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Making Meaning in Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 6-8

Encouraging Discussion

Introduced by Dr. Langer, this program concentrates on discussion and its importance in helping engaged readers go further in the text. The on–screen teachers talk about ways to encourage whole–class and small–group discussion, the importance of asking the right questions to provoke thoughtful discussion, and making the discussion inclusive, including both talkative and reticent students. Their discussion is punctuated by visits to their classrooms, where discussion flourishes.

Introduction

“They [students] need to hear what other kids think and that builds on the layers of what they each are thinking and it makes them ask questions.”
Linda Rief
8th Grade Teacher, Oyster River Middle School
Durham, New Hampshire

We learn best by contemplating and synthesizing new information. By turning over new concepts in our minds and raising questions, we better understand how to apply the knowledge in multiple situations. This is what makes us critical thinkers.

Literary discussion gives students an opportunity to develop their own interpretations, challenge their initial understandings, raise questions, and grow as critical thinkers and literate members of society.

How can teachers encourage thoughtful discussion in their literature classrooms? What instructional techniques encourage students to discuss literature and how do we plan for these discussions? In this workshop, eight middle school teachers address these concerns and share strategies they use to support and nurture students’ discussion of literature.

For a complete guide to the workshop session activities, download and print our Support Materials.

Key Points

  • Students are encouraged to offer their unique perspectives, share interpretations, and raise questions in classrooms that support discussions.
  • Discussion provides students with opportunities to explore the layers of possibility individuals bring to each reading, including unique experiences in their lives and differing perspectives based on the books they have read.
  • Classrooms that support students’ developing understandings provide a safe learning community where students feel free to share their range of ideas. They feel respected and learn to respect and trust others in the community.
  • Writing is an important rehearsal for fruitful classroom discussions.
  • Students are treated as life-long learners in classrooms that support discussion.
  • Teachers can encourage discussion by:
    • Providing engaging texts, such as literature that features adolescents and their dilemmas.
    • Asking questions that help students tap prior knowledge and life experiences.
    • Choosing a compelling passage and reading it aloud.
    • Being a good listener to students’ ideas.
    • Setting discussion guidelines in concert with student input.
    • Modeling ways to connect to the literature. For instance, share personal experiences that the text makes you recall or similar situations you have encountered in your life.
    • Using think alouds to demonstrate the ways you are interacting with the literature as you read.
    • Modeling writing as a way to collect your own ideas about a text.
    • Inviting students to create their own questions about the text.
    • Removing yourself as the point from which all conversation flows.
  • Successful discussions do not occur without careful strategic planning. In planning for discussion:
    • Consider ways to help students find their way into the text. This is crucial in getting a conversation started.
    • Consider ways you can model thinking, writing, and connecting the text to your own life.
    • Physically arrange your classroom so that it best supports discussion. This may be small groups, pairs, teams, or rows facing one another. Rely on your knowledge of your students, their energy level, their experience with discussion, and your goals for the discussion. It may be necessary to change the configurations often for optimum success.
    • Know that all groups will not be successful. When this happens, sometimes it is best to allow the group to break off into smaller groups or to allow students to work independently and join the class later in a whole-class discussion.
    • Think about which students in your class are more likely to contribute to discussion and which ones are more reluctant. Plan for including all students in the literary discussion. This might include your listening to a group’s discussion and directing the conversation towards the quieter students or creating heterogeneous groups with many personalities and temperaments.
    • Consider ways to respond to the literature, other than discussion, such as the use of art and writing. These opportunities will include some of the quieter students.
    • Think about ways you can encourage students to pose their own questions.
  • Discussion creates a classroom environment where students focus less on recitation and memorization and more on substantial inquiry and analysis.
  • Questions are a natural part of the literary experience and students are invited to raise thought-provoking questions in a literary community. Questions are never viewed as not knowing or not fully understanding, as in a traditional classroom.
  • Literary concepts are learned in context, as students use this literary lexicon as the fabric of their discussions, developing their understandings and growing their interpretations. Teachers can provide opportunities for literary concept experience by:
    • Asking questions that foreground literary elements in a text.
    • Modeling the use of literary language in questions and contributions to discussions.
    • Planning natural connections in the text. If a text lends itself well to “foreshadowing,” for instance, find ways to bring this to your students’ attention and allow them to take the conversation further. This may include the use of picture books, read alouds, or questioning.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Identify instructional strategies that support literary discussion in the classroom.
  • Plan and strategize for literature discussions in their own classrooms.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, read “Building Envisionments,” “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building,” and “A Practical Pedagogy” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement. Use the Search link on the site, select the CELA Server search engine, and type in “envisionment building.”

For more information about envisionment building, explore these resources to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.

Also read the poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, which can be found in the anthology by Edgar E. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 5th edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Copyright 1998. ISBN 0-13-010076-5 and online.

