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

The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community

Barry Hoonan's fifth– and sixth–grade language arts class on Bainbridge Island in Washington are studying a variety of contemporary young adult fiction titles. As students meet in small groups to focus on each text, Hoonan demonstrates how teachers can tactfully and effectively guide these discussions.

About This Video Clip

“Literature comes alive when kids have a chance to interpret and to interact. It allows kids to not only see themselves as active readers, but as people who can make meaning.”
Barry Hoonan
The Odyssey School
Bainbridge Island, Washington

Barry Hoonan believes teaching is much like poetry. It is crafted, it is magical, and it is powerful when shared. As an act of creation, teaching illuminates the tiny details of living and learning. Entering literature discussion groups as a teacher, Mr. Hoonan sees himself as an improvisational artist, listening and responding to student comments and questions. He is on the spot and ready to take the disparate pieces and help students put them together. Moving in and out of group discussions, his ultimate goal is to help students become independent thinkers and learners.

Trust in students and in their abilities as readers and thinkers is central to Barry Hoonan’s teaching. Understanding that students come to his classroom with a great deal of knowledge and information, his approach to literature begins by taking his cue from the students. Although he makes suggestions and adds information to a discussion when necessary, he prefers to have student voices and understandings predominate.

Each literature group has a facilitator, entrusted with keeping things moving, making sure everyone has a voice, and getting the students to develop their insights. However, Mr. Hoonan has learned that too much structure in such groups can get in the way of creative conversation that sparks ideas students may not have had before. Experience has taught him that students respond to overly structured situations by becoming stiff, asking questions and answering each carefully in turn around the circle. The literature discussions portrayed in this video display the organic, respectful, back-and-forth exchanges of authentic conversations in which ideas are offered, tested, and developed.

Mr. Hoonan believes strongly in the importance of community, especially in this multi-age classroom, and feels that literature discussion groups are an important way to foster classroom community. To accommodate a diverse range of interests, ages, and abilities, Mr. Hoonan offers students a choice of 15 titles linked to the theme, “Life’s Not Fair.” Students are invited to read at least two books and form discussion groups based on the reading of shared titles. In addition, the class read-aloud book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli further enriches the theme. As a way of enriching literary readings, an important component of the literature discussions involves linking issues from the literature with the students’ personal experiences.

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

Cages by Peg Kehret
Shoplifting, family alcoholism, and a struggle for personal honesty are central themes in this novel. When ninth-grader Kit doesn’t make the cast of the school play she goes home to find her stepfather drunk again. Later, she impulsively tries to steal a bracelet and is caught. Sentenced to community service at the Humane Society, Kit is too humiliated to tell even her best friend about the incident. To make matters worse, her final exam in speech is to be an oral report on shoplifting.

Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech
After the death of her beloved Aunt Jessie, 13-year-old Zinnia Taylor discovers an old trowel covered with weeds and dirt. Her discovery leads her on a quest to clear the 20-mile long Bybanks-Chocton trail that leads away from her family farm. By the time she has uncovered the trail, she has uncovered family secrets and solved mysteries about her family and her past.

Drawing Lessons by Tracy Mack
Seventh-grader Aurora (Rory) finds her world shattered when she discovers her artist father in a compromising position with one of his models. She and her father had shared a mutual love of drawing, and he had taught her about color and line. When her parents separate, she burns her sketchbook and finds herself unable to draw any more. Slowly she manages to rebuild her life and regain her art.

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty is really two characters — both social outcasts — who learn to function as one entity. Kevin, a brilliant child whose misshapen body and stunted growth makes getting around difficult, is the brain. The body is Max Kane, a huge boy with learning disabilities and the conviction, shared by many, that he is stupid. Max carries Kevin on his shoulders, and at first Kevin does all the thinking. Soon Max discovers that he’s not as stupid as people think. Kevin demands that Max be placed in the regular classroom with him rather than in the special education class. Max learns to read and write and value himself.

