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

Going Further in Discussion

Since discussion is so central to the growth and development of a literary community, this program also concentrates on this activity. The teachers talk about ways to recognize good discussion, adding personal anecdotes about ways in which they participate in or step out at various points in the discussion to help students go further in their understandings of the text. The group also looks at different stimuli they use to provoke and maintain good discussions in their classrooms. These principles are illustrated by classroom footage showing rich and involved student discussion.


“I think literature’s job is to help kids find their way and see their way in books. It’s hopefully illuminating the challenges that we have as people in this world.”
Barry Hoonan
5th and 6th Grades Teacher, The Odyssey School
Bainbridge Island, Washington

Orchestrating meaningful literature discussions is a delicate dance. Teachers must artfully push the conversation along, while at the same time, not intrude on students’ unique perspectives and interpretations. In this scenario, the teacher is not the point from which all conversation flows, but a knowledgeable member of the literary community, modeling risk-taking and dynamic approaches to examining texts. Teachers need to be keen observers of the discussion dynamics, knowing when to end conversations, when to start new ones, and when to encourage students to further develop their ideas.

Much planning is involved in facilitating a successful literature discussion. Teachers contemplate issues and concerns that are raised in a text by preparing thought-provoking questions before a class meeting. Teachers consider ways they can help students make connections to other texts and to their own lives. Teachers plan for inviting multiple viewpoints and time to explore others’ perspectives.

In Workshop 3, teachers explore ways to help their students dig deeper in the literature, consider possibilities they may not have explored on their own, and experience a vibrant, meaningful discussion.

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

Key Points

  • In classrooms that support discussion, teachers guide students to examine texts at a deep level, connecting the literature to other texts and their own lives, and exploring possibilities for themselves.
  • Teachers can help students take a discussion further once it’s underway by:
    • Posing broad thought-provoking questions to encourage students to consider texts in a variety of ways. These types of questions have no wrong or right answer and invite students to think “what if…” or “how does this apply to my own life?”
    • Preparing lists of key issues or concerns that prompt students to explore areas of a text they would not have discovered yet.
    • Modeling read alouds from texts in the midst of literature discussion. A read aloud is the expressive reading of a passage from literature. When planned in advance, this may include the use of dramatic voice, props, or music. An impromptu read aloud demonstrates to students that good readers revisit a text for further examination.
    • Expanding and enriching students’ understandings through artwork, music, drama, and writing.
    • Providing a discussion format or structure that students can follow and then go beyond. Teachers may post this format or provide a discussion guide.
    • Modeling and celebrating risk-taking in the classroom. Students need to feel confident that their thoughts and ideas have merit and are worth trying out with the group.
  • Teachers need to develop a “third ear” for productive conversations — insuring that students listen to each other, build on each other’s ideas, challenge each other, and still have something new to offer.
  • Teachers must be ready to step in and help move the conversation forward, to help students consider other possibilities, consider the same issues in more complex ways, or to move on and get more information by reading or connecting to literature, history, and life.
  • Teachers need to monitor their interjections in a discussion, allowing students to take the conversation in directions the teacher may not have considered.
  • Personalizing what we read is a natural part of the literary process for experienced readers. Teachers can help students personalize what they read. Some questions teachers can ask students to make personal connections to the text include:
    • How do your own experiences help us better understand the story?
    • How do you see the character differently? How might she feel? What else might she do?
    • How else could you explain what happened?
    • Have you thought about…?
    • What did the event or scene remind you of?
    • How did it make you feel?
    • How would you handle the situation?
    • Did anything like this ever happen to you?
    • What can you learn from how the characters handled their dilemmas?
    • Does the story make you rethink any of your own choices or decisions? Explain.
  • You know you have a successful discussion when:
    • Students begin to converse with one another instead of through the teacher.
    • Students use the text as a starting point, but go beyond it by connecting the text to their lives and the world in which they live.
    • Students are listening to one another and making comments based on what others have contributed to the conversation.
    • Students argue with one another, revisit the text to make a point, and express passion about their viewpoints.
    • Students can identify what made the discussion powerful and what they took away from it that they would not have been able to do without the interaction with other students.
    • Students are posing their own questions.
  • Teachers need to guide students in thinking about what they gained from the discussion. This awareness helps students understand the depth of the conversations they are having. Some questions that might help students examine their discussions include:
    • How did the discussion impact your understanding of the literature? For instance, how is your interpretation of the literature different from your initial understandings of it?
    • How did the discussion change your perspectives?
    • What did you learn about yourself from the conversation? What did you learn about others?
    • What did you learn about the world in which you live?
    • How did you contribute to the conversation?

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Identify the hallmarks of a successful literature discussion.
  • Guide students in meaningful literature discussions, ones where students connect literature to other texts and their own lives, and explore possibilities for themselves.
  • Understand the balance between knowing when to step into a literature discussion and when to step aside and allow students to lead the conversation in another direction.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, review “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building,” and “A Practical Pedagogy,” and read “Strategies for Teaching” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature, from the Teachers College Press. 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 the resources to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.

Homework Assignment

Add to your sketch from the Going Further activity in this Workshop. Add color with crayons, colored pencils, or markers. Finally, select one or two key phrases or passages you think inspired your sketch and write these at the bottom of the sketch.

