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

Diversity in Texts

In this program, the teachers talk about the importance of choosing rich texts for their students as a group or individuals, enumerating various criteria that they have developed for this initial classroom decision. Supported by commentary from Dr. Judith Langer, the group looks at the part student interests play in selecting the right text, building thematic study units using a variety of texts, and helping students select texts that meet their needs or help them go further in their experiences with literature.


“For a book to be worthwhile, good enough to use in class, it has to command the kid’s interest, foremost.”
Joe Bernhart
7th Grade Teacher, Fondren Middle School
Houston, Texas

Maybe good literature can make you think, transport you to a foreign land, or reflect on your own world. Maybe it can help you to understand human nature, yourself, and how to get along in the world. Reading a variety of genres, styles of writing, and literature portraying many ways of life builds literate thought and minds. These diverse text experiences provide opportunities for lively discussions that support envisionment building in the classroom.

The kinds of literary experiences you have each time you pick up a really good book are the same kinds of experiences you hope your students will have. Selecting the right texts is crucial to your students’ literary experiences. Your guidance is critical in helping students explore a variety of literature as they make meaning for themselves.

It is important to find texts that challenge and interest students. At the same time, the texts you choose should not alienate or frustrate students. Literature should be relevant to students’ lives, but it also should push students to expand their personal horizons. In Workshop 4, middle school teachers discuss these concerns and many more as they explore how they select literature for their classrooms and what factors contribute to their decisions.

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

Key Points

  • Teachers select literary texts for use in their classrooms based on many criteria. The teachers in this workshop video ask themselves the following questions as they consider literature for their classrooms:
    • Is the plot engaging for students? Can the students make sense of the conflicts and characters presented?
    • Are the characters engaging, imaginable, and adequately developed to understand them?
    • Will the text make students think about their own lives, the world in which they live, and their roles in it, or about things they might become interested in?
    • Does the text have literary merit? Will it be gripping, memorable, or connect to something else students will read?
    • Can the students see themselves in the literature?
    • Do the texts represent a variety of cultures and genders in an authentic way?
    • Do the texts expose students to ways of life they may not know from personal experience?
    • Does the body of literature appeal to a range of reading abilities?
    • Does the body of literature introduce both contemporary and classical works?
    • Does the body of literature include a variety of genres?
    • Does the literature present many layers of meaning?
  • It is important to give students the opportunity to select texts for themselves and to help them learn how to choose.
  • Middle school students enjoy reading literature that features characters their own age, coping with adolescent conflicts. This includes some classics and many contemporary, young adult selections.
  • Teachers need to be aware of what their students are reading, both for literary merit and for appropriateness for the classroom and school community.
  • Many classical literature selections are appropriate for middle school students and can be paired with contemporary works.
  • Teachers should encourage students to select a range of literature, including texts that are easy reads, ones that are just right for them, and ones that challenge them.
  • Reading books aloud in the classroom is a powerful tool. Reading aloud helps teachers reach a broad range of reading abilities and turn kids on to books they may not have explored on their own.
  • Literature that is appropriate for reading aloud includes texts with compelling stories, interesting language, and adolescent characters.
  • Teachers have a responsibility to help students find themselves in literature. Students should be able to find themselves in gender, culture, and in the characters’ lives and dilemmas.
  • Teachers can learn about great literature that appeals to their students through the National Council of Teachers of English English Journal and Voices from the Middle, colleagues, professional conferences, and students in their classrooms.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Select a well-rounded, diverse body of literature to read with their students, as well as help students make selections of their own.
  • Identify key concerns to consider when selecting diverse literature for their students.

Background Reading

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.

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’s Web site.

Explore the Envisionment Building resources to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.

Homework Assignment

Take a trip to a public library and peruse the young adult fiction section. Select three books that you have not read and that you think will interest your students. Check them out from the library. Keep in mind all of the criteria raised in the workshop for the selection of diverse texts for students. Write down the titles and authors in your workshop journal. Write a few sentences next to each title, explaining why you think students might enjoy the book. If you have time, consider reading one of the books on your own. Later, you can share your reading experience with your students through a book talk or a read aloud. You will be asked to share your three selections at Workshop 5. If possible, bring the actual books with you to the next workshop.

In preparation for Workshop 5, review “Literature for Students the System Has Failed” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

You may also be interested in the report “Literacy Through Literature in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms,” by Paola Bonissone, Eija Rougle, and Judith Langer, available through the CELA home page. This report explains how oral storytelling and interactions helped English students gain literacy. The report features both a three-year-old case study participant as well as a young adult.