Holes by Louis Sachar
One person, and one person only, is responsible for Stanley Yelnats going to Camp Green Lake (a juvenile detention center for boys)—Stanley Yelnats. Or at least that’s what the camp counselor tells him. Overweight, friendless, and a target for bullies, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing the used sneakers of baseball great Clyde Livingston. As punishment, he and the other inmates are ordered to dig holes five feet wide and five feet long in a dried-up Texas lakebed. Stanley accepts his undeserved punishment as the result of the curse that has plagued his family for generations, ever since his great-great-grandfather broke a promise to a Gypsy, Madame Zeroni.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolfe
LaVaughn is a 14-year-old who sets her sights on college but knows she can’t rely on her widowed mother for the money. She accepts a babysitting job for Jolly’s two small children, but quickly realizes that the 17-year-old single mother needs as much help and nurturing as her children. LaVaughn becomes emotionally involved with Jolly’s difficulties, and even considers giving her the money she’s saved. She makes the decision not to, reflecting, “That won’t help… I feel very mixed but my eyes stay steady.” Instead, LaVaughn persuades Jolly to enter a high-school program for young mothers.

My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis-Holt
Although both her parents are mentally challenged, Tiger Ann Parker is a happy little girl growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s. She always gets straight As, and has won the spelling bee several years in a row. When she enters middle school, Tiger begins to feel embarrassed by her parents, even though she loves them very much. When Tiger’s grandmother dies, Tiger goes to live in the city with her aunt since her parents can’t care for her on their own. At first, it’s exciting to be able to reinvent herself. She cuts her hair and starts using the name Ann. Eventually she discovers the strength of her parents’ love and realizes that home is where she really belongs.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Set in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma during the dust bowl, this Newbery winner is told in a series of free-verse poems by 14-year-old Billie Joe Kelby. Her mother and newborn brother die as a result of a terrible accident, and her hands are severely burned in the fire that kills them. Denied the solace of her piano playing, she fights her guilt, anger, and estrangement from her father, finally learning to forgive him and herself.

A Place To Call Home by Jackie French Koller
Fifteen-year-old biracial Anna O’Dell tries to care for her five-year-old sister and infant brother when her alcoholic mother disappears again. Anna discovers her mother’s car in a nearby lake-evidence of her suicide. After hiding in a cabin in the woods and then being placed with an unloving foster family, Anna, in desperation, travels to her mother’s hometown in Mississippi, hoping to find family and a home. Instead, she learns of the horrors of her mother’s past and meets white grandparents who don’t want her.

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
Jamal Hicks lives in Harlem with his mother and sister. When his brother is sent to jail for murder, Jamal is left to be the “man of the house.” When Jamal’s brother tells him he wants him to be the new leader of his gang the Scorpions, Jamal isn’t so sure what to do. His brother’s friend Mac, another Scorpion, gives Jamal a gun. Jamal feels power with the gun, but he also feels scared and guilty.

Slam by Walter Dean Myers
This coming-of-age novel presents 17-year-old Greg “Slam” Harris. On the basketball court, he is in control. Off the court, however, his grandmother is in the hospital, possibly dying; he has trouble fitting in at the predominantly white high school he attends; his grades are sinking ever lower; and his best friend from the neighborhood may be dealing crack.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (class read-aloud book)
Stargirl Caraway, a new 10th-grader at Arizona’s Mica Area High School, shocks the whole school by wearing pioneer dresses and kimonos, strumming a ukulele in the cafeteria, and dancing when there is no music. She does nice things for total strangers. When Stargirl joins the cheerleading squad, she cheers for the other team as well. Leo Borlock, the 16-year-old narrator, falls in love with her and finds himself having to choose between Stargirl and his friends when the school becomes hostile to Stargirl’s unconventional behaviors.

Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Paul Fisher lives in the shadow of his older brother Erik. Visually impaired since five, Paul is an outsider in his own family and seems to be the only one to understand the brutality behind his brother’s football star façade. With the help of prescription glasses, Paul can see, and is an excellent soccer player, earning a position as goalie on the middle school team. As Paul records his story on his computer journal, he begins to remember menacing incidents involving his brother. He senses that the mysterious accident that damaged his eyes is also the reason he fears his brother.

You can access additional resources related to this video clip’s texts in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: The Odyssey School
Location: Bainbridge Island, Washington
No. of Students in School: 125
Teacher: Barry Hoonan
No. of Years Teaching: 19
Grade: 5th and 6th grade cluster
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 31

The Odyssey School is an alternative public school on Bainbridge Island, eight miles from Seattle by ferry. It is one of four elementary schools serving this community of 20,000. When it opened five years ago, it had 75 students in grades one through six, organized into multi-grade groupings known as clusters. This year, the school grew to 125 students with the addition of a 7/8 cluster. Class size at Odyssey is on a par with that at other island elementaries. Students are looped, staying with the same instructor for two years. Although approximately 80 percent of parents commute to Seattle, the school represents a wide range of incomes and includes artisans and local farmers as well as stockbrokers and lawyers. Families must agree to volunteer between five and 10 hours a month at the school before they may enroll their child. With twice as many applications as available spots, the school has a lengthy waiting list and is currently evaluating whether it needs to undertake further expansion — and if so, how to achieve that growth while maintaining the current sense of community.

Odyssey is located in a spacious old elementary library building and is designed to have the nurturing feel of a one-room schoolhouse. Students call teachers by their first names. The elementary grades spend part of each morning together, and they share computers and other resources as needed. Each elementary cluster has one teacher who is responsible for all instruction. Within such a small environment, parents are a vital resource, sharing their skills and expertise in the classroom. For instance, since Barry Hoonan’s expertise lies primarily in language arts, he recruits family members who are strong in math and science to help teach advanced concepts to his cluster. Teachers of grades one to six coordinate a three-year cycle of instruction together. Although the state mandates that children must know certain concepts by certain grade levels, it has been supportive of Odyssey’s alternative approach to education.

Like all public school students in Washington, children at Odyssey must take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) in grades 4, 7, and 10. But for Mr. Hoonan, assessment is far more than a measure of what students have accomplished; it is also a tool to help them grow. Mr. Hoonan keeps a daily journal on the progress of individual students and targets five or six students a day for individual assistance. He has children maintain a portfolio of their work, and actively involves them in establishing the criteria on which they will be evaluated. In addition, he asks parents to conduct formal interviews with their children at various points in the year, using a sheet of questions designed to show students the progression of their thinking over time.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Life's Not Fair

Teacher: Barry Hoonan, The Odyssey School, Bainbridge Island, Washington

Barry Hoonan’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: Fifth and Sixth

Topic: Life’s Not Fair

Materials Needed:

  • Selected books in themed sets
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli for class read-aloud book
  • Writer’s notebooks
  • Sticky notes
  • Handmade bookmarks
  • Art materials
  • Computer access for background research
  • Student Activity Sheet:
    Literature Circle Discussions (this is formatted so that it may be reproduced as an overhead or as a handout to give to students)

Background Information:
Mr. Hoonan’s students are invited to read two books chosen from the dozen thematically linked sets available. Using their writer’s notebooks and sticky notes, they record their questions and responses in preparation for discussion. Meeting with others reading the same book, students select a discussion group facilitator, share the questions they have prepared, and determine where to begin their conversation.

As the conversation unfolds, the facilitator ensures everyone has the opportunity to contribute, while encouraging group members to develop their thoughts fully. At the end of the discussion, the group lists questions with which to begin their next meeting. They also decide if they need additional background for their reading. If so, they frame research topics to explore prior to their next conversation.

Mr. Hoonan wants students to connect issues that emerge from their reading with their own experiences and world understandings. Literature discussion groups, he believes, allow for the easy exchange of ideas that encourage such connections.