In preparation for Workshop 4, read “Literature for Students the System Has Failed,” “Literature Across the Curriculum,” and “Closing Thoughts: Literature in School and Life” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

For additional resources, refer to Workshop 4’s Additional Readingsection.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students.

Select a poem or short story that you have never read before. Tell your students that this is your first reading of the text. Together you can discuss the meaning of the literature and explore its possibilities. Students will see you as a member of the classroom community, taking risks and examining a piece of literature for the first time.

Book Buddies
Ask students to correspond with another student about the book they are currently reading. This can be a book that students are reading independently or it may be a book they are examining as a class or as a small book group. Offer suggested topics for the students to write about in their letters. Distribute the activity sheet Book Buddies: Letter Writing Topic Suggestions. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.)

Responding Through Art
Select literature rich in description or imagery. Consider novels like The Giver by Lois Lowry, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, or Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Also, the poetry of Robert Frost, or short stories by Edgar Allan Poe or Ray Bradbury would be appropriate. You may choose to focus on literary concepts like color imagery in a poem or a setting description, or characterization in a short story or novel. Ask students to sketch an artistic representation of the literary concept related to the text. Provide students with large art paper, colored pencils, pastels, or markers to enhance their drawings. Ask students to write a paragraph explaining their artistic response to the literature and how the work represents their reactions to the text. Display the artwork and offer students time to share their drawings.

Use your experience from the Going Further portion of this workshop experience to guide you in implementing this activity.

Responding Through Music

  • Select a poem rich in sound, rhythm, or rhyme, for instance poems like “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Harlem Sweeties” by Langston Hughes, or “March for a One-Man Band” by David Wagoner. Play with the different sounds in the poem by creating a “choral round” reading of the poem with different groups of students focusing on selected phrases, words, sounds, or lines. Consider inviting students to make up an additional verse that imitates the poet. As an extension to this activity, invite the music teacher to collaborate with your class. Either through vocal sounds or hand-held percussion instruments, enhance the poetic reading. Conduct a discussion after the musical reading, asking students to explain how their experience added to their understanding of the poem.
  • Ask students to select a song that reminds them of the literature you are currently studying. Ask student volunteers to bring in these selections of music for class listening. Listen to the music selections and discuss how they might represent the literature. Model this activity with a poem and a music selection of your own. Be certain to explain your expectations for music selections and what you consider to be appropriate for your classroom.
  • Expose students to music that represents the time period or setting in the literature you are reading. For example, if you were studying the poet Langston Hughes, jazz music from the Harlem Renaissance would be appropriate.

The Melanie Strategy
In the workshop video, Barry Hoonan describes a naming strategy he uses called “the Melanie strategy.” This is his way of giving a student name to an observation technique. He observes students’ discussions and towards the end of the conversation, he highlights what he thought was really powerful. This could be his observations of small-group discussions as he moves around the classroom, or it could be from a whole-class discussion. If a student demonstrates a particular approach to examining meaning in a piece of literature, he defines what the student has done for the class and then gives that strategy the student’s name. For instance, if a student, Melanie, relates the literature to a personal experience, he may define what the student did, compliment the student, and tell the class this is the “Melanie Strategy.” Not only does this help students think about the literature discussion and how they can contribute, but it also celebrates student participation, multiple perspectives, and risk-taking.

The next time your students participate in a literature discussion, observe the dialogue and noteworthy student contributions. Debrief the students at the end of the conversation, highlight powerful student insights, and “name” their responses.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Take time to reflect on class meeting time.

Classroom Cruising and Discussion Debriefing:
The next time your students participate in a small-group literature discussion, prepare to monitor the groups with a clipboard or a spiral notepad.

Create sections on a piece of paper for each group and label each group’s section.

Circulate throughout the classroom as students participate in the literature discussion. Listen for key points, questions, debates, and connections students make to the text. Jot down points of discussion and students’ names. You may only have an opportunity to observe a few of the groups. Also jot down additional questions for the students to consider based on the discussions you observed.

Set aside the last 10-15 minutes of class for a discussion debriefing. When debriefing the students, highlight powerful student contributions and raise additional questions for students to consider. Ask students what they gained from participating in their discussions and what questions they would still like to explore.

Plan on providing students with additional discussion time at the next class meeting to revisit questions and areas they would still like to examine.

During planning time, review the notes you made from the class literature discussion. What areas of the literature did the students examine? What additional issues would you like students to explore? At what points in the discussions could you have interjected ideas or questions to push the conversations along? What literary elements did students touch upon and which ones can you help bring to the forefront of the students’ next discussion?

Ongoing Activity

You are encouraged to participate in an email discussion list, where comments regarding the workshop can be posted and viewed.

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.

Articles related to discussion in the classroom can be accessed in the research reports section of CELA’s site. Look for the following article titles:

“Taking Risks, Negotiating Relationships: One Teacher’s Transition Towards a Dialogic Classroom” by J. N. Christoph and M. Nystrand

“Developing Thinking Communities Through Talk: Two Case Studies From Science Classes” by J. Hellermann, K. Cole, and J. Zuengler

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.

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.

Online texts and resources related to Edgar Allan Poe and “The Fall of the House of Usher” discussed in the Going Further portion of this workshop’s activities:

Online versions of the text may be found at the following:

Information about Poe:
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

A Biography of Poe at The Academy of American Poets

Poe resources provided by The Gale Group

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Necessary Roughness by Marie G. Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Dangerous Skies by Suzanne Fisher Staples

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