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

Planning and Professional Development

In order to grow in their careers, teachers need a great deal of sustenance. In this program, the teachers talk about the ways in which they fulfill this need as they develop individually and as members of a professional community. The group invites us into their classrooms to look at the way they have grown professionally, stimulated by their peers, their membership in professional organizations, and their willingness to seek out new thinking on literature and teaching literature. Dr. Langer also describes the personal and professional benefits of an active professional life.


“Taking classes… and… [doing] professional reading really got me on track… And I’ve had mentors through all my professional life. I continue to have them… because I don’t think we ever stop evolving. Professionally, I don’t think you can.”
Flora Tyler
6th Grade Teacher, Picacho Middle School
Las Cruces, New Mexico

A common thread among effective teachers is their spirit of inquiry. Effective teachers center their professional lives around the generation of questions and a search for solutions. They wonder about how their students learn and about what they might do to help them learn better. They wonder about their students-who they are as members of cultural communities and who they are as individuals. They are interested in new developments in their subject matter. They consider new understandings about thinking and teaching and learning, and wonder how they might be applicable to their classrooms. Posing questions and seeking answers are foundational aspects of their professional lives.

Some of this learning is informal. Effective teachers become ethnographers in their classrooms, watching students carefully to determine how they learn, what difficulties they encounter, and what kinds of instruction help them overcome those difficulties. They talk to people — parents, community members, and other teachers. They read professional books and subscribe to professional publications.

Effective teachers also engage in more formal modes of professional development. They join organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English or the International Reading Association, and attend the local and national conferences supported by those organizations. They may take classes at the local university to pursue advanced degrees or simply to update their understandings in areas that interest them. Or they may participate in teacher development workshops offered by their schools or by organizations such as the National Writing Project.

Thoughtful planning is a second component in the lives of effective teachers. While they may be pleased to discover an individual lesson or experience that their students respond to, they understand that even the best lessons are effective only insofar as they form part of an integral plan for instruction over the long term. From the earliest stages in their planning, these teachers consider what their students need to know and what they need to know how to do by the end of the school year, and they develop plans that weave together flexible instructional designs targeting those goals. Throughout the year they revisit their plans, adjusting them to meet developing student needs.

In this program, you will hear teachers talking about the importance of professional development in their lives and about the ways they conceptualize their planning. As you listen, think about your own professional life. What kinds of professional development are most useful to you? Do you allow yourself enough time for the development you would like to experience? Could you plan your instruction in ways that would be more effective for you and your students?

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

Key Points

  • The more professionally engaged teachers are, the more engaged their students are likely to be; a teacher’s professional development often validates his or her work to students.
    • One way teachers help students learn is by continuing to learn themselves.
    • Good professional development is experiential and leads teachers to rethink teaching and learning while providing new ways to approach classroom instruction and organization.
  • Student populations are different than they were 10 or 20 years ago; understanding these differences and meeting the educational needs of these students requires different instructional strategies than many of those used in the past. As our society and the world change, educators have to rethink what they do and how they do it if they are to remain effective.
  • Many teachers find attending the Summer Institutes run by local sites of the National Writing Project, or joining professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, help them stay abreast of current developments in education and return to the classroom informed and refreshed.
    • Teachers have to be willing to take risks and try out new ideas and strategies for professional development experiences to be useful.
    • Teachers need to be thoughtful and reflective about professional development experiences, considering what they are learning in the context of their own classroom communities and their own teaching styles.
    • Professional development experiences may involve the opportunity to meet and talk with the authors of books students are reading; such encounters can provide rich starting points for later literary discussions in the classroom.
  • Teachers who see themselves as learners validate the processes of learning for their students.
  • In envisionment-building classrooms, every student’s viewpoint is essential. When teachers learn new techniques or new approaches to a text, they often find new ways to engage those different viewpoints. Students for whom our instruction is ineffective challenge us to find new approaches.
  • Teachers need their own community of professionals within which they can raise questions, share problems, and examine their classroom successes and failures.
    • Research suggests that student learning is enhanced in places where teachers and other education professionals get together regularly to share ideas and support one another’s professional development.
    • In addition to workshops and professional reading, many teachers turn to mentors throughout their professional life to help their continuing evolution.
    • Professional conferences provide opportunities to develop a network of teacher peers with whom to share ideas.
    • One way teachers can support one another professionally is by observing and offering feedback on each other’s classes.
  • The most effective professional development activities are those that originate with problems teachers have and offer opportunities for teachers to explore and test various solutions. Effective teachers constantly pose questions and seek answers centered on their teaching and their students’ learning.
  • Thoughtful long-term planning is essential to effective teaching because it enables linking classroom experiences into a coherent learning sequence.
    • Many teachers begin their long-term planning with a list of things they want students to know and be able to do by the end of the year.
    • Some teachers begin their planning by reviewing student evaluations from earlier years.
    • Goals or standards established by the state or by the school district provide a starting point for other teachers when they plan.
    • Knowing the student population and targeting planning to meet its needs leads to effective instruction.
    • When doing interdisciplinary planning, teachers identify the ideas and issues that are central to each discipline and focus on those that the disciplines have in common. Research does not show that students necessarily learn better as the result of an interdisciplinary approach, but such approaches offer students different ways to interact with the curriculum.
  • A central aspect of planning in an envisionment-building classroom is determining what literature to offer students.
    • Some teachers try to find one or two new books to offer students each year. Some teachers choose readings with a thematic focus; others choose readings by a single author.
    • Choosing a focus for the literature helps students make connections between and among the different works throughout the year.
  • In addition to identifying the topics that will be discussed, good planning involves consideration of the kinds of experiences students will have with the literature.
  • Clear long-term goals provide teachers with the flexibility to adjust short-term activities to meet emerging student needs without losing sight of the overall plan.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Consider multiple ways to continue your professional development and integrate it into your teaching life.
  • Consider ways to develop overarching goals for student learning that you can use to guide your instructional planning and design.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 5, read “Strategies for Teaching” 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

