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

Literature, Art, and Other Disciplines

In this program, teachers explore various ways in which students can use the fine arts to express their impressions of a text, and why this kind of activity should be encouraged to make sure that every voice in the classroom is heard. The group also looks at ways to expand meaning by interweaving literature with social studies and other disciplines, and the value of doing so. Several classroom projects demonstrate how learners expand their growing interactions with texts as they work in the fine arts.


“One of the problems with integrating literature [and] other domains is the belief that there has to be some grandiose formal plan. And there does not. It can be very impromptu.”
Dorothy Franklin
7th Grade Teacher, DeWitt Clinton Elementary School
Chicago, Illinois

Across the country, teachers are offering students doorways into literature via the visual arts, dramatic activities, and music. In addition, increasing dissatisfaction with curricular fragmentation is leading teachers to discover ways to make connections across subject areas. Teachers and students alike find such integration effective in a number of ways.

Asking students to think about their literary experiences in a variety of forms leads to fresh insights and new understandings of a text. Encouraging them to represent those understandings in a variety of forms offers access to representations that might not be available verbally and offers less-verbal students alternative ways to demonstrate knowledge.

Connecting the study of literature to subjects across the curriculum enriches both subject areas. Such connections reinforce related concepts across disciplines, provide fuller understandings by revisiting concepts or topics from different disciplinary perspectives, give students more coherent learning experiences, and lead them to coordinate the tools used in different disciplines when tackling complex problems.

Offering students the opportunity to read historical fiction, topical poetry and essays, or even nonfiction works such as diaries and letters, often enables students to imagine the human concerns behind historical events. Connections between literature and math or science expand student understandings of both areas while broadening habits of mind. Students who experience a range of such connections learn to establish relationships between and among seemingly contrary ways of defining and explaining the world.

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

Key Points

  • The visual arts, music, and drama provide effective ways for students to develop literary envisionments.
  • Teachers are integrating history, social studies, science, and even math with literary experiences.
  • Students benefit cognitively when they are exposed to various art forms while studying literature. Art, drama, and music enable students to explore their literary understandings more deeply and expand their thinking about texts.
  • Integrating social studies, history, and science with literature study helps students by adding a human dimension to the content. Embedding literature study in the context of social studies, history, or science helps students expand their literary understandings.
  • Art, drama, and music can provide different points of entry into literature, especially for students with diverse learning styles.
  • The arts can provide realistic or metaphorical representations of literary meanings.
  • To maximize their value in the literature classroom, art, drama, and music should be integral to literature study, not just seen as add-ons.
  • Art provides students with another way to talk about their literary understandings.
  • Visual art, drama, and music provide additional ways for teachers to see students thinking about a literary text as well as a way to help students develop their understandings.
  • The arts elevate literacy comprehension and further envisionment-building because they force students to shuttle back and forth between their literary understandings and their artistic creations.
  • Having students dramatize characters or situations helps further their understandings. Skits, role-playing, and other dramatic activities help students understand characters and the situations they are in.
  • Dramatic activities provide excellent ways for students to share what they have read with one another.
  • Convincing administrators, parents, and other teachers of the value of integrating the arts in the literature classroom can be difficult; others may view the arts as non-essential, or even frivolous.
  • The arts can help students develop their sense of imagery, an important aspect of envisionment-building.
  • Social studies and history are often paired with literature because literature offers new ways of seeing historical periods and events.
  • Contextualizing literature with social studies and history enriches the study of the literature.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Consider experiences that ask students to integrate literature with art, music, and/or drama.
  • Consider effective pairings between literary texts and content area topics in social studies, history, science, and/or mathematics.

Background Reading

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.

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.

You may also be interested in the panelists’ professional biographies.

Homework Assignment

Respond to the following in your workshop journal:

What are the particular strengths and talents you observe in your student population? What are some ways you can take advantage of those abilities to enrich their thinking and learning about literature?

In preparation for Workshop 7, 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.

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

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Choose a short piece of literature such as a poem. Divide your students into groups and ask each group to choose one of the following presentations:

  1. Create a dramatic reading of the poem using your voices-individually or in unison-to present the poem’s meaning(s) to the class.
  2. Set the poem to music and prepare to sing it to the class.
  3. Create and perform a dance that conveys the poem to the class.
  4. Choose another mode of presentation that involves rhythm, music, and/or dance.

Divide the class into groups. Give each group a different short script. Ask them to prepare a Reader’s Theater presentation of their script, limiting their acting to verbal interpretation and brief hand gestures. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.)

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Many administrators and parents undervalue integrating the arts in the literature curriculum. Brainstorm a list of reasons for such attitudes. Then list the arguments you might use if called upon to justify the inclusion of activities such as art, drama, or music in your classroom. How might you convince such critics that these activities are not frivolous add-ons, but rather useful tools for extending student thinking about literary texts?

Additional Connections:
The following teacher-developed materials are available in other programs in this series:

Additional Reading

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

Middle Web
Middle Web is a well-rounded resource for all middle school educators. The Language Arts portion of the site is a carefully selected listing of resources and links related to instruction and literature.

Creative Drama and Theater Education Resource Site
This site for teachers offers suggestions for ways to integrate drama into the classroom.

Creative Dramatics in the Language Arts Classroom, ERIC Digest 7
This site provides a survey of ways to integrate drama into the classroom coupled with rationales for doing so.

The Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award
This site lists winners of this award since it was established in 1984, providing teachers with a useful list of literary titles for possible inclusion in history or social studies units.

The Jefferson Cup
This site lists winners of the Jefferson Cup, an award that honors distinguished biographies, historical fiction or American history books for young people. The Virginia Library Association’s Children’s and Young Adult Round Table has presented the award annually since 1983.

A to Z Teacher stuff
Search this site for “Art and Literature,” “Music and Literature,” or “Science and Literature” to discover a wealth of specific ideas for integrating literary study across the curriculum.

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site: Themes and Other Subjects
This segment of Carol Hurst’s Literature Site specifically addresses ways to integrate literature into other curricular areas. Sections on Appalachia, the Civil War, Colonial America, the Great Depression, and Books in the Math Program are among the many that may be of interest to viewers of this program.

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:

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Lyddie by Katherine Paterson
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Thunder Cave by Roland Smith
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
Night by Elie Wiesel