Online resources related to the poem “Let America Be America Again”:

Online poem text from the Academy of American Poets

Biography of Langston Hughes and resources from the Academy of American Poets

Critical essay about the poem “Let America Be America Again” from the Modern American Poetry Web site

Teacher Resource File on Langston Hughes from Internet School Library Media Center

Homework Assignment

Journal:
As you are doing the assigned reading in preparation for Workshop 3, write down two thought-provoking questions generated by your reading experience. These questions will be used as discussion starters for Workshop 3.

Reading:
In preparation for Workshop 3, review “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building,” “A Practical Pedagogy,” and “Strategies for Teaching” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

For additional resources, refer to Workshop 3’s Additional Reading section.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students. Each activity is designed to help students start talking about literature.

Book Talks
Ask students to perform a 10-minute book talk about their favorite book, persuading their classmates to read the book. Ask students to briefly tell about the book and why they like it. Require them to perform a dramatic read aloud with a small segment from their book. In addition, ask students to create a visual presentation, which may be a poster, puppet show, prop, video creation, or costume that represents their book. Model several book talks for your students ahead of time so that they understand your expectations. Consider providing a presentation rubric or scoring guide and asking students to submit a book talk presentation summary for your approval before the actual book talk.

Quick Write
The next time you read a piece of literature with your students, ask them to respond to it with a quick write. Remember that a quick write is meant to be a brief initial written response to literature, no more than five to six minutes in length. Students may need assistance with initial responses, so you may offer a question or topic for them to consider. Once students are more experienced with quick writes, they will be able to get started on their own.

You may use the students’ quick write responses as a discussion starter for class. Remind students that they can respond in a variety of ways, including short phrases, lists, or webs. Model the quick write process for your students before this activity. Utilize the activity sheet Sample Quick Write Response “Let America Be American Again Teacher Resource” as you plan for this activity. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.)

Sticky Notes
One strategy for preparing students for class discussion is to use sticky notes. The next time you assign a segment of reading for homework, ask students to use three sticky notes to record three unique initial impressions, questions, and interpretations of what they read. Students should post the notes next to the passage that sparked their response or question. Utilize the students’ sticky notes the next day in class as the cornerstones of class literature discussion. Model this strategy before assigning the activity.

Insert Method
The “insert method” is a strategy for responding to literature that prepares students for discussion. Here, readers use symbols to represent reactions to passages of text throughout a reading. For instance, if a reader is surprised by new information in a passage, they may mark or insert an exclamation point in the margin near the passage or use a sticky note with an exclamation point. These symbols serve as reminders of the reader’s initial response to the text. You may provide a bookmark with symbols and their meanings for students’ first experience with this activity.

Demonstrate the “insert method” and practice this strategy in class before asking students to try it on their own. Once students are comfortable with this approach to responding to literature, invite them to create their own symbols or expand the ones you have provided in class. Utilize the Insert Method Bookmarks Teacher Resource to get your students started. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.)

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Videotape a discussion of literature in your own classroom. Analyze the discussion. Write your response in your workshop journal. Consider the following in your analysis:

  • What about the discussion was successful?
  • What parts of the discussion need improvement?
  • Did the discussion flow through you as the facilitator or did students converse with one another? Think about how this occurred and why.
  • How was the class physically structured? Whole groups or small groups? How did that structure contribute to the success of the discussion?
  • Were all students actively involved in the dialogue? Did some students involve themselves by listening alone?
  • How were students prepared for the discussion and how did that contribute to the overall success of the discussion?
  • How did you prepare for the discussion? What would you do differently next time?

Additional Reading

The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA)
Directed by Dr. Judith Langer and Dr. Arthur Applebee, CELA is the only federally funded center committed to literacy research. All research is published on this site, including past studies, as well as reports about studies in process. By using the search link on the site, users can type in the words “envisionment building” and find a listing of articles and reports related to Dr. Langer’s research. In addition to this, the quarterly professional newsletter is available online, which features discoveries and trends in the field of English and language arts.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
NCTE’s Web site offers up-to-date information about professional conferences around the country. In addition to this, the site offers online chat forums, a catalog of current publications, and links related to English and language arts teaching.

MiddleWeb
This education reform-oriented site features new stories in the field, links of interest, online newsletters, and many resources related to each specific discipline.

Literature Circles Resource Center
This site features links to guidelines, teacher forums, publications, and sample book lists.

The Internet Public Library
Visit the Teen and Youth sections of this site to find booklists, interesting links, interviews with authors, and more.

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site
This site is packed full of booklists, reviews, professional topics, and even includes a newsletter.

Waterboro Public Library, Maine
This site features a vast listing of picture books and links related to picture books according to themes, genres, concepts, and more.

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

Short Story:
“Passing” by Langston Hughes

Novels:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Fig Pudding by Robert Fletcher
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons
Holes by Louis Sachar

Non-Fiction:
To Be a Slave by Julius Lester

Picture Book:
The Lady With a Ship on Her Head by Deborah Nourse Lattimore

Workshops