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

Starting in September…

The concluding program takes a close look at the ways in which teachers get ready to help their students become successful and engaged readers. During the first few days of classes, the teachers talk about everything — from the mundane to the sublime — that enters their minds as they start another year and plan for success. Dr. Langer underscores their remarks with advice for teachers who want to recreate the kinds of classrooms they have seen featured in this workshop.


“You set the stage and then you get off the stage. You let the kids just talk to each other because… that’s the kind of discussion you want. [You] want them responding in the most natural way for them. ‘What are your questions? What did you notice? What did you see? What surprises you? What seems significant to you?’ But you have to take them through that process at the beginning of the year… and you hear many more of their voices as the year progresses.”
Linda Rief
8th Grade Teacher, Oyster River Middle School
Durham, New Hampshire

The adage “Well begun is half done” is particularly applicable to the classroom. The relationships and routines teachers establish at the beginning of the school year resonate throughout the months that follow. Wise teachers think carefully about what is important in their classrooms, and how they can convey those values from the first moments students enter the classroom. The physical arrangement of the room and its contents send powerful messages to an incoming class. The earliest experiences teachers offer their students can provide memorable starting points for what is to follow. The envisionment-building teachers you will meet in this video are particularly aware of the impact of first impressions. The experiences they design for the first weeks of school serve to develop important relationships — between the teacher and the students, between the students and the teacher, among the students themselves. Additionally, they are introducing students to the values and the processes of their particular classroom. Students are learning to speak respectfully to one another, to listen to different points of view, to make connections to a wide range of literary texts, and to share their developing understandings with one another. They are taking the first steps toward enjoying a lifetime as thoughtful readers of literature.

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

Key Points

  • The first days and weeks of school set the stage for what is to come.
    • During this time, teachers help students learn to become a literary community.
    • This is when teachers can help students learn to feel comfortable asking questions and sharing ideas.
    • This is when teachers begin to develop an atmosphere that enables the high level of student involvement that is a hallmark of an envisionment building classroom.
  • Many teachers begin with experiences that help them get to know their students, their strengths, interests, and needs.
  • Other teachers help students get to know one another and get comfortable with one another.
  • Some teachers use the early days of class to help students understand what will be important and what they will be doing throughout the year.
  • A teacher’s knowledge of the students helps avoid difficulties in the formation of literature groups.
  • Choosing a particularly memorable activity for the first day establishes an impression strong enough to last throughout the school year.
  • Establishing rules, routines, and expectations during the first few days gives students a sense of security.
  • Students need to trust that their opinions can be voiced safely.
  • Teachers can ask students to discuss what they know about the class from previous students and to look around the room, interpret what they see, and make predictions about what the class will be like.
  • Teachers use a variety of strategies for introducing students to novels and the literature discussion strategies they will use when they read throughout the year.
    • Many use shared texts, often ones they read aloud, to begin teaching students envisionment-building strategies.
    • Some choose a new publication that they have not read, and read it aloud to the class.
    • Some read a series of teasers from a number of books as a way to help students decide which they would like to read.
    • Some direct a class discussion that explicitly explores the qualities of discussion and conversation valued in the envisionment-building classroom.
    • Some use discussions about movies or television programs to foreground the kinds of analysis and discussion they expect students to bring to their reading of literature.
    • Some have students share journal entries based on literature that has been read aloud to introduce discussion strategies.
  • Envisionment-building teachers help students ask some of the following questions as they experience literary texts: “What did you notice?” “What did you see?” “What surprises you?” “What are your questions?” “What seems significant to you?”
  • Envisionment-building teachers help students explore possibilities. They ask questions and suggest ideas that help students think about other perspectives, motives, or outcomes.
  • Envisionment-building teachers also help students learn to agree and disagree with each other, to refer to and build on what others have already said, and to introduce new ideas for the group to consider.
  • Envisionment-building teachers know it takes time and direct instruction for students to learn to converse confidently and independently about their reading.
  • By the end of the first few weeks of class, students should be able to articulate what is valued in the classroom as well as some of the ways the class will go about enacting those values.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Identify key instructional and learning goals and processes inherent in an envisionment-building classroom.
  • Consider a number of different ways to begin introducing your students to these values and processes early in the school year.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, read “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building” from Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

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

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 engine on the site and type in “envisionment building.”

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: Think about the physical arrangement of your classroom. Does it work to convey the values of an envisionment-building classroom? What might you add, eliminate, or rearrange to make it a more effective space for literature discussions? Think about your own experiences with students asking questions, exploring possibilities, taking multiple perspectives, and having substantive discussions about literature. How do your experiences compare with what you saw on the video?

For additional resources, refer to Workshop 2’s Additional Reading section.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students.

  • Bring several of your favorite books to share with the class (including some that you enjoyed as a child). Spend several minutes telling about each and explaining why they were important in your life. Ask students what books are special to them and why.
  • Find an interesting poem or short story that is long enough that each student can have at least two lines (for a poem) or two sentences (for a story). Cut it into sections and mount each section on colored paper. As students arrive for the first class, hand each a piece of text. Give the class 10 minutes or so to get their pieces in order. Have them read it aloud.
  • Divide the class into five groups. Choose five different short poems, each on a different topic. Cut each poem into the same number of parts as you have students in a group. Give the class 10 minutes to find the others who share the parts of their poem and to arrange their parts in the proper order (humorous poems work very well for this activity).
  • Ask students to explore their course text (or the books in the classroom library) and read a poem or a story that looks intriguing. During the next class period or two, have each student identify what he or she read and give a thumbnail sketch of the reading.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Trust is a central component of an envisionment-building classroom. The students have to trust that their thoughts and feelings will be received with respect, both by the teacher and by their classmates. The teacher has to trust that students are capable of thoughtful, independent responses to the literature. How do you go about establishing an atmosphere of trust in your classroom? How do you encourage your students to participate fully in classroom conversations? How do you teach them to listen to one another carefully and respond respectfully?

Additional Reading

This Web site provides a number of links to useful information for teachers planning their first days and weeks of school.

A to Z Teacher Stuff
The “Back to School” theme offers a number of resources for teachers beginning a school year.

Education World
Among its huge number of resources for teachers are many getting started activities.

ABC Teach
Search for “Back to School” to find activities and suggestions for the beginning of the year.

Teaching is a Work of Heart
A number of resources including suggestions for back to school days at

YALSA Booklists
This site is a booklist of winning titles, 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).

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:

Picture Books:
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
“My Ol’ Man” by Patricia Polacco

“Signifying Monkey” by Oscar Browne
“The Two-Headed Calf” by Laura Gilpin

Gaucho by Gloria Gonzalez
Holes by Louis Sachar