To enrich the thematic background, Mr. Hoonan chooses a related book (Stargirl) to read aloud. During these readings, he may pause and invite students to interpret a passage or a scene dramatically.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • read and enjoy literature.
  • learn ways to value the particulars in the texts they read and use them to support interpretive readings.
  • use their writer’s notebooks to record their personal responses to their reading.
  • make connections with their own lives through the literature.
  • observe and appreciate the craft of written language.
  • prepare for discussions by noting key ideas and questions with sticky notes.
  • use language to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular written responses in writer’s notebooks: see Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments for suggested ways to help students respond to their reading
  • Regular use of sticky notes for comments, questions, and identification of specific passages
  • Literature group discussions
  • Dramatic interpretations of literary moments
  • Visual and/or written response to oral readings and/or literature group selections which take various forms, including diary entries, poetry, dramatic presentation of a scene, creating a collage, artistic representation, writing, and/or the creation of artifacts representing symbolic representations of the book

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Teacher demonstrations of sticky notes and dramatic presentations during oral reading use
  • Writing as a tool for making meaning: for comments on ways to use writing to extend class discussions, see Quick Writes in Teacher Tools.
  • Popcorn sharing of written responses: for a discussion of this strategy, see Popcorn Reading in Teacher Tools.
  • Literature group discussions
  • Student sharing of insights from literature group discussions using overhead transparency: for a discussion of this strategy, see Using Overheads in Discussion in Teacher Tools.
  • Discussion group self-assessment

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Students divide into discussion groups determined by the books they are reading. If a large number of students is reading the same book, they might form two discussion groups. A discussion group might have as few as four members or as many as seven. Desks are clustered to form a convenient meeting area for as many students as are in a group.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Reading independently
  • Presenting dramatic interpretations of passages or scenes
  • Responding to literature in writer’s notebooks
  • Preparing for group discussions by marking passages and writing questions using sticky notes
  • Participating in group discussions of the literature
  • Creating visual projects based on the literature

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:
Artistic response to literature discussion book(s) and Save the Last Word for the Artist sharing strategy.

Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • preparation and participation,
  • writer’s notebook entries, and
  • dramatic responses to literature.

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).

  • Quality and quantity of writer’s notebook entries
  • Written and visual responses to literature
  • Culminating project

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 elements of a good discussion about a text?
  • What are the benefits of offering students a choice of reading selections? What are the drawbacks? What are the management issues?
  • What do students need to know and know how to do in order to participate successfully in a small group discussion about a shared text?
  • What support can you offer students to help them be successful participants in group discussions?

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.

Popcorn Reading
Many teachers like to use popcorn reading (metaphorically named for the way students pop in and out) when they want to hear from a number of students, without reverting to the row-by-row (or around the circle) tedium of round robin reading. Without naming anyone specific, a teacher invites students to begin reading. When that person finishes, another student is expected to follow, again without explicit direction from the teacher. The process continues until everyone has taken a turn. With popcorn reading, students have the responsibility of participation coupled with the choice of when to do so. In addition, attention to the readings is enhanced when students are prompted to listen to peers for the opportunity to link their contributions to what has come before. Popcorn reading can be used with any text-even with students’ own writing.

Quick Writes
Quick writes have many names (journal jottings, freewriting) and multiple uses. Briefly, quick writes afford students the opportunity to pause momentarily during reading or discussion and record their thoughts and feelings in writing. Teachers can then ask students to share their writings, confident that every member of the group has had the opportunity to grapple with the issue at hand and has something to offer.

Responding Visually to Literature
Many language arts teachers have come intuitively to use visual activities to support their literature instruction. Non-verbal activities provide an opportunity for students to develop and display their growing understanding and enjoyment of the literature in informal ways as they develop visual representations of their thinking.

In his preface to Phyllis Whitin’s Sketching Stories, Stretching Minds: Responding Visually to Literature (for the complete citation, see “Additional Resources” in the Library Guide), Jerome Harste reminds us that “literacy is much more than reading and writing” (x). He tells us that literacy is “the process by which we mediate the world” which “means to create sign systems — mathematics, art, music, dance, language” — which “act as lenses that permit us better to understand ourselves and our world” (x).

