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

Whole-Group Discussions

Witness an effective literary community as Linda Rief's eighth–grade language arts class in Durham, New Hampshire discusses Lois Lowry's The Giver. Here, the students work as a group to examine the text and discern the ways its themes relate to their lives.

About This Video Clip

“I want kids to be asking big questions of themselves. I want them to put themselves in characters’ roles. I want them to say, “Where would I fit and what stance would I take if I were a character in this book? And what is this book making me think about myself and about the world at large? And about where I fit in the world?”
Linda Rief
Oyster River Middle School
Durham, New Hampshire

The creation, interpretation, and appreciation of language and literature form the heart of Linda Rief’s curriculum. Her major goal is to enable students to develop into literate, articulate young men and women who contribute creatively and productively to society by communicating effectively with others, by understanding the world in which they live, and by finding their places in a complex and diverse world. She believes they become informed, clear-thinking citizens by participating actively as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.

With this goal in mind, Ms. Rief asks students to read a minimum of half an hour daily. For the first part of the school year, students make their own reading selections, either from a well-stocked classroom library, from the school library, or from sources outside school. By respecting students’ choices early, Rief believes they are more open to choices she makes later in the year.

In addition to making many of their own reading selections, students are given ample opportunities to choose their own writing topics. In both reading and writing, they are expected to sample a variety of genres and styles, broadening their experiences as both readers and writers. In addition to reading their individual choices, students are asked to read together in small groups, using text sets based on themes and levels of difficulty, or together as a whole class, sharing the experience of a novel, play, short story, poem, or essay. Language conventions are taught both in the context of the students’ writing and through direct, whole-class instruction.

Recognizing that sometimes teachers become overly concerned about students who are reluctant to enter classroom conversations, Ms. Rief uses writer’s notebooks to see how students are responding to their reading or to the class discussion. Eventually, she believes, a student who rarely participates will join the conversation and have something wonderful to say.

During discussion, Ms. Rief acts as a facilitator. She likes students to keep the conversation going on their own, listening to one another and adding to earlier comments or responding to questions posed by classmates. If that doesn’t happen organically, Ms. Rief is ready to urge the discussion along by asking a particular student what he or she thinks, or by wondering if anybody wants to comment on a point that was just made.

In this particular lesson, the entire class reads and discusses Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Giver. Ms. Rief uses class discussion to help students connect the world of the novel with their own experiences. She asks them what the book made them think — about themselves, other people, and the world they live in. She asks them to consider the implications of living in a world in which many of their important choices would be made for them. Ms. Rief believes it is important for students to hear what others believe. She hopes to see students responding to ideas raised by classmates and then rethinking their understandings based on those comments.

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 Giver by Lois Lowry
Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a perfect world with no war, no fear, and no pain. It is a world governed by the principle of Sameness where everything is safe and determined by the Committee of Elders. Jonas and his classmates await the Ceremony of the Twelves, where each will be assigned the tasks they will perform for the rest of their lives. Eventually Jonas realizes that “there aren’t any choices, if everything’s the same” and learns to appreciate the power of being an individual who makes choices and exercises control over his own life.

Ms. Rief chooses literature that will engage students in discussions about their own lives as well as about the world portrayed by the literature. She hopes these discussions will help students become informed, clear-thinking citizens who are able to communicate effectively with others and who think critically about the complex and diverse world in which they live.

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

Classroom Snapshot

School: Oyster River Middle School
Location: Durham, New Hampshire
No. of Students in School: 800
Teacher: Linda Rief
No. of Years Teaching: 18
Grade: 8th
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 25

Oyster River Middle School is located in Durham, New Hampshire, not far from the state university. Serving 800 students in grades five through eight, the school strives to maintain its focus on students as individuals, and on their particular educational, social, and environmental needs as adolescents. Students are assigned to a team of four teachers (social studies, science, math, and language arts) who will work with them for the duration of the school year. Teams are responsible for between 100 and 110 students, and class size stands at 25 to 28. Every quarter, a different specialist in music, art, health, or life skills joins the team. Students do not have to pass a high-stakes exam at the end of middle school, but they do participate in testing through the New Hampshire Educational Improvement and Assessment Program (NHEIA). The state evaluates school performance based on the results.

