An Author Scolding Teachers for Reading Books Aloud?

I love Horn Books monthly email, Notes from the Horn Book.  This month’s issue has been causing quite a stir on Twitter, though.  I admit to being a part of that stir, but the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

Richard Peck has a fantastic interview in the latest issue, Five questions for Richard Peck. Having heard Peck speak, I was looking forward to reading his latest thoughts.  However, my eyebrows were definitely raised when I read this:

You talk a lot with young readers. What are they telling you?

Things they didn’t mean to. Over and over they’re telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned.

Wait a minute.  WHAT?

No offense to Mr. Peck, a former high school teacher and prolific author, but I have to disagree with this.  Vehemently.

Read alouds are a vital and integral part of my reading workshop.  We read approximately 10 books each year as a class, and I have the only copy.  With school budgets in such dire straits, there is no way I would be able to get enough copies for my students to read along.  I have 100 students!  There are almost 700 students in my school.  It’s not even remotely possible.  If I waited for enough copies for each student to read along with me, we would read only the few class sets available in school.  The class sets we have are all wonderful books, but I want to be able to expose my students to more books, more genres, more authors.

Read alouds in my class are introduced as “fun”.  What does that mean?  For the students, their only responsibility is to listen.  Without fail they begin participating in classroom discussions after listening to only a few chapters.  But just because they are fun doesn’t mean students aren’t learning.  I model think alouds, comprehension strategies, and good reading habits.  I don’t hand out a vocabulary list, but we define words as we come to them.  We talk about author word choice.  Students become familiar with vital vocabulary.

What would happen if I handed out a vocabulary list along with read alouds and asked the students to define the words for homework?  Nothing.  Very few of them would do it.  And it would turn them off to reading/listening to the book.  Read alouds are a vital part of my class but they are only one tool in my arsenal.  I do use whole-class novels and literature circles/book clubs and students are responsible for vocabulary when we do that.  But we don’t hand adults a vocabulary assignment when they purchase a book at the book store.  So I don’t hand my students a vocabulary list for our read alouds.  I do everything possible to turn my students on to reading and into lifelong readers.  For me, that means read alouds are fun and not busy work.

I am hoping that Mr. Peck is being misunderstood in his interview.  Hopefully, he is referring to teachers who read aloud to students and do no other reading with them.  Those teachers tend to be the ones who read aloud because they think their students can’t or won’t read on their own.  Read alouds need to be part of a wider reading initiative, not a way to put students down.  When books are read aloud to make life easier for the teacher it isn’t right.  But when books are read aloud as part of the curriculum as a way to turn students on to reading, teachers need to be praised!

My own anecdotal evidence shows me that read alouds work.  Students become invested in the story and will even go out and do research on their own.  When my class read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains last year, they became obsessed with the Revolutionary War and the part that slaves played. They did research on their own in order to be able to debate during our class discussions! They had learned about the Revolutionary War in 5th grade, but it was in one ear and out the other. But when it was something they were learning about for the joy of learning (and because they wanted to), they suddenly wanted to go above and beyond to learn more! Months later, they were making connections to Chains, citing references they never would have remembered if we just read a textbook.

Inevitably, read alouds lead to social reading.  And social reading leads to kids picking up more books.  Could we ask for anything better?

Read alouds work.

I’ve seen it in my classroom. Thousands of teachers see it in their own classrooms daily. Jim Trelease has the research to back it up.

Sorry Mr. Peck.  But we will have to agree to disagree here!

First Read Aloud of the Year

We are about 15 pages into our first read aloud of the year- Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.  So far I think it’s working out well with our 55 minute periods.  I’ve been dedicating the first 10 minutes of the class to our read-aloud in order to motivate my students to get to class on time.  Seems to be working so far!

What are you using as your first read aloud this year?

“In a Million Words or Less” First Week Assignment

One of my favorite back to school activities is “In a Million Words or Less”.  My mentor teacher used this activity when I was student teaching and I fell in love.  For those who don’t know, the assignment is for parents.  It asks each parent to write the teacher a letter, in a million words or less, explaining what makes their child special.  The responses I get are truly amazing.  There are just some things I would never learn about the student or would take me most of the year to discover.  When a parent tells me that their son/daughter has a special talent or a specific anxiety I can look out for them from the beginning!

I handed out my assignment on the first day of school.  The students always love that they get to give mom and dad homework!  I explain to the students that because their parents have work and outside responsibilities, I give them a whole month to finish their assignment.  That night, I already had my first emailed responses.  I share the responses with my teammates, special ed teacher, and specials teacher as needed.

“In a Million Words or Less” is an invaluable assignment.  The letters I receive are priceless.  If you are interested in trying it out, my handout can be found below.

Six Word Memoirs Beginning of the Year Activity

As a way to build community this year I decided to do an activity using I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure. This week each student will be coming up with their own six-word memoir which we will then hang on the bulletin board for Back to School Night.  The memoirs will be anonymous but I think the parents will really enjoy them.  I know I hope to get to know my 100 students a bit better through this activity.

