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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Research and Discovery: Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe Teaching Strategies

K/W/L Chart


K/W/L stands for:

What do I know or think I know?
What do I want or need to know?
What have I learned?

Teachers use K/W/L charts to stimulate and record students’ prior knowledge, experience, and attitudes about a topic, and to encourage further questions about it.

K/W/L Charts in Sally Brownfield’s Classroom

Sally Brownfield uses a whole-class K/W/L chart to “prepare the students for reading by having them examine the framework that the author is using.” According to teacher educator Jerome Harste, “She’s given them a ‘leg up’ toward being successful readers because they can build from this experience.”

Because the three flexible categories organize student learning, K/W/L charts are often used throughout the study of a particular topic or unit. In Brownfield’s class, the students share their knowledge regularly on a whole-class chart and keep individual charts for private observations. The students note what they are learning as they learn it, and then have a graphic record of their progress. In Brownfield’s class, the chart also builds community, because the students pool information, compare notes, and refine questions together.

For teachers using an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, K/W/L charts can be particularly useful. For example, in Brownfield’s class, the K/W/L chart grounds inquiry into the topic of Indian residential schools. She asks the students to identify questions for individual research projects under “What I want to know.” Teachers can help students refine specific, personal questions into larger, more general questions, if need be. The students look at questions to determine which have factual answers (dates, statistics, etc.), conflicting answers, or no answer. (See Student Work.)

Benefits of K/W/L Charts

    • K/W/L charts help students activate their prior knowledge and identify their current attitudes. They also provide teachers with valuable information about what the class may already know (or think they know) about a topic.
    • Organizers like K/W/L charts provide graphic documentation of student learning that both students and teachers can easily understand, and thus can involve students as partners in the learning process.
    • Because they can be individual or collaborative, K/W/L charts are very flexible formats for homework assignments, small-group work, or individual journals.

K/W/L charts support students in the inquiry process of identifying and refining questions, and provide space to record research.

  • K/W/L charts give every student a “way in” to a class discussion, and to looking at his or her own learning.
  • K/W/L charts allow teachers to see what cultural and/or historical misconceptions students may have. (The first category is deliberately titled “What I Know or Think I Know” so that students will list as many things as they can while recognizing that these “facts” may be subject to question.)



Fishbowl is a strategy used not only in classrooms but also in business meetings and other settings where group dynamics are important. This technique allows for a richer discussion of any given topic, and it frequently helps build community by focusing attention on the ways that particular group might work together more productively. In a literature classroom, it also demonstrates how different groups can collaborate to construct meaning from a text. As students analyze a text and connect their responses with others’, they model peer literature circle discussions.

Fishbowl in Sally Brownfield’s Classroom

In Sally Brownfield’s classroom, the fishbowl helps the students understand American Indian residential schools and connect texts to their community. She selects the fishbowl strategy to help focus the discussion about complex issues. Brownfield and the students examine the issue of racism as it appears in a particular section of My Name Is Seepeetza. The students discuss racism, not just as it permeates the entire residential school program but as it exists among the students at the residential program, and also the anti-Japanese racism that exists in the period in which the novel is set. The class then follows this thorough analysis of the text with a conversation about racism as it exists for them, their school, and their community.

There are many ways to use a fishbowl in the classroom, and, as in Brownfield’s class, many decisions to make about when it may be used most effectively. Below are some steps for creating the basic structure.

Steps for Setting up a Fishbowl

A small group of students (as many as half the class) arrange themselves in a circle in the center of a room. This small group will conduct a discussion together while the rest of the students watch, take notes, and later pose questions and give comments about what they observed. The teacher can be part of either the inner “fishbowl” circle or the outer circle. To begin, teachers might select students for the fishbowl who are fairly skilled at group discussion — or might deliberately choose one or two who are new to it so that the fishbowl doesn’t seem too “perfect” for those who are observing. Once the group is established, the teacher should set some ground rules. These guidelines ensure that group members practice particular discussion skills, such as taking turns, building upon a previous person’s comments, and asking questions to extend thinking. Ground rules might include:

  • Students should only state supported ideas, agree with a speaker and add supporting information, disagree with a speaker and offer refuting information, or connect contributions.
  • No one may interrupt a speaker.
  • No one may speak a second time until everyone has had a chance.

The guidelines for the outside circle may include listening quietly, taking notes on discussion skills, and noting nonverbal communication. Each “outside” student might be assigned an “inside” student to observe specifically, or the “outside” students can be asked to observe everyone. In general, the silent, observing students attend to aspects of group discussion that generally aren’t noticed in classroom discussions.

To begin the discussion, the teacher or a student within the fishbowl offers an open-ended question, and the fishbowl group discusses it. Students might initially be self-conscious as part of the group “on stage,” but they generally grow comfortable as the conversation flows.

After a set amount of time, the inside circle finishes their discussion and the outside circle discusses what they observed. This may take as much time as the fishbowl discussion itself, or more. The teacher might begin by inviting the outside circle to add their thoughts on the subject of the fishbowl conversation. The inside participants listen and then respond to the comments. Teachers may also ask those in the inner circle to assess their discussion first, then ask the outside circle to add their comments, as long as everyone can discuss what happened. The session might end with a whole-class discussion about what they learned and how it applies to future discussions.