Classes at Oyster River are heterogeneously grouped and meet every day for 55-minute periods. The daily schedule includes a common planning time, allowing teams to check on the progress and well being of individual students in a timely fashion and to meet with parents as necessary. Teams also use these daily meetings to explore possibilities for making cross-curricular connections-particularly those with local significance. One year, for instance, in a collaborative project with the music teacher, Linda Rief’s eighth-grade students studied the nearby Lowell mills from various academic perspectives and capped the experience off by writing and producing a musical.

Ms. Rief incorporates multiple intelligences and alternative assessment opportunities into her teaching, believing that young adolescents need choices in what they study and how they express what they have learned. Her students keep portfolios and academic journals to provide a long-term view of their learning, and they decide which pieces to submit in their portfolios for a grade. They may even place work from other classes in their language arts portfolio. Ms. Rief believes in using evaluation as a teaching tool, saying that “evaluation should keep them moving forward; it shouldn’t stop them.” Together, she and her classes establish grading criteria, and students often grade their work before she does. They also complete quarterly self-evaluations to measure their own progress over time.

Classroom Lesson Plan: The Giver

Teacher: Linda Rief, Oyster River Middle School, Durham, New Hampshire

Ms. Rief’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: Eighth

Topic: The Giver

Materials Needed:

Background Information:
Ms. Rief’s students have been choosing their own reading — from an extensive classroom library, the school library, or other sources — and using their writer’s notebooks to respond to their reading. They are accustomed to choosing their own writing topics. In addition, they have experienced whole-group discussion in their work with both film and earlier readings. Ms. Rief used Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty to introduce students to Reader’s Theater by asking several students to assume the role of a particular character and be prepared to read aloud in that role throughout the class’s study of the novel.

Ms. Rief uses The Giver to introduce the idea of choices, both those we make for ourselves and those made for us. She asks them to use The Giver to examine what makes a choice good or bad while exploring the implications of a world in which there is no choice. She leads the class to think about the world of The Giver in the context of their own society by asking them to consider if such a society could ever develop, and if so, how.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • read and enjoy literature.
  • use their writer’s notebooks to record their personal responses to their reading. See Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments for ways to help students respond to their reading.
  • develop richer understandings of the reading and the issues it raises through reflective writing, class discussion, visual transmediation and various other activities.
  • use language effectively to create knowledge, make meaning, challenge thinking, and expand their literary envisionments.
  • use language to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • make and trust their own choices as independent learners.
  • develop vocabulary in the context of their reading. See Suggestions for Integrating Vocabulary Study for suggestions about teaching vocabulary from literature.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular quick writes in response to class questions and/or specific passages: Responding to Specific Passages in a Literary Text offers suggestions for ways to do this
  • Regular response entries in writer’s notebooks: Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments offers useful strategies
  • Regular use of sticky notes for comments, questions, and identification of specific passages
  • A collaborative drawing (done with a partner) based on a significant scene from the book: see Visualizing Literary Language for directions for this activity as well as some samples of student work from Ms. Rief’s class
  • A polished final paper on an incident, passage, or idea that is important to the student: Writing About Literature: Producing a Polished Piece offers some helpful hints for organizing this assignment

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Class discussion
  • Writing as a tool for making meaning
  • Dramatic presentation of ideas
  • Artistic transmediation of ideas: see Responding Visually to Literature for further explanation of transmediation)
  • Drafting, receiving and giving collaborative feedback, revising, and editing a polished written text based on a literary work

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Students work individually, as pairs, in small groups, or as an entire class depending on the purposes and needs of a particular activity. Desks are arranged in clusters of four and rearranged as needed.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Reading independently
  • Presenting Reader’s Theater readings of text passages
  • Listening to Reader’s Theater presentations of passages and scenes
  • Writing quick writes or response in writer’s notebooks
  • Group discussion of the literature and the human issues it presents
  • Creating visual projects based on the literature
  • Developing vocabulary through the context of literature
  • Engaging in various writing processes

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:
Students write a polished essay in response to a self-selected aspect of The Giver (see Writing About Literature: Producing a Polished Piece for suggestions). In addition, Ms. Rief uses the novel to introduce students to read, research, and write about the Holocaust and other human rights issues. They read pieces by and about Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel along with other, self-selected texts, watch several topical films, choose a related issue to read about, and use writing and discussion to share what they have learned with classmates.

Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • preparation and participation, and
  • writer’s 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).

  • Responses to specific passages
  • Quality and quantity of writer’s notebook entries
  • Visual representation of passage or scene
  • Vocabulary activity
  • Polished paper in response to The Giver

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 do students need to know, and what do they need to know how to do in order to participate effectively in class discussion about a shared text?
  • What support can you offer to help students participate in and enjoy class 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.

Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments
Go to this page for an outline of several ways students can use personal writing to develop their understandings of a literary text.

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.

Supporting Whole-Class Discussion
See Supporting Whole-Class Discussion for an article about ways to encourage productive literature discussions.

Developing Questions for Literature Discussion
Good questions can open up a discussion. Poor questions can close it down. For suggestions on framing good discussion questions, see Developing Questions for Literature Discussion.

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 Reader’s Theater in the Literature Classroom
Developed as a convenient and effective means to present literary works in dramatic form, Reader’s Theater is minimal theater that supports literature and reading. It is a useful tool in the literature classroom because of its simplicity and ease of presentation. There is no memorization; readers use the text during performance. Typically there is preparation, however. Either individually or in groups, readers analyze the text they will read, considering how to use verbal inflection to convey their understandings of character development and motivation. If used at all, costumes are partial and suggestive, or neutral and uniform. An Internet search for Reader’s Theater sites identifies a number of sources for complete scripts available for classroom use.

Supporting Less-Able Learners in an Integrated Classroom
Ms. Rief’s classes are heterogeneously grouped and include students with a wide range of abilities, interests, and levels of preparation. In addition to ESL students and those identified with learning disabilities, severely handicapped students with disabilities such as autism and Down-Down syndrome are mainstreamed into her classes. Her challenge is to find ways to support the learning of less-able students while continuing to challenge those with more developed abilities.

Two of the strategies Ms. Rief employs do just that. Reader’s Theater allows less-skilled readers the opportunity to participate fully in a complex text that they might not be able to process independently. At the same time, it offers better readers practice in the oral presentation of language, forcing them to develop interpretive reading skills and elocution.

Asking students to focus on specific passages, either through written response or artistic renderings, also supports weaker readers by modeling the identification of key passages and allowing them to concentrate their energies on explicit issues. More-skilled readers are challenged to focus on particular passages, attending to language use and the implicit issues such passages present.

Another way of offering support to students with a wide range of abilities is by including children’s picture books in the curriculum. In Teaching With Picture Books in the Middle School, Iris McClellan Tiedt includes stimulating thinking, promoting reading development, appreciating diversity, and introducing thematic studies as some ways picture books can enhance a middle school language arts curriculum.

You may also be interested in Ms. Rief’s essay — “Good Children’s Literature Is for Everyone, Even Especially Adolescents” — in Beyond Words: Picture Books for Older Readers and Writers, edited by Susan Benedict and Lenore Carlisle. This collection offers a number of ideas for using picture books with older students. (For the complete citation, see “Additional Resources” in the Library Guide).

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:

  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (this is a companion to The Giver; see if students can find Jonas)
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
  • Tomorrowland edited by Michael Cart
  • The Exchange Student by Kate Gilmore
  • Memory Boy by Will Weaver
  • Hole in the Sky by Pete Hautman
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Trying Not To Hear by Sandra Scoppetone
  • Billy the Great by Rosa Guy
  • Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the text used in Ms. Rief’s classroom:

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

Reader’s Theater Resources:

Additional resources related to the tenets of this lesson:

  • 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.
    • CyberGuides: Teacher Guides and Student Activities
      CyberGuides are supplementary lesson plans centered on core works of literature. Each CyberGuide contains a student and teacher edition, standards, a task and a process by which it may be completed, teacher-selected web sites and a rubric (based on California Language Arts Content Standards).
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • Young Adult Literature: Online booklists and resources