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

Readers as Individuals

This program visits Flora Tyler's sixth–grade language arts class in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to show how one teacher, using writing and reading workshop models, works with students who are each reading a different literary text.

About This Video Clip

“I am excited. The kids are excited. I see what they’ve done and what they can do. I think it’s important that we expect the best from these kids… and that [our] expectations are high because they can do it.”
Flora Tyler
Picacho Middle School
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Flora Tyler says her classroom design is strongly influenced by the reading and writing workshop model described by Nanci Atwell in her first edition of In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning With Adolescents (1987). The theory underpinning this model centers on the importance of students learning to make informed choices about what they read and what they write, and taking charge for both the planning and execution of their work in both areas. The role of the teacher is to suggest, guide, offer individual instruction through targeted mini-lessons, and keep track of student performances and progress. In addition, the teacher ensures that students have adequate time for silent, independent reading; reading is the central activity of the literature program.

Although a reading workshop may seem disorderly to outsiders, clear rules govern its operation. Typically the period begins with a mini-lesson. After that, students must read (a book — no magazines or comics are allowed) for the entire period (they cannot do homework or work for other classes). They must have a book and be ready to read when the bell rings, and they may not disturb others. In addition, they are expected to offer written responses to their reading, either to the teacher or to other students.

In Ms. Tyler’s class, we see a teacher working with 20 students who come to class with a wide range of educational experiences as well as diverse abilities. Students are taught how to locate, choose and read texts appropriate to their reading levels and areas of interest independetly. They then learn ways to share share those readings with others. Clearly, the organizational structures — and their skillful implementation — in such workshops provide the glue that holds the classroom together. Students have to be clear about their short- and long-term obligations and be willing to accept individual responsibility for meeting them. Teachers have to come to such workshops with a wide range of knowledge about both young adult literature and adolescent psychology. In addition, such workshop settings demand that both teachers and students are tolerant and accepting of occasional deadends as well as an atmosphere of creative commotion.

Both the online and print materials connected with this video will focus on the reading workshop, although it should be understood by viewers that within the classroom, reading and writing are integrated, and that the instruction in each workshop is grounded in the same theory.

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

In Ms. Tyler’s reading workshop, students have complete freedom when selecting what they read. If they start a book and find it too difficult, or not to their liking, they are free to abandon it after a few pages and find something else. If Ms. Tyler feels that her students are overwhelmed by the prospect of reading a complete novel, she helps them set their sights on more personally manageable goals, perhaps offering them a selection of short stories from which to choose and then helping them expand their goals until they are ready to tackle longer works. Ms. Tyler has provided viewers with Picacho Picks, a list of favorite books chosen by her sixth graders, as a way to give viewers of this video a sense of their selections. You will note that many of the titles selected by her students are ones introduced in other videos in this series.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Picacho Middle School
Location: Las Cruces, New Mexico
No. of Students in School: 907
Teacher: Flora Tyler
No. of Years Teaching: 21
Grade: 6th
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 20

Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico is founded on the principles of collaboration and interdisciplinary learning. Students in grades six through eight work with cross-curricular, thematic units that have bearing on children’s daily lives and decisions. The school hopes to help students learn to make smart choices based on facts, not myths and misperceptions. Classes are also designed to help students feel good about themselves through a sixth-grade team emphasis on multiple intelligences. As proof that this philosophy works, the school touts its high daily attendance and active programs in music, art, athletics, and community service.

The student body is predominantly Hispanic, with smaller populations of Anglo, African American, Native American, and Asian students. While some children come from affluent households, many are from migrant families or live in shelters and other temporary housing. Language barriers and a lack of staff to conduct home visits complicate the process of contacting parents. Although a few schools in the area have begun dual prep programs where all students are taught in two languages, Picacho continues to use an ESL approach in which students are mainstreamed with help. As required by the state, all sixth-graders take the New Mexico Writing Assessment, in which students have three hours to respond to a writing prompt. The state also mandates that students in grades six through eight take the TerraNova, which helps determine what rating a school receives.