Respond to the following in your workshop journal:

Joe Bernhart defines his job as reaching “all… kids, even the ones we aren’t making connections with.” Which students do you have the most difficulty making connections with? What changes do you make to enable those connections? What else might you do? What resources and support do you have to help you?

In preparation for Workshop 9, read “Literary Thought and Literate Mind” in Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

You may also wish to refer to CELA’s Winter 2002 Newsletter which focuses on professional development or read their reports on teachers’ professional lives.

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:

  • Give students a list of activities and experiences they have had with literature in the past. Ask them to rate them 1-3 (1 = they learned a lot; 2 = they learned a little; and 3 = they didn’t learn anything). Then ask them to rate them as “Interesting,” “Okay,” and “Boring.” Discuss their ratings to find out what made certain activities and experiences both fruitful and interesting and what made them useless and boring. Consider their observations in your planning.
  • Ask students to write about unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences they have had with literature — either within class or elsewhere. As they share their stories, use an overhead or chart paper to list characteristics of such experiences. Consider these insights in your planning.
  • Ask students to write about good experiences they have had with literature — either within class or elsewhere. As they share their stories, use an overhead or chart paper to list characteristics of such experiences. Consider these insights in your planning.
  • Develop an evaluation tool that focuses on determining what students found most interesting and most valuable for them as learners. Ask them to complete it at the end of a unit or at the end of the year. Consider these insights in your planning.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Make a list of the classroom experiences with literature that you feel have been most successful for you and your students. For each experience, list characteristics including the kinds of activities students were engaged in (e.g., writing, whole-class discussion, small-group discussion, oral performance, etc.), ways in which students demonstrated their engagement and learning, and ways in which you knew it was successful. Use the Teacher Resource “Four Principles of Envisionment-Building Classrooms” to chart each experience. How can you use your analysis to develop additional successful experiences? (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.)

Additional Reading

Professional Organizations

The National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE’s site offers up-to-date information about professsional conferences around the country as well as online chat forums, a catalogue of current publications, and links related to English and language arts teaching.

The International Reading Association
This site offers links to local affiliates, information about meetings and events, access to an online bookstore, news about literacy developments, research, and online publications.

Reading Online
This Web site is an online journal of K-12 practice and research published by the International Reading Association. It includes helpful links to book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, discussions about literacy, and ideas and information about applying technology in literacy instruction.

The National Writing Project
In addition to providing access to NWP subscriptions and publications, the National Writing Project site links to affiliates, and offers online training as well as information about setting up and maintaining writing project sites nationwide.

The National Middle School Association
NMSA is the only national education association dedicated exclusively to the growth of middle level education and seeks to be a key resource to parents, teachers, and administrators interested in developing more effective schools that are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable for every young adolescent Their professional development section includes online courses for teachers and discussion forums.

The National Staff Development Council
The National Staff Development Council is a non-profit organization devoted to providing effective, high-quality training programs with intensive follow-up and support, but also other growth-promoting processes such as study groups, action research, and peer coaching.

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:

Short Story
“Four Skinny Trees” (in The House on Mango Street) by Sandra Cisneros

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper
Darkness Before Dawn by Sharon Draper
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper
Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper
Double Dutch by Sharon Draper
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen
The River by Gary Paulsen
The Car by Gary Paulsen
Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen
Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered by Gary Paulsen
Stargirl by Jerry Spinneli
Loser by Jerry Spinneli
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinneli
Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush by Jerry Spinneli
Wringer by Jerry Spinneli
The Bomb by Theodore Taylor
Timothy of the Cay by Theodore Taylor
Sniper by Theodore Taylor