For additional resources, refer to the Additional Reading section of this workshop’s materials.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students:

Contemporary/Classical Pairing
Read a contemporary work of literature with a companion classical piece. Consider comparing author styles, how themes and conflicts are addressed, character similarities, and how time periods are portrayed. Some possible pairings:

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
    1984 by George Orwell
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
    excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
    The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Freak the Mighty by W. R. Philbrick or Rodman Philbrick
    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • West Side Story by Paul Laurents, Paul Werstine, and Norris Houghton, editor
    Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
    Anne Frank Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Student Book Selection Discussion
Discuss with your students how they go about selecting literature for pleasure reading. Allow students to volunteer their ideas while you record them on poster paper, a chalkboard, projection screen, or overhead projector. Once students have offered a fair amount of ideas, ask them to narrow down the list to their top five criteria for selecting books. Ask students to keep in mind that these criteria should guide one of their friends in selecting a book that is appropriate for them either for enjoyment or for an assignment for school. Ask students to also consider how you avoid the problem of choosing a book that is much too hard or easy and the advice they would give to someone else. Post the students’ criteria in your classroom and the school library or media center for students’ future reference.

Dramatic Read Aloud
Model a dramatic read aloud for your students. Carefully select an engaging text. You might consider Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, or The Giver by Lois Lowry. Select a compact passage that draws the students into the story. Be careful to select only a few pages, so that you will not lose your students’ interest. Start your presentation by giving the students just enough information about the book and the scene you plan on reading to help them connect to the text. Consider using props, music, dramatic voice, movement, and music during your reading. You may want to refer to the book The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2001. ISBN: 0-14-100161-5.), as you prepare for your read aloud. After modeling the dramatic read aloud, challenge your students to prepare and present their own read alouds. Assign this project in advance and schedule class time to hear all of the presentations.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Build a Classroom Library
If you do not already have a library in your classroom, consider making one. Utilize the criteria mentioned in the workshop video as a starting point in selecting appropriate literature. As you stock your library, invite students to offer their favorite reads and authors. At the end of each school year, poll the students for the books they would most recommend to their friends. Evaluate and review the books you keep on the shelves and continue to add to your collection. Utilize the activity sheet Evaluate the Literature in Your Classroom for this purpose. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.) Remove books that are rarely checked out from the library and bring them to your students’ attention through book talks and read alouds, when appropriate.

Utilize professional journals like the National Council of Teachers of English Voices From the Middle and The English Journal as resources for new titles and authors. Use the Additional Reading section of this workshop’s Web site for more ideas as you continue to build your classroom library.

Additional Reading

Professional Organizations

YALSA Booklists
This site is a collection of winning titles booklists, including the Alex Awards, Best Books for Young Adults, and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, to name a few. This site is sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). To access the booklists, click on “Winning Titles” in the YALSA navigation bar.

The Literary Link
This site offers a search engine that is helpful in researching information about young adult literature.

Newbery Medal Homepage

This education reform oriented site features new stories in the field, links of interest, online newsletters, and many resources related to each specific discipline. Find them by clicking on the “curriculum and instruction resources.”

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.

Professional Journals About Literature Instruction

CELA Newsletter:
The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, State University of New York, Albany, publishes a newsletter in the fall, winter, and spring. The newsletter addresses a wide range of issues concerning literacy.

The National Council of Teachers of English Journals:
NCTE publishes many subscription journals, including The English Journal, high school level, Voices From the Middle, middle school level, and Language Arts, elementary and middle school levels.

Some literature titles referred to by the teachers in this workshop include:

Contemporary Novels:
Year of the Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper
The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake
Fig Pudding by Robert Fletcher
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Gaucho by Gloria Gonzalez
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
Heaven by Angela Johnson
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Slam by Walter D. Myers
Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter D. Myers
Freak the Mighty by Philbrick Rodman
The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Dangerous Skies by Suzanne Fisher Staples

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Short Stories:
The Day It Snowed Tortillas: Tales from Spanish New Mexico by Joe Hayes
“Guests in the Promised Land” by Kristin Hunter
Couple of Kooks and Other Stories by Cynthia Rylant

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes
A Fire in My Hands by Gary Soto

Authors mentioned in the workshop by teachers and students:
Maya Angelou
Katherine A. Applegate
Judy Blume
Beverly Cleary
Robert Cormier
Christopher Paul Curtis
Roald Dahl
Emily Dickinson
Sharon Draper
Lois Duncan
Robert Frost
Karen Hesse
S. E. Hinton
Kimberly Willis Holt
Robert Jordan
Walter D. Myers
Gary Paulsen
Edgar Allan Poe
William Shakespeare
Gary Soto
Theodore Taylor
Mark Twain
Laura Ingalls Wilder