illinois
No. of Students in School: 1,600
Teacher: Dorothy Franklin
No. of Years Teaching: 16 Years
Grade: 7th
Subject: Language arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 30

DeWitt Clinton Elementary is an urban K-8 school in Chicago, Illinois, that serves a primarily first-generation immigrant population speaking more than 17 different languages. The majority of students are Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Russian, or Bosnian, with a small minority of other nationalities and ethnicities. Many of Clinton’s children require ESOL or bilingual assistance. Approximately 50 percent are below grade level in core subjects, and 85 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. In the tradition of a neighborhood school, all of the approximately 1600 students live within walking distance of school grounds. Clinton experiences a high rate of transience as families move into and out of the surrounding areas.

Class size at Clinton hovers around 28 to 30 children of all abilities. In Dorothy Franklin’s double-blocked language arts classes, the average reading level is fifth grade, with some students as low as third and others as high as ninth. Ms. Franklin also has students in various stages of the bilingual program. Teachers meet in grade-level teams to discuss the status and well-being of individual students. Language arts teachers for grades five to eight also hold weekly meetings to discuss issues of curriculum.

Illinois does not mandate texts that schools must teach, only skills and concepts that they should address. Some schools have created a list of approved texts, but teachers at Clinton have free rein in selecting their material. Ms. Franklin has chosen to use novels and self-selected reading materials.

Torn between the order of a traditional classroom and the excitement of collaborative learning, she struggles to strike a suitable balance in her own room. Students usually sit in rows, with desks grouped in twos or threes to facilitate discussions. At times, however, they arrange their seats in a large circle so they can participate in a whole-class dialogue.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Whole-Group Seminar Discussion

Teacher: Dorothy Franklin, DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, Chicago, Illinois

Ms. Franklin’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: Whole-group seminar discussion in response to a pairing of literary texts

Materials Needed:

Background Information:
Prior to this lesson, students in Ms. Franklin’s class explored Black History through selections of literature from the time of slavery through modern history. Students have read excerpts from primary source documents detailing the struggles of slaves through the text To Be a Slave by Julius Lester, which includes spirituals, slave narratives, and letters. They have also read the short story “Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter, and discussed it, using the seminar discussion format.

In this lesson, students get a glimpse of African American life in the 1930s by examining Langston Hughes’ short story, “Passing.” As they discuss the text in a seminar, students react and respond to the unique perspectives on equality and oppression presented in this story, and compare it with what they have discovered in reading other literature.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • read for literary experience.
  • participate in a whole-class seminar discussion to enrich their own understandings of the texts, considering multiple perspectives and alternative interpretations.
  • compare and contrast how two protagonists cope with racial conflict in two different short stories.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Meaningful student conversation about the texts
  • Rich understanding of the two short stories, as well as the dilemmas African Americans faced in the early 1930s
  • An essay comparing and contrasting the two short stories, or other culminating activity

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Teacher-directed discussion
  • Whole-group student-response seminar discussion
  • Pairing of two literary texts
  • Written responses

Lesson Procedures/Activities:
Prior to this Lesson: “Guests in the Promised Land”

  • Read aloud the story “Guests in the Promised Land.” Consider omitting the ending of the story and asking students to predict what happens. You may want to reveal the ending after the students offer their thoughts on this.
  • Model a seminar discussion, using a group of students as a demonstration group. Talk about expectations you have for process and products, and establish rules for the seminar. Distribute the “Suggested Seminar Rules and Participation Rubric” to spur this discussion.

Seminar: “Passing”

  • Tell students they are going to read the story, “Passing,” which takes place during the same time period as “Guests in the Promised Land.”
  • Model a seminar discussion, using a group of students as a demonstration group. Talk about expectations you have for process and products, and establish rules for the seminar. Distribute the “Suggested Seminar Rules and Participation Rubric” to spur this discussion.
  • Read aloud “Passing.”
  • Seminar Discussion: Remind students of seminar participation expectations. Consider using sample discussion questions Ms. Franklin created for “Passing” and “Guests in the Promised Land.”
  • Assign follow-up writing activity either as homework or classwork.