If you are interested, below you will find the handout I created for this activity.

First Days of School and Scheduling

We went back to school this week which means I have been overwhelmingly busy.  Our district redistricted which resulted in my school, previously grades 4-6, becoming a sixth grade-only school.  This was a first for the district, so teachers, parents, and students were in complete chaos!  The first day was definitely tough, but the second day calmed down.  Hopefully, next week it will all even out and we can begin teaching.

This year I will have approximately 100 students.  I’m already a little overwhelmed by the prospect of grading that much.  But I’ve been working out a new schedule and think I have a few ideas.  If any of you also teach language arts for 50 minute periods (4-5 periods/day), please let me know if you have any advice!

I will be teaching language arts to 4 classes each day for 50 minutes at a time.  Until this year I had almost 2 hours to teach language arts daily so this is a huge change.  I’m still angry about losing my time (and feel like it is so unfair to my students) but I am committed to doing the absolute best I can for them.  I’m planning to teach reading for 3 days and writing for the next 3 days, alternating all year long.  This will allow me to continue teaching with reading and writing workshop.  I also plan to have two classes doing reading while the other two are doing writing, hopefully allowing me to spread out the grading a bit.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that this year’s class will not get the scope and depth of instruction that previous classes have received.  However, I will continue with my read-alouds daily and booktalking.  I already do very few whole-class novels and I will continue with those.  But the 50 minute periods will force me to focus on my mini-lessons and not get off-topic.  This year will take a lot more planning but I think I can do it!

How do you schedule your middle school language arts classes?

Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes

It’s a rare find when you finish a book that you know will appeal to middle grade boys and girls alike.  I was lucky enough to have that experience with Sara Lewis Holmes’ newest novel, Operation Yes.  While the plot is fairly simple (girl has to move in with boy cousin and his family across the country because her mom is shipping out to Iraq) the messages about courage, friendship, strength, war, education, and love are complex and thought-provoking.  This would make a fantastic read aloud or book club choice for middle grade students.

Bo is the Colonel’s son.  On an Air Force base, that’s a pretty big deal.  He always has to set a good example and when he gets into trouble at school Dad really lays it on thick.  But this year he has promised his dad he will do better in school.  He will do his best not to get into trouble or spend any time in the principal’s office.  Bo doesn’t love school, but when he meets his sixth grade teacher, Miss Loupe, he realizes this is going to be no ordinary year.  Miss Loupe is young, she has a tattoo, and wears more earrings than most of the other teachers combined!  When she shares her love of improv with the class they aren’t sure how to react at first.  But when they learn to “say yes” to the “The Taped Space,” otherwise known as the Theatrical Space or the Temporary Stage, they realize this year is going to be very different.  Miss Loupe teaches them the sixth grade curriculum but she also teaches them “Theater is the art of saying yes,” and “Art is arranging objects to create beauty”.   They begin to build a community in their classroom.

But Bo’s world is turned upside down when his cousin, Gari, comes to live with them from Seattle.  Bo hasn’t seen her since they were little kids and she caused him to get stitches.  The worst part?  Gari is in sixth grade and will be in his class.  And his parents expect him to show her around and help her make friends!  But Gari is not looking forward to moving to North Carolina.  Her mom has been called up to serve in Iraq and she worries about her constantly.  She decides to formulate a plan that will get her out of North Carolina and her mom discharged from the Army.

Both Bo and Gari are able to relate to Miss Loupe.  Gari can relate to her stories about her favorite brother, Marc, serving in the Army Special Forces in Afghanistan.  Miss Loupe understands Bo and how hard it is to live up to the expectations people, especially your family, have for you.  When Miss Loupe’s brother is wounded in action, the entire class unite and says “Yes!” to taking a stand.  Their project unites activism, art, and the town around the base.

You will find yourself saying “Yes!” over and over throughout this book.  What Holmes says about education and schools will resonate with any teacher reading the book.  What she says about war, activism, and patriotism will resonate with anyone who has family in the military.  And she she says about friendship, family, and learning to let go will inspire any middle graders who read this.  Both boys and girls will be glad they picked this one up!  While the subject matter is serious at times, Holmes throws in more than enough humor that will leave kids laughing out loud.  (The description of the kindergarten bathroom always got me chuckling!)  But she says about taking up a cause and being passionate about your beliefs will inspire anyone who reads Operation Yes.

I can’t wait to book talk this to my class.  I also plan to book talk it to plenty of my teacher friends.  I hope that any teachers who read this will be inspired to become a little more like Miss Loupe.  I know I was!  Sharing our passions with our students can light a flame in them and I’ve seen in numerous times in my own classes.  Opening up to students does allow the class to become a family.  A family that sticks together and stands up for each other.  This is a must-have for any middle grade library!

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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