Tips and Variations for the Fishbowl

  • After one round of a fishbowl, teachers might have the two circles change places. When all the students have experienced both the inside and the outside of the fishbowl, the teacher can ask questions like: What was it like being inside the circle? Outside the circle? How are the two roles different? What did you learn from each? How do you think you will carry what you learned from this exercise into small-group discussions? Into whole-class discussions?
  • Some teachers leave an empty seat in the fishbowl for an outside participant who wants to speak. He or she should move to the vacant seat and join the discussion until someone else from outside the circle wants to join. That person then taps the first person on the shoulder, and they quietly switch places.
  • Many teachers stay out of the fishbowl, since their presence can make the discussion less natural. Whether in or out of the group, however, the teacher must keep time, attend to behavior issues that the fishbowl group cannot handle, and maintain group protocols.

Benefits of the Fishbowl

Fishbowls are especially beneficial when using multicultural literature. Like K/W/L charts, fishbowls allow the teacher to see what misconceptions students have and address them. They also create a safe forum for students to observe how charged a discussion of cultural issues might become. Because there is always a post discussion analysis, fishbowls also allow a group to handle this together.

  • Students in the outside circle of a fishbowl can observe how specific individuals question, respond to, and make meaning of a text, which can model small-group literature circle discussions.
  • Fishbowls allow students to practice group discussion skills.
  • Fishbowls also teach observation, listening, and community-building skills.
  • Fishbowls provide students with the opportunity to identify small-group discussion habits in an effort to improve upon them.




Because they invite informal writing and thinking, journals encourage students to think and take risks in writing. Students can use journals to jot down thoughts about and make personal connections to a topic. They can track ideas for stories and essays, as well as questions about new or difficult issues. Students can also use journals to document and assess their learning processes. Journals provide space for the literacy experiments that build fluency.

Journaling in Sally Brownfield’s classroom

Sally Brownfield weaves journal writing into every aspect of her unit on American Indian residential schools. As her students read Shirley Sterling’s My Name Is Seepeetza, a novel written in the form of a journal, they, too, keep journals. “To be a critical reader,” Brownfield says, “there must be the expectation that students read beyond the words on the page and make a connection to themselves and their own world. Journal writing gives them the space and time to make that connection.”

Brownfield’s students respond to My Name Is Seepeetza in their journals, then use this writing to inform their small-group discussions. They also use their journals to do “quick writes” in class to respond to a question that arises in discussion. For instance, when the class talks about the meaning of names in Seepeetza, Brownfield instructs them to write in their journals for 10 minutes on the importance of names. The students take their journals home to record interviews with family members or neighbors about Indian residential schools, and they use the journals to make “text-to-self” connections.

Finally, Brownfield asks the students to add to their personal K/W/L charts in their journals as they read. Sharing their K/W/L charts helps each student develop a question he or she would like to pursue for a research project. (See Student Work.)

In Brownfield’s multicultural class, the use of journals ensures that all voices in the classroom are heard. The subject, Indian residential schools, raises personal and painful connections for some; journals act as a “safe space” for students’ feelings. Additionally, as Brownfield notes, students raised in Native American homes are socialized to listen respectfully during discussions, so their voices may be lost in classrooms where students respond orally. According to teacher educator Jerome Harste, “Journals provide an opportunity to make sure that all the voices are on the floor and are invited into the conversation. What’s wonderful about Sally’s classroom is that the kind of social practices that are in place there are good for everybody.”

Tips and Variations for Journaling

  • Though Brownfield’s students use journals in a variety of ways, students can also use journals to experiment with point of view, do sketches of a novel, write letters to authors, collect quotations, or rewrite endings.
  • Teacher educator Jerome Harste notes that he often has students make four comments after they have done a reading: an “observation,” a “question,” a “surprise,” and a “connection.”

Benefits of Journaling

Using journals respects differences among students by inviting each student to write and think in his or her natural “voice.”

  • Journals allow students to experiment with language, thoughts, and reactions.
  • By encouraging students to think in writing, journals can encourage them to make meaning of content as they study it.
  • Journals can invite students’ open-minded “interrogation” of texts and the world.

Teaching Strategies Resources


Beach, Richard, and Jaime Myers. Inquiry-Based English Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 2001.
Beach and Myers detail an alternative framework for student inquiry that involves the study of “social worlds” — either worlds the students inhabit, such as school, family, or community, or those portrayed in literature and the media.

Boran, Sibel, and Barbara Comber, eds. Critiquing Whole Language and Classroom Inquiry. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.
This collection of essays, featuring the work of Jerome Harste, Carolyn Burke, and Patrick Shannon, offers advice and theoretical reasoning for teachers seeking to empower their students in the classroom.

Dewey, John. How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1933.
Dewey, one of the progenitors of inquiry-based learning, links experience, interaction, and reflection to learning and education.

Harvey, Karen, Lisa D. Harjo, and Lynda Welborn. How to Teach About American Indians: A Guide for the School Library Media Specialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.
This book offers a Native American perspective on teaching Native American issues across the curriculum.

Holden, James, and John S. Schmit, eds. Inquiry and the Literary Text. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
Holden and Schmit offer classroom strategies to help students engage in authentic dialogue and inquiry about literature.


Ogle, D. M. “K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text.” Reading Teacher 39 (February 1986): 564-70.
A seminal article, this essay outlines Ogle’s K-W-L teaching strategy.

Web Site

YouthLearn: An Approach to Inquiry-Based Learning
This site offers information about using inquiry as a teaching strategy and includes links to other informative sites.