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:

Compare and Contrast Essay

  • Students will compare and contrast “Guests in the Promised Land” with “Passing,” focusing on the protagonists, their actions, and motives. Consider additional class time for this writing activity, as well as writing as a homework assignment.
  • Familiarize students with the use of a Venn diagram as a prewriting activity. Ask some general lead-in questions to the class to open discussion, such as “Who are the protagonists of the stories? What makes them the protagonists? How do the authors use the protagonists to get their points across?” Encourage them to think about the protagonists’ actions, beliefs, and feelings.
  • Provide time for students to brainstorm ideas for their Venn diagrams in either pairs or independently.
  • Share student Venn diagrams. Make a list of traits specific to each character, as well as traits shared by the protagonists. Invite ideas from all students.
  • Ask students to select the key differences and similarities from all the ideas presented. Tell students these are the key ideas they will focus on in their essays.
  • Provide a writing rubric for students or create one with the students’ input. You can access a model here. If students have not written a compare/contrast essay before, they may need guidance and modeling.
  • Consider providing class time for students to draft, conference with peers, revise, edit, and publish in class.

Alternative Projects to the Compare and Contrast Essay:

Letter to the Character

Consider asking students to write a letter of advice to either Jack or Robert from the other character’s point of view. How would each character react to how the other dealt with his problems or his relationships with White people? What suggestions would each character offer the other about how to deal with their problems or life situations? Ask students to follow the format of a friendly letter. Utilize the following Web links to review the format for a friendly letter:

Create a Scene

Ask students to create a dramatic scene in which a character from one of the stories is transported to the other story. What might be the circumstances of their meeting? What might be the outcome of their meeting? Ask students to write a mini-play or act out the scene in class and write a reflection afterwards, explaining the significance of the scene and why they chose to craft it that way.

Sentence Collage

Ask students to create a sentence collage of best lines from both stories that reveal significant aspects of each character. As a companion to the collage, ask students to write one or two paragraphs explaining the collage’s significance.


  • Teacher will score the compare and contrast essay “Guests in the Promised Land” and “Passing” using a content and use of language rubric.
  • Teacher will use the Suggested Seminar Rubric or rubric created by the class to assess students’ participation in literary discussion. Students may also be asked to evaluate their own participation and submit a reflection on what they gained from the conversation with classmates.

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 hallmarks of a “good” literature discussion?
  • Consider the best literature discussion you have had with your own students. Why did it work so well? What did the students contribute to the conversation? What was your role as the teacher? What did you do to prepare the students for the discussion? How did you encourage students to get involved in the dialogue? What structure was in place to ensure a successful conversation?
  • How can you recreate a similar experience in your classroom?
  • How can you push students to take the conversation one step further?
  • What do you hope students will gain in a literature discussion?

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.

Reader’s Theater Resources
Consider using this creative and dramatic approach to literature instruction, where students’ interpretations affect their read-alouds, from voice inflection to body language, and the use of props. The possibilities are endless. Visit the following links to learn more about Reader’s Theater:

Resources focused on Building a Literary Community
Access these resources produced by the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement. Information about scaffolding instruction, strategies for improving literary understanding, and including struggling readers is provided. Use these resources as you begin to assess your own classroom success in helping students create envisionments.

  • Improving Literary Understanding Through Classroom Conversation and Effective Literature Instruction Develops Thinking Skills
  • Article: “15 Minutes of Fame” by Dorothy FranklinDorothy Franklin prepared this reflection on participating with her students in this professional development video series. This article was originally published in the November-December, 2001 issue of The Voice, the newsletter of the National Writing Project, and is made available at this site with their permission. For more information about the National Writing Project, please visit their Web site at
  • Resource: “Negotiating Story Structures” (Chapter Three)WITH RIGOR FOR ALL: TEACHING THE CLASSICS TO CONTEMPORARY STUDENTS [sic] by Carol Jago, Copyright © 2000 by Carol Jago, reprinted by permission of the Publisher, Heinemann, A division of Reed Elsevier Inc., Portsmouth, NH.Ms. Franklin cites this article as the inspiration for her seminar rules and participation rubric that she offers as part of her classroom lesson plan.

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:

  • Short stories:
    “Thank You M’am” by Langston Hughes
    “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
  • Poetry:
    “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
    “Mi Madre” by Pat Mora
  • Novels:
    Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
    Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
    Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred D. Taylor
    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Plays:
    A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
    The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
    Fences by August Wilson
  • Non-fiction:
    William and Ellen Craft’s slave narrative “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

Additional Resources

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

Langston Hughes Resources

“Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter

To Be A Slave

Additional resources related to the tenets of this lesson:

Middle School Instructional Resources:

  • 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 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 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.
  • National Writing Project Web site, sponsored by this well-known project, provides links to resources helpful to teachers involving their students in writing projects and the process of writing. State and local sites can also be accessed from this umbrella site, which also gives information about its mission and progress in meeting its goals.