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Concept Development Process: Finding a Place to Belong - 6th Grade

Janine A. King

St. Joseph School

Seattle, Washington


Concept development is a process students go through to develop a global theme for a literature unit. After reading a collection of related books in literature circles, students work with the common threads that connect these books and develop a general statement or phrase that encompasses the most important message or lesson that they learned. By involving the students in this process, they understand how the concept relates to the books, how it was developed and its meaningfulness in relation to the books' characters and life in general. Once you are comfortable with the use of literature circles in your classroom, concept development provides a method for students to take another step in understanding literature. It also is an excellent forum for integrating social studies.


The topic I chose to use as the focus of my first experiment with concept development was "homeless children." I had read several young adult novels dealing with this topic and I could see the potential for a high level of student interest and an opportunity for integrating some social awareness lessons. After reading seven or eight books on this topic, I chose the following for the students to read: Slake's Limbo by Felice Holman (1974, New York: Scribner); Randall's Wall by Carol Fenner (1991, New York: Macmillan); Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (1981, New York: Atheneum); When the Road Ends by Jean Thesman (1992, Boston: Houghton Mifflin); and Family Pose by Dean Hughes (1989, New York: Atheneum). These stories are fairly different from one another but all have the common thread of homeless children. They also span a wide range of reading levels. During this unit the book I chose to read aloud, A Place to Call Home by Jackie French Koller (1995, New York: Atheneum), also dealt with the same topic.


The steps in the process:


STEP 1: After the five literature circle groups completed reading the five books about homeless children, each group brainstormed a list of character traits and needs and problems the main characters of the books had as a result of being homeless. Each group wrote these words and statements on a large piece of paper.

Here are some examples of the traits and needs student listed: abused, accepting, brave, cautious, covering up, determined, faces danger, hermit, independent, needs love, needs money, neglected, not trusting.


STEP 2: The next day, I hung the five lists in the front of the room. In random groups representing two to four of the different books read, students discussed and evaluated the lists, deciding which items should remain and which were not common to all of the books and should be eliminated. They discussed ways to justify their decisions by using examples from their books and/or real life situations. When they seemed prepared, I called on students who wished to challenge the appropriateness of any word or statement. Usually this created an ongoing dialogue among the students, measuring the pros and cons, all justified with examples. In the end, we weighted the evidence presented and made a collaborative decision about whether or not the item should remain on the list. An example of one of these conversations follows:

When the phrase, "needs money" was challenged, one student defended it by pointing out that he always sees homeless people in downtown Seattle panhandling. He argued that they must need money to buy food. I asked the class if they thought money was a necessity or were there other ways homeless people might get food. Students responded with several ideas, including stealing from stores and scavenging through garbage cans. No one mentioned food banks, shelters, or other ways of obtaining food. I knew then that the students did not yet have a complete understanding of the realities of homelessness -- but the word stayed on the board.


STEP 3: After the lists of words and phrases were narrowed down, I typed them up, cut them into strips and loosely categorized them into seven piles, one for each group in the random seating arrangement and one for me. I then modeled the next step I wanted them to take: grouping like words, taping them onto a piece of blank paper and writing a sentence or statement showing how the words were related. The example I modeled included the following words and phrases: lonely, needs love, needs a home, needs friends, and needs family. The statement I came up with for these words was, "People without homes need to find a place to belong."

Here is a student example:




needs a home


needs family


needs friends


Homeless people need more than just shelter and food.


STEP 4: Step 3 resulted in 20 different sentences and statements. I typed these up, cut them into strips, and categorized them into seven groups by taping the strips onto blank sheets of paper, one for each random student group and one for me to model. I explained to the class that we were going to take these groups of sentences and write one generalization for each group. I described a generalization as a sentence or statement that showed the connection among all the sentences, and the connection to all areas of life, not just the homeless. It was important at this point to identify how the ideas we had been dealing with all along could be "generalized" to apply to all people in all walks of life.

The sentences I used to model the process included, "People on the streets change from before they were homeless" and "People need to change in order to survive when they become homeless." The generalization I came up with was, "People need to change in order to survive when they face challenges."

Here is a student example:


Having a house isn't the same as having a home.


People without homes feel alone.


Homeless people need somewhere to belong.


People who don't have a family need to find somewhere to be loved.


Homeless people need more than just shelter and food.


Having a place to live isn't the same as having a loving home.


STEP 5: I wrote the resulting generalizations on a large poster. After reviewing them, we discussed their similarities and differences. I explained that this was the final step of coming up with a concept that would be the theme of the unit on homelessness. All along we had been calling the unit, "The Homeless Unit," but several times students had challenged the label saying that many of the characters weren't truly homeless. Now they had their chance to put a name to what they really thought this unit was all about. Students came up with about eight words and ideas, one of which really stood out because it seemed to encompass all that we had been discussion the whole way through: "Having a Place to Belong." I was so excited when this statement surfaced because it was exactly what I was looking for; strong enough to be meaningful, general enough to apply to all people, yet specific to the books we read. The only problem was the static verb, "having." We had worked with strong, vivid verbs earlier in the year. Now we discussed how the word "having" just didn't quite paint the picture we were looking for. After brainstorming several replacements, we agreed on "Finding a Place to Belong."

Here are the generalizations we agreed on:


Challenges shape people, and make them stronger.

Having a place to live isn't the same as having a loving home.

Many problems occur as a result of not having a place to belong.

Things we take for granted others may need.

People need to be resourceful in order to learn to care for themselves.

People need to change in order to survive when they face challenges.


As the students formed new literature circles, reading a second book from the five choices about homeless children, they now had a common reference point. The concept, finding a place to belong, along with the list of generalizations served as a focus for journal writing, group discussions, and response and extension projects. The quality of student work increased with this new, deeper level of understanding.

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