When we take what we know from one sign system and represent it in another — as when we take a written text and represent it graphically — we are using transmediation, a process that “is both natural and basic to literacy” (x). Such transmediation has enormous value in the classroom. As students resee, they rethink. Rethinking, they understand in fresh ways, and their pleasure grows with their developing insights.

For less able readers, the very act of focusing on a brief passage or scene and doing what more skilled readers seem to do invisibly helps them develop the visualization powers to process texts effectively. Not only are they developing their understanding of a specific text, they are expanding their skill as readers.

Using Overheads in Discussion
Give each group an overhead transparency and a pen and ask them to record the results of their discussion for sharing with the class. Then, when it is time to report out, they can use the overhead to guide their contributions. This strategy has several benefits. First, the overheads can be saved, and referred to again days or weeks later to remind students of observations made earlier. Second, the use of a prop offers support for students who may be anxious about standing and speaking in front of the group. Finally, the use of the technology itself has a grown-up appeal that students respond to positively. When ordering materials, be sure to get clear transparencies that can be written on. Those intended for copy machines or printers don’t always receive ink well. Also, overhead pens come in a number of colors and students like to choose a color to represent their group. The transparencies can be rinsed off after use and reused for years.

Using Webbing To Keep Track of Student Discussions
Often it is difficult to remember who said what during a lively discussion. Even harder — when teachers have multiple sections of the same subject — is remembering which class or which group raised which issues. Following Mr. Hoonan’s example, teachers can web the content of a discussion to create a concrete record of what topics were raised in each group.

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.

Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments
Look here for suggested ways to help students respond to their reading.

Sketch to Stretch
Based on ideas developed by Phyllis Whitin and presented in her book Sketching Stories, Stretching Minds: Responding Visually to Literature, the basic premise behind Sketch to Stretch is that creating a visual based on a literary work stretches student thinking, helping them to see the text in new ways. Visit the Sketch to Stretch page for ways to use this in the classroom.

Save the Last Word for the Artist
After a student (or a group) has completed a visual representation from the literature, it is shared with the class. In Save the Last Word for the Artist, the visual is displayed so everyone can see it, and the class is invited to comment on what they see and their understandings of how the visual connects to the text. When the group has finished, the artist is invited to offer his or her thoughts, validating what the group has said and suggesting other possible interpretations. Often the artist will be surprised that the group found things about the work that were there, but were not consciously intended.

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. While Mr. Hoonan has chosen to link the texts in this lesson thematically, you may wish to offer students other works by the same authors. If you do, some texts that may complement the ones used in this classroom lesson plan include:

  • Crusader by Edward Bloor
  • Walk Two Moons, Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
  • Phoenix Rising, The Music of Dolphins, A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse
  • Acting Natural, Backstage Fright, Nightmare Mountain, The Richest Kids in Town by Peg Kehret
  • Nothing To Fear, The Falcon, The Primrose Way, A Place To Call Home by Jackie French Koller
  • Fallen Angels, Somewhere in the Darkness, The Glory Field, Shadow of the Red Moon by Walter Dean Myers
  • The Fire Pony, Max the Mighty, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
  • Wayside School Is Falling Down, There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes by Louis Sachar
  • Maniac Magee, Wringer, Crash by Jerry Spinelli
  • Dancing in Cadillac Light, Mister and Me, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis-Holt
  • True Believer, The Mozart Season, Probably Still Nick Swansen by Virginia Euwer Wolfe

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Barry Hoonan’s classroom:

Professional and Research Organizations:

Resources related to the tenets of this lesson:

Young Adult Literature sites

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.
  • The Doucette Index
    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
    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
    This Web site offers teachers useful tips including ways to have students explore literature.
  • Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site
    A comprehensive site devoted to literature, with reviews of new books, lists of award winners, and a great assortment of resources for classroom techniques and professional development.