Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Making Meaning in Literature Grades 6-8
Conversations in Literature — Workshop

About Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

Individual Clip Descriptions

1. Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom
2. Building a Literary Community
3. Asking Questions
4. Facilitating Discussion
5. Seminar Discussion
6. Dramatic Tableaux
7. Readers as Individuals
8. The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community
9. Whole Group Discussions




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Supporting the Literary Experience: The Focus of Instruction

The thought-provoking literature class is an environment where students are encouraged to negotiate their own meanings by exploring possibilities, consider understandings from multiple perspectives, sharpen their own interpretations, and learn about features of literary style and analysis through the insights of their own responses. Responses are based as much on readers' own personal and cultural experiences as on the particular text and its author.

Some General Guidelines for Instruction

1. Use class meetings as a time for students to explore possibilities and develop understandings as opposed to recounting already acquired meanings (what they remember) and teaching what they've left out.

2. Keep students' understandings at the center of focus - in writing as well as discussion. Always begin with their initial impressions. This will validate their own attempts to understand, and is the most productive place for them to begin to build and refine meaning.

3. Instruction, the help that moves beyond students' initial impressions, involves scaffolding their ideas, guiding them in ways to hear each other — to discuss and think. Teachers need to be listeners, responders, and helpers rather than information-givers.

4. Encourage wonderings and hunches even more so than absolutes. They are part of the process of understanding literature. Whenever possible, ask questions that tap students' knowledge. Pick up on what they say rather than following your own agenda or the sequence of the piece you are reading.

5. Encourage students to develop their own well-formed interpretations and gain vision from others'. There is more than one way to interpret any piece of literature.

6. Remember that questioning, probing, and leaving room for future possible interpretations is at the heart of critical thinking in literature. Teachers as well as students need to be open to possible meanings; in literary experiences there are no preconceived ends or final inviolable interpretations.

7. Help students learn by providing scaffolds that guide in ways to listen and speak to one another and in ways to think about their own developing understandings.
  • Help students engage in more mature literary discussions by eliciting their own responses; asking for clarification; inviting participation; and guiding them in sustaining the discussion.
  • Help students think in more mature ways by guiding them to focus their concerns; shape the points they wish to make; link their ideas with what they have already discussed, read, or experienced; and to think about their issues in more complex ways.
In addition, the project team developed an outline of options the teachers had internalized to replace their older options of plot summary, review of particular interpretations, and questions at different "levels" of comprehension. These new options guided them in ways to move the lesson along in support of students' developing ideas. It must be pointed out that this is a framework of optional strategies teachers used; it is neither meant to indicate a linear process nor an inclusive one; each strategy was not taught during every lesson. The teachers had a grand view of the literature lesson, treating interactions before and after the actual reading and discussion as essential parts of the lesson. Thus, the shape of the literature lesson these teachers internalized had two main parts: beginning the literary experience (meaning all interactions that occur before the students read the text, see the movie, watch the play), and continuing (meaning all interactions that involve interaction with the literary text or event, as well as all the personal and public interactions and activities and meaning negotiations, including those that occur long after the "lesson" has ended, but thinking continues). The following framework is intended to stimulate discussion about options, with full awareness that these are the major ones this group of teachers relied on more extensively than others. Thus they serve as an open set of options, to be added to from this perspective.

Overall, teachers conceived of the lesson (extending across one or many days) as including three major sections (or options): inviting initial understandings, developing interpretations, and taking a critical stance. These replaced traditional lesson segments such as vocabulary review or plot summary, providing overall structural options to include or overlook (knowingly) in any given lesson. Some options for moment-to-moment interactions are briefly suggested beneath each section.

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