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

Student Diversity

The varied viewpoints necessary for valuable class discussions are celebrated in this program. The group talks about the diversity of their students and how their interactions with literature are shaped in part by their life experiences, unique thoughts, and previous reading experiences. They examine the worth of using the lens of multiple perspectives to examine a work of literature, and offer suggestions for ways to encourage each student to contribute to the ongoing classroom conversation. Dr. Langer offers her thoughts on involving students' diverse voices in a way that honors all of their contributions.


“… You find strength within the classroom, not based simply on the commonalties… Those are there, but the strength comes through the differences… the different stories you have to tell, the different things [you] can learn from one another and about one another and then celebrate…”
Jan Currence
7th Grade Teacher, Stephen Decatur Middle School
Berlin, Maryland

As anybody with the opportunity to know identical twins well might attest, external appearances can be deceiving. Closer scrutiny forces superficial similarities aside, and each twin presents a wide range of differences when compared with his or her sibling. So it is in our schools. Even in locations where similarities of ethnicity and geographic background create classroom populations that look homogenous, closer acquaintance invariably reveals an abundance of diversities not readily apparent to the casual eye. Even though every human being on the planet shares 99.9% of his or her DNA with every other human, different cultural or economic backgrounds, ability levels, physical or emotional challenges, interests, and life experiences generate the multiple perspectives that typify our complex society and enrich our interactions with one another.

Certainly the many different points-of-view students bring to the classroom present a number of challenges for teachers. How can both curriculum and instruction be designed and presented to meet the needs of such diverse populations? In full-inclusion classrooms, how can teachers ensure that every student will be able to participate fully in the instructional experiences offered? What support will students need to help them understand, accept, and appreciate the multiple perspectives they encounter, both within the classroom and in their larger society?

These are the issues examined by the teachers in Workshop 5. As you are invited into their classrooms, you will note that although the diversity of their students is readily apparent in some cases, in others, while less visible, it is no less real.

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

Key Points

  • Diversity means more than just ethnic and cultural differences. It encompasses a wide range of characteristics, including (among others) gender, linguistic background, socio-economic situation, family life, religion, interests, physical or emotional challenges, skills and abilities, and life experiences.
  • Even the most homogenous-appearing group of students reflects wide diversity.
  • Diversity is an important contributing factor in the envisionment-building classroom.
  • Instruction designed to allow learners to draw on their own circumstances when interacting with texts provides the group with a rich array of personal and unique perspectives.
  • For teachers, the diversity present in all classrooms provides both challenges and exciting opportunities for instruction.
  • Multiple perspectives in response to a text generate multiple interpretations. In turn, multiple interpretations generate deeper and more thoughtful responses than occur when each student reads in the isolation of his or her own circumstance.
  • Envisionment-building teachers make sure students know their unique perspectives are appreciated. Additionally, they may plan activities to foreground or enhance those perspectives in order to enrich discussion and broaden understandings.
  • Envisionment-building teachers encourage students to share their various interpretations, explore them, and use them to enrich one another’s interpretations of a text. In this way, when students recognize and understand the different viewpoints presented by their classmates, they learn from one another.
  • Readers rely on their individual backgrounds as they make meaning from texts. As they share their meanings with others, their initial understandings can be enhanced or reinterpreted.
  • Recognizing and exploring multiple perspectives leads students to challenge their existing beliefs and broaden their world views.
  • Because it presents a vast array of human experiences, literature provides an excellent avenue for exploring human diversity, particularly in communities with somewhat homogenous backgrounds.
  • Diverse texts and students’ responses to them can help students discover commonalties between themselves and others who, superficially, may appear very different.
  • Because of differing life experiences, everybody has opportunities to connect with texts in different ways. As a result, students working in mixed-ability groups hear many ideas that help them develop their own thinking.
  • Inclusion classrooms present teachers with particular challenges as they seek to meet the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student while promoting deeper understandings for every student.
  • Many teachers use reading aloud to help all readers understand ways in which texts might be read while enabling them to participate fully in literature discussions.
  • Buddy reading, or peer tutoring where two or three students of varying abilities work together, is another tool to blend students into a single community of learners.
  • Conversation around a text that includes all students develops a classroom into a community.
  • Readers’ theater (story theater) is another strategy for supporting struggling readers and enabling their participation in the conversation.
  • Reading aloud can help students develop their comprehension.
  • Tag reading (also known as jump-in reading, or popcorn reading), allowing students to choose how to share the reading task and when to stop, is a useful way to have students read.
  • Envisionment-building classrooms offer learning experiences that are broad enough and thought-provoking enough so that every student can participate and have their own thinking pushed beyond where it was when they came to class.
  • Modifying texts for weaker readers is rarely an effective strategy.
  • Inclusion classrooms with students with special needs benefit from additional personnel to offer needed support.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Consider the multiple perspectives you encounter in your classroom as you plan instruction.
  • Identify the potential benefits those perspectives offer for instruction.
  • Develop ways to support those students whose differences present particular challenges to their learning.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 5, read “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.

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

Respond to the following in your workshop journal:

What are the multiple perspectives present in your classroom? What are some ways you can take advantage of those perspectives to enrich the thinking and learning of each of your students?

What aspects of student diversity make you least comfortable as a teacher? What would help you feel more secure in your abilities to work effectively with such students?

In preparation for Workshop 6, read “Literature Across the Curriculum” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

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

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try this activity with your students:

  • As a whole class, brainstorm a list of characteristics that make human beings individual. This list might include things such as culture and ethnicity, family structure, siblings, likes and dislikes, hobbies, where they live or have lived, pets, important experiences they have had, and many other factors.
  • Ask each student to list 10 to 20 specific characteristics that combine to portray who they are as a human being.
  • Ask students to choose a way of presenting these characteristics visually or verbally to share with the class.
  • Discussion should focus on how these individual characteristics combine to make us unique human beings with unique points-of-view.
  • Additional discussion might focus on how understanding the multiple perspectives offered in our communities helps us broaden our own view of the world, but at the same time embodies the possibilities for conflicts that require thoughtful resolution.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
What are your own diversities? Use the Teacher Resource “Bringing Diversity to the Foreground” [link to pdf] to list the various characteristics that make you the person you are. How do these characteristics influence your view of the world? Of your classroom? Of yourself? Of your students? What are the implications for you as a learner and a teacher?

Additional Reading

This site has a discussion group on heterogenous grouping in addition to access to Rick Wormeli’s Meet Me In the Middle with a chapter on differentiating instruction.

ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education
This site provides hundreds of links to information in many areas of education. The section on Equity and Cultural Diversity is of particular interest for viewers of this particular video.

YALSA Booklists
This site is a list of awards and the winning titles of each, 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).

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

This non-profit site collects booklists, authors, reviews, and “must reads.” The young adult section of the site features a wide variety of links and author lists.

Newbery Medal Homepage

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.

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Holes by Louis Sachar
Taking Sides by Gary Soto
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Short Story:
“Passing” by Langston Hughes