Class size at Picacho ranges from 23 to 25 in 85-minute blocks. Teachers at each grade level are divided into two teams, each responsible for 120 to 150 children. They have one 45-minute common planning period. In Flora Tyler’s sixth-grade team, teachers collaborate to sketch out the highlights and themes for the year’s curriculum, including at least two weeklong interdisciplinary units per semester. The team’s emphasis is on challenging all students through individualized expectations and support. Ms. Tyler also works with the second language arts teacher to plan common objectives for each quarter, although their classes usually take different routes to arrive at these goals. Ms. Tyler’s classroom is a celebration of different learning styles. She frequently uses music, art, and imagery to set a mood or make a point — for instance, reinforcing the meaning of punctuation by having students click, clap, and snap the different rhythms each mark produces. Students are required to incorporate multiple ways of knowing into any presentation, and may ask their classmates for their help and expertise in completing a project. Ms. Tyler’s goal is to instill a sense of self-worth in each of her students by helping them to discover and develop their areas of strength.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Reading Workshop

Teacher: Flora Tyler, Picacho Middle School, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Flora Tyler’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: Conducting a reading workshop

Materials Needed:

Background Information:
By the time of year when this class was recorded, students are familiar with the classroom rules and procedures for readers’ workshop. They are working on their individual goals, preparing literature log entries in their writer’s notebooks and developing both a literary poster and a presentation based on a novel they have read during the school year.

In addition, students have been taught about Howard Gardner’s work with multiple intelligences. References to these intelligences are made and connections to ways students use their intelligences are reinforced regularly. Students are asked to consider ways they can use several of their intelligences when preparing their literature presentations.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • increase their reading and writing skills.
  • set and meet individual reading goals.
  • choose individual literature to read.
  • read and enjoy the literature they read.
  • demonstrate knowledge of literary elements.
  • share insights about their reading with their classmates.

Expected Products From Lesson:

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Collaborative learning
  • Students sharing books and writing pieces with each other
  • Teacher conferences
  • Students modeling finished reading projects

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Students are grouped heterogeneously. During the class period, some may be seated alone working on a project or completing a written response. Some may be in the reading area, choosing books, or reading independently. Some may be in designated areas for peer conferencing, or a group may be gathered in the presentation area with the teacher.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Mini-lesson
  • Status-of-the-class
  • Reading workshop
  • Group sharing

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:
Students will complete a literary poster and a literary presentation on a novel they have completed during the year. These will be shared and videotaped by other students.

Assessment:
Students may be assessed holistically on a daily basis through:

  • preparation and participation (successful meeting of self-determined goals) and
  • writer’s notebook entries.

The following activities might receive scaled (or graded) evaluation:

  • literary poster and
  • literature presentation.

See Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and 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.

Consider:

  • What are the benefits of asking students to set their own performance goals as readers? What are the drawbacks? How might a teacher maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks?
  • What are the benefits of asking students to select all their own reading texts? What are the drawbacks? How might a teacher maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do in order to make literature selections wisely?
  • What kinds of preparation do students need in order to set their own reading and learning goals?
  • Is a workshop approach such as the one presented here personally comfortable for you? Why or why not?

Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

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

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

Mini-Lesson Teacher Planning Tips

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

For suggested mini-lesson topics, see Suggested Mini-Lessons for Reading Workshop.

Reading Workshop Binder
In preparation for a reading workshop, teachers need to plan careful management strategies that will enable them to keep track of the goals set by each student and the daily progress toward meeting those goals. Keeping a loose-leaf binder just for reading workshop ensures that all records will be easily filed and located in one place. If you choose to follow the suggestions offered by Nanci Atwell in both editions of In the Middle, your binder will include the following forms: A Reading Survey for each student, a Student Reading Record, and a Status-of-the-Class sheet to record each student’s daily reading progress. The Reading Survey is given at the beginning of the year to give the teacher an overview of the students’ experiences as readers; the Student Reading Record provides a list of all the books begun and abandoned by a particular student during the year. The Status-of-the-Class, annotated daily, charts student names next to dates and allows space to note the title of the current reading and the page number. The second edition (1998) of In the Middle includes clear samples of these record sheets.

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. When students have discovered a book they particularly enjoy, offer them other titles by the same author. Alternately, help them find titles in a similar genre (adventure, fantasy, science fiction) or that deal with a similar topic (WWII, animals, dealing with siblings). Thematic connections (coming of age, death, fitting in) can also enrich literary experiences.

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Flora Tyler’s classroom:

Professional and Research Organizations:

Resources related to the tenets of this lesson:

Young Adult Literature sites:

Instructional Resources:

  • MiddleWeb
    http://www.middleweb.com/
    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.
  • The Doucette Index
    http://languagelessonplans.blogspot.com/2008/07/doucette-index-to-k-12-teaching-ideas.html
    The Doucette Index provides access to books and Web sites that contain useful teaching suggestions related to books for children and young adults, and the creators of those books. The searchable database enables teachers to search by author and/or title of the book, leading to lesson plans and curriculum ideas.
  • Children’s Literature Web Guide
    http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown/
    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.
  • Traci’s Lists of Ten
    http://www.tengrrl.com/tens/
    This Web site offers teachers useful tips including ways to have students